A member of the Free Syrian Army helps women as they leave a shelled building in Aleppo. The Armenian Orthodox primate of Damascus sees little hope of democracy taking hold when the Syrian civil war ends. CNS photo/Zain Karam, Reuters

Syrian democracy a dream

By 
  • December 1, 2012

The Armenian Orthodox Primate of Damascus sees little hope the Syrian civil war will end with a democratic regime in power and questions Western support for rebel groups.

“Ninety per cent of these revolutionary groups are criminals, actually,” Bishop Armash Nalbandian told The Catholic Register.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Nov. 22 that the death toll in 20 months of war in Syria had reached at least 40,000, including more than 28,000 civilians and some 10,000 soldiers.

“It is sometimes hard to understand how the Western countries support democracy in Syria if they are only going to support one party in this conflict,” said Nalbandian.

The bishop is touring Armenian expatriate communities in North America asking for donations through Church channels. One of the most effective Church agencies working with internally displaced Syrians has been the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, known as the Pontifical Mission Society in the Middle East, said Nalbandian.

Most government aid is going to refugees in Turkey and Jordan, leaving the churches to try to care for an equal number of people displaced from their homes within Syria, said Nalbandian.

“The economy is not working. Everyone lost their jobs. No one can earn their daily bread,” explained the bishop. “This is the big problem and the big mission of the Church.”

The effort has been ecumenical and interfaith, with churches working closely with the Red Crescent Society.

“It’s so important, this unity we have in Syria,” he said. “We have a very good ecumenical life among the churches in Syria. It is a big help and support to know the Christian churches around the world are also united with us.”

About nine per cent of Syria’s 24 million people are Christian, split between nine different Orthodox, Catholic and other denominations.

“We consider ourselves as carriers and protectors of Christian tradition in Syria,” said albandian.

Even as the churches work together on emergency relief, the road to a stable, democratic Syria seems very uncertain. Nalbandian took part as an Orthodox observer in the Vatican Synod on the Middle East and believes the synod was right to identify democracy as the best hope for the survival of Christian communities in the region.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have this education or understanding of democracy in Syria. If you compare it to European history and consider that democratic evolution began with or after the French Revolution, it took many years, many decades to have the democracy you have in Western countries,” he said. “You can’t say that democracy will be established in Syria by force or in a few days or a few months.”

It should be the role of Western powers to encourage dialogue about democracy involving all 17 religious communities in Syria. Politically the West should support a negotiated peace between the government and rebel groups.

“We don’t have dialogue, unfortunately. The problem is I have to know who are the parties. One party is the government, and I know who the government is. I know the ministers and the mayors of towns. On the other side, we don’t know who are the leaders. I don’t know who is in charge so I can start a dialogue with him,” said Nalbandian.

Christians don’t necessarily support the Baathist regime of the Assad family, which took power in a military coup in 1963. General Hafez al-Assad eventually emerged as the President in 1970. His son, Bashar al-Assad, succeeded him in 2000. The Assad family are from the minority Alawite community and based its political legitimacy largely on protection of Syria’s many religious minorities under a secular, nominally socialist regime.

“Whether the Assad regime or some other regime will support the minorities, nobody knows,” said Nalbandian. “Today the only guarantee is to have a government, to have stability in the country.”

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