Islamic State fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in this June 11 file photo. CNS photo/Reuters

Jesuit based in Syria urges caution as Canada debates military action

  • October 6, 2014

OTTAWA, Ontario - As Canada debated joining the United States and other nations in military intervention to stop Islamic State militants, a Jesuit priest based in Syria urged caution and called for renewed efforts to find peace.

"I am not a political man," said Jesuit Father Ziad Hilal, pastor of Holy Savior Parish in Homs and project manager for Jesuit Refugee Service. "What I want to say, the Syrian people need peace and security."

"It is very important to help Syria," he said Oct. 3 during a visit to Catholic Near East Welfare Association Canada. "It is the first country for the civilization of the Christian people."

JRS is a partner organization with CNEWA Canada and Toronto-based Canadian Jesuits International.

The visit occurred as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced a motion asking the House of Commons to join the U.S., the United Kingdom and other countries in launching airstrikes at Islamic State strongholds in Syria and Iraq. The motion was scheduled for debate the week of Oct. 6.

Although much of the focus recently has been on Iraq, Father Hilal said the situation remains "very bad in Syria for the moment."

More than 40 percent of Syria's 22 million people have been uprooted by a civil war now in its fourth year. Nearly 2.5 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries while about 6.5 million people are internally displaced, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Jesuit described the double bombing Oct. 1 near Holy Savior Church. He said one car bomb was detonated and when people arrived to help, a second bomb went off, inflicting more death and mayhem. Forty-seven children died in the attack.

Aid agencies had been helping families with food and school supplies prior to the bombings, Father Hilal said. "But now if we ask the families, 'Are you happy that we helped you?' they will say to us, "No, because we lost our children," he said.

"If the international community gives us food and non-food items, it is not enough for us, if afterward we will lose our parents our brothers and sisters," he said. "It's more important to have the peace, not only to have the food and the other help."

Father Hilal expressed concern that no effort was underway to bring the Syrian government and rebel factions to the negotiating table and that emergence of the Islamic State further complicates matters.

"How come the international community is only reacting now?" Father Hilal asked, explaining that Islamic fighters have been pouring into the region from Middle Eastern states, Europe and even Canada for more than 18 months.

"Now (Islamic State forces) have become so strong, they don't want to dialog," he added.

Father Hilal stressed that if the U.S.-led coalition continues to bombard Syria, "things will get worse."

He cited the example of the northern Syrian town of Raqaa, a mostly Muslim community with a small Christian community. Islamic State forces occupied the town for more than a year and have taken control of the school, churches, businesses and government buildings. "When ISIS moved in and took over everything, nobody reacted," he said.

If the West comes in and bombs, the local people living there will lose all their belongings, their workplaces will be destroyed and when they can return they will find a town that has been "annihilated," he said. "No one is talking about that."

Carl Hetu, CNEWA Canada national director, said that many of the same problems exist in Iraq. Even if the Islamic State is expelled, civil war could result unless the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are able to work under a strong government, he said.

"The problem is not military, it is political," Hetu said in calling for the world to develop a plan to deliver humanitarian aid while developing a process to achieve peace that goes beyond the use of force to stop the Islamic State.

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