British delegation presses Assad to protect civilians

The conflict in Syria was a “brutal war” with “abuses on all sides,” Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali said. However, the “government cannot be excused from having committed atrocities.”

A British delegation of church and political leaders has challenged the President of Syria Bashar al-Assad over his indiscriminate use of force in that country’s civil war, which has lead to tens of thousands of civilian casualties.

In a statement given to the media upon his return from the Middle East, the former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali rejected claims proffered by some members of Parliament that the visit gave legitimacy to the Syrian regime.  The visit by the bishop, accompanied by Baroness Cox, Lord Hylton, the Rev. Andrew Ashdown and others “has been attacked in the press for giving a ‘war criminal’, that is President Assad, a photo opportunity and a tool for propaganda. In fact, it was a pastoral visit to the people of Syria, especially Christians, who have suffered so much at the hands of jihadist extremists,” he noted.

“Britain maintains relations with and encourages visits to countries like the Sudan, Iran and Zimbabwe. Why is Assad being demonised to this extent? In the Middle East, the choice is not between angels and monsters but between one kind of monster and another,” Bishop Nazir-Ali said, adding: “With all my experience, I cannot say that he is the worst of all.”

The British delegation, which was not acting on behalf of the government, met President Assad in Damascus on 4 Sept 2016. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported President Assad told the delegation “the gravest danger facing the world now is that of the extremist mentality pervading the societies inside the region and beyond. This mentality, the President said, is the underpinning of terrorism that has started recently to strike in many areas inside Europe and the Western countries in general. He made it clear that in order to eliminate terrorism, one needs not only fighting it on the ground, but also confronting the ideology underlying it, which just knows no borders.”

President Assad also criticized Western media coverage of the war, claiming it painted a false picture of the situation within the country.

Bishop Nazir-Ali stated the meeting with the Syrian leader was “courteous but frank on both sides. We repeatedly questioned him on indigenously made ‘barrel bombs’ and their indiscriminate use, torture in prisons, attacks on hospitals and other matters.”

The delegation called upon President Assad, the the combatants to give priority to the “protection of unarmed civilians. We were given responses that were more or less detailed and promised further information.”

The conflict in Syria was a “brutal war” with “abuses on all sides,” the bishop said. However, the “government cannot be excused from having committed atrocities.”

The delegation visited Damascus and the western half of Aleppo — the eastern half is held controlled by ISIS and the city is on the frontline of the war. From those with whom he had spoken in Syria, Bishop Nazir-Ali believed “the vast majority of Syrian people, especially religious and ethnic minorities,do not want Assad replaced by an Islamist regime”.

On 23 Aug 2016 the Christian leaders of Syria released an appeal calling for an end to international sanctions against the Assad regime. His Beatitude John X, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, His Beatitude Gregorius III Lahham, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Alexandria and Jerusalem and His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East and the Supreme Head of the Universal Syriac Orthodox Church released a statement entitled “Stop the siege on the Syrian People! Lift the International Sanctions on Syria and allow this people to live in dignity which is the basic right to all the peoples of the world.”

“Though the main goals of imposing these sanctions are political, they touched the life of the entire Syrian people, especially the poor and working class whose ability to provide their basic daily needs such as food and medical care are greatly affected. Despite the resolution of the Syrian people in the face of the crisis, the social situation is getting worse and the poverty and suffering of the Syrian people are constantly increasing. Therefore, we, the three Patriarchs residing in Damascus where we closely feel the suffering of the people of Syria of all religions and denominations, raise our voices in this humanitarian appeal demanding the lifting of the economic sanctions imposed on the Syrian people who remain attached to their homeland and to the civilizations that exist for thousands of years,” they said.

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