Patriarch Gregory III Lahman and Fr. Federico Lombardi speak about the Synod Fathers’ mission to Syria. No date has been set yet
The puzzle of the Vatican mission to Syria is getting more complex. The Secretary of the Vatican State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone announced a visit to Damascus by a delegation of bishops from the Synod on the New Evangelisation but the information he gave was incomplete and ambiguous. All that has been confirmed are the names of those who will form part of the delegation, including Cardinal Dolan.
In a brief statement issued today, the Vatican’s spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi said the mission “is still in the course of being studied and prepared” and that the aim is to “put [it] into effect as soon as possible, and to respond effectively to its intended aims of solidarity, peace and reconciliation.”
But as Lombardi himself also said, responding to journalists’ questions, the bishops will “not be departing tomorrow.” The question as to when the mission will actually take place is still an “open” one.
What is making the preparation process even more delicate, the spokesman explained, are “the very serious events that have been taking place recently in the region,” meaning Friday’s car bombing in Beirut’s Christian neighbourhood, in which eight people were killed, including security chief General Wissam al-Hassan.
The bomb attack has disturbed the already fragile balance in a country which Pope Benedict XVI visited just one month ago. The attack enraged Libyans who took to the streets to protest against Syria on Saturday and risked causing the conflict to spread beyond Syria’s borders.
And divisions among Syrian Christians and within the Catholic hierarchy, over the revolt against the Bashar al-Assad regime, are not making matters any easier. Christians in Syria fear the increasing influence of fundamentalist Islamic groups on the one hand and on the other they fear the violence that is being unleashed against them which resembles that which decimated the Christian presence in Iraq.
But many Christians are in the front line of the revolt, starting with George Sabra, spokesman for the Syrian National Council, who took part in a meeting with the Pope last month. Although the Pope’s stance is very clear – a “positive” interpretation of the Arab Spring phenomenon, rejection of violence, eagerness to re-establish dialogue at all costs, in order to get out of this deadlock – even in the Church not everyone seems to agree with him one hundred per cent. One of these figures is the head of the Syrian Catholic Church, the Melkite Patriarch Gregory III Laham.
During a meeting organised Saturday by Aid to the Church in Need at the Synod of Bishops that is currently being held in Rome, the Patriarch painted an idyllic picture of the situation in Syria, barely quoting Assad. Syria is the “freest” and most advanced country in the Arab world, the Patriarch told his audience: schools and hospitals are free, the level of literacy is the highest in the region, there is freedom in the economy and free enterprise, women have full rights and are active in all areas of society and different faiths can be practiced freely without restrictions.
Even from a political point of view, the new Constitution which Assad hastily approved after the revolt exploded “includes principles of Islamic democracy “that were prepared by al-Azhar university after the Egyptian “spring”. Laham said last May’s elections – held in the midst of a full-out civil war, seen as a joke by the international community and boycotted by the opposition – were “free” with at least 15 parties running. In terms of the country’s police force, it was “terrible” under Hafiz al-Assad, Bashar’s father, but today people can speak freely, though they should exercise some caution. “On the other hand – the Patriarch said – even in Europe, when you want to make a comment against the Jews, it is best to keep your voice down…”
According to Laham, the rebels are “foreigners controlled by foreigners and armed by foreigners”: “It is absurd to say they are fighting for freedom because freedom already exists in Syria. They should go to Kuwait or Saudi Arabia and see how much freedom there is there…”
Even in light of these statements, there are still many open questions surrounding the Vatican mission to Syria, particularly in terms of potentially establishing contact with members of the opposition. The Holy See is aware that it must not anger the regime in order to prevent a potential retaliation against Christians. But it is also aware of the risk of the mission being reduced to a free advertisement for Assad’s discredited regime.
Dates aside, the Vatican has emphasised that given the situation in the country, it is still not possible to issue a schedule for the mission.