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Cameron should listen to Syrian bishops, not the Anglican ones

18 October 2015

3:21 PM

18 October 2015

3:21 PM

Well, it’s something, I suppose, that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York didn’t sign that ill-advised letter last month from 84 CofE bishops to the PM calling for the Government to take in 50,000 more Syrian migrants; Justin Welby and John Sentanu do have some redeeming sense of caution. Meanwhile the 84 are still waiting for a proper answer from the Home Office, apparently, which seems to be why they’re sharing their pique with The Observer today.

Quite the most devastating critique of that letter came, in fact, from a man who was rather grateful for them for their “love and their charity”. It was the Archbishop of Aleppo (the Melkite Greek Catholic one), Jean Clement Jeanbart, who is in London for the launch of the annual report from the charity Aid to the Church in Need – which I may say, makes sobering reading.

He was, naturally grateful for the CofE bishops taking an interest. “Love-wise, Christian feelings-wise, it is a good move”, he said of the letter on today’s Sunday Programme on Radio 4. From the perspective of what actually works, however, he intimated it was pretty well the opposite of what Christians in Syria want. “We suffer that our people would leave the country”, he said. So, not so keen on encouraging the exodus.

And what do Christians and other moderates actually want the British government to do? His answer was both predictable and obvious: “to stop the funding of the radicals and fundamentalists” and more importantly, “to find a political solution where compromise may be won”. And what form might that take? The Archbishop wants President Assad left in place for now. He says:

“Of course, for the future he has to go, to leave the place for others who could be elected. For the time being, if Assad goes, the fear is that everything may collapse. “

This is, plainly, pretty well the opposite of the PM’s approach, which is to regard Assad as the real enemy, as great an impediment to peace as Isil.

Interestingly, the Archbishop also said that Christians in Syria were rather grateful for the Russian intervention in the conflict, because they’re “happy that there is some hope the war will end”.

In other words, if the PM were to take his lead from the Syrian archbishop, rather than the befuddled CofE ones, his approach would be to sign up to the Russian offer of a grand plan to end the war which would involve supporting Assad now in order to deal with the problem of Islamic State. The quid pro quo, which the Russians do not mention, would be his eventual removal.

For the British government, that would mean doing two unpalatable things: accepting that the Assad regime is the least worst option in the short term and abandoning the pretence that there is a viable moderate Syrian opposition to back militarily – there isn’t; it has been tried. In return, what we should ask from the Russians is that pull the rug under their ally after Isil has been seen off in Syria and some kind of stability has returned.

That approach seems like common sense to me. The alternative, to congratulate ourselves on dealing with the symptoms of the problem, the refugee exodus, rather than the cause, the war, seems like bad morality, for, as the bishops will know, grandstanding isn’t morality.

As matters stand, one result of encouraging the exodus from Syria is to ensure that Christians in Syria – whose church predates the CofE by about 1100 years – will be reduced to “an insignificant minority”. Once, when we heard about Damascus, most Brits would have thought of St Paul, on the road to. Not any more.


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