Syrian prelate believes in his Church's future
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In face of Church’s suffering, Syrian prelate sees community’s long-term survival
NEW YORK, NY (Sept. 17, 2013)—A Syrian prelate, ordained a bishop only last month, worries about his country’s mass exodus of Christians but he expressed confidence that the future of one of the world’s oldest Church communities is assured.
Melkite Greek Catholic Bishop Nicolas Antiba of Bosra and Hauran told Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic agency helping persecuted Christians around the world, how his faithful in southern Syria were fleeing in their hundreds to the area surrounding his residence in Khabab following recent attacks by rebel forces, which included the destruction of reportedly one of the country’s oldest churches dating back to the 6th century.
Referring to the assault on St Elias’ Church in the town of Izraa, he said the exodus of Christians from Syria risked becoming as bad as in Iraq where most faithful have left their homes. Bishop Antiba stressed the urgent need for help both for displaced people arriving in Khabab and elsewhere, including the provision food and shelter –a need which will become more acute as the weather worsens.
Nonetheless, against the backdrop of reports that up to a third of the country’s Christian population is now internally displaced or living as refugees abroad, Bishop Antiba said: “I believe—I know—that persecution will not destroy the Church. The blood of the martyrs gives new life to the Church. I have the hope that we will continue to live here as Christians. Yes, we will be fewer in number—just look what happened in Iraq—but I don’t think the country will be left without Christians.” It is estimated that 450,000 Christians in Syria—nearly a third of the total—have fled their homes, many of them ending up in refugee camps in Lebanon.
In comments echoing those made last month by Melkite Patriarch Gregorios III, the 67-year-old bishop said the crisis is being exacerbated by the influx of fighters and weapons from abroad, which he called “a cancer” threatening to destroy the country. He went on to reiterate calls for an end to plans for foreign military intervention in Syria, saying that his message to President Barack Obama is to “leave us alone.”
Earlier this month Jihadi groups attacked and occupied the ancient Christian town of Maaloula.
Christians fleeing the town spoke of direct attacks on Christians and there were reports the fighters wanted “victory over the infidel.” But Bishop Antiba said: “Christians are a peaceful people. They do not fight, especially in Syria where we have been living with tranquillity without any problems. We are the people who have no way to fight. Instead we are a peaceful people who are the first ones who are attacked. Christians have suffered very greatly. We are still suffering. It is not easy.”
He reiterated calls for the US and its allies to abandon plans for a military strike. “I hope that they will leave us alone. If arms continue to come into the country, the situation will get worse. It is not Syrians who are fighting Syrians—those involved in the fighting are non-Syrians,” the bishop said. He added: “Instead of bringing arms into our country, bring peace. Arms are like a cancer—a foreign body that threatens to destroy us.”
Calling on the US to keep out of Syrian politics, he concluded: “I would say to President Obama, you always talk about peace. So, please leave us alone and put these ideas of peace into practice. You have your own idea of democracy and it is beautiful but it is not necessarily our idea of democracy; let us work out our own idea of democracy.”
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