"The church stands on the side of the people!"

Gregorios III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch and of All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church

Gregorios III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch and of All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church

Your Beatitude, Christians in Syria celebrate this year their third Christmas since the crisis began. How is your community celebrating Christmas this year?

Gregorios III: We have now had an experience with the crisis, but we move on. The Syrian Christians traditionally celebrate with the Christmas tree, nativity and lights in the windows. The families devote the Christmas season for reflection. Before Christmas we have in Damascus the assembly of bishops, deacons and nuns of various Christian denominations. The day is spent with prayer, reflection and repentance, and we have a meal together.

So everything is as before the crisis?

Gregorios III: Actually, everything is as before, except for some minor differences. Previously, people met at night to pray together, today they do it during the day. They prefer to stay at home at night because of the general security situation. And there is a difference: in the past, Christmas was celebrated more openly and Christian dignitaries met with representatives of the Syrian government. Today we hold back. But the churches in Syria are as full as before the war. I am looking forward to our Christmas party. A few weeks ago I wrote to all our bishops that they pray for the success of the planned peace talks in Geneva.

The war in Syria has already claimed the lives of many people, including many Christians...

Gregorios III: People commemorate at Christmas their dead and the fallen. Thousands of Christians were victims of the war in Syria, their families mourn them, and they find solace in the celebration of Christ's birth. I have therefore launched an initiative: All names of the fallen and murdered are to be compiled on a list. I am going to write all these families a letter in which I express my condolences to them. Also, I am committed that these families receive a small financial donation so they can celebrate Christmas together.

How has everyday life changed for the Syrian Christians since 2011?

Gregorios III: Syria is secure and insecure at the same time.
The unpredictability of the situation causes trouble to all Syrians, whether Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites or Druze. A grenade can fall from the sky or a bomb explodes, everything is destroyed and people die. I can give you an example: Jaramana, a suburb of Damascus, was hit by about 2,800 grenades during the war; I am not even counting the bomb explosions. A grenade hit the Vatican Embassy in Damascus on November 6. This all makes life insecure. But I can give you one reassurance: Most people lead a normal life despite the risk. They go to work and go shopping at the market. This shows the strength of these people. Whether Christians or Muslims, Syrians especially in Damascus want to lead a normal life.

In other areas in Syria it is less easy than in Damascus...

Gregorios III: In Damascus too it is not easy! The people naturally avoid large gatherings and they stay home when it gets dark. But it is much more critical in other areas. The famous Christian pilgrimage Maalula was stormed by armed gangs in early September, the city Sadad with a large Syrian Orthodox community was attacked in late October. More than 50 people were killed. The terrorist attackers brutally killed several people; five of the murdered were thrown into a well. This is an incredible tragedy. And in Aleppo, people are living like in a prison; the city is surrounded by armed groups.

Kidnapping is a major problem in Syria...

Gregorios III: People are kidnapped, including many Christians. In April, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox Bishop Bulos Yazigi were abducted by armed gangs. It does not only hit high dignitaries, ordinary Syrians are also victims of kidnapping. Relatives of mine were also abducted. During the attack on Maalula six people were abducted by the attackers, their whereabouts are still unknown.

You mentioned the two abducted Syrian bishops. Are there any signs of life?

Gregorios III: No. The earth has swallowed them; there are no signs until yet.

There once circulated the rumor that the two bishops were transported to Turkey...

Gregorios III: There are many rumors. Not only in terms of the location of the bishops but also their release. It was said on several occasions that they would be released soon, but never confirmed. Unfortunately, I have to say that to date there is no reliable information. But they are very likely still alive.

What is the role of fleeing and expulsion?

Gregorios III: Unfortunately, a large one. About 450,000 Syrian Christians have fled since the crisis began. Many of them have left the country mainly to Lebanon. The houses and shops of these people were destroyed during the war, often they were driven out by extremists. More than 40 churches have been destroyed so far. The brutality of the bandits is often limitless. The church stands on the side of the people. And that's always been and will always remain so. Our facilities have become focal points for the Syrians who need help. And we help all oppressed Syrians, whether Christians or Muslims.

In Europe and the U.S. Christian groups and parties have repeatedly declared their support for the "rebels" in Syria, even the German CDU has...

Gregorios III: It must be said fairly that Germany has held back if compared to other European countries. Overall, the European countries support the so-called "armed opposition" in Syria. According to the United Nations, there are countless different groups of so-called rebels fighting in Syria. These militias are uncontrollable; they kill civilians and destroy their homes. I ask myself: How can you be on the side of these people? I understand very well that you support a political opposition, but not bandits and terrorists. This support is irresponsible and criminal.

Is this support of the rebels discussed in the Christian communities in Syria?

Gregorios III: This affects not only the Christians, but all Syrians. Muslims and Christians in Syria are on other hand shocked that Europe supports these criminal gangs. The Syrians are not only disappointed, but outraged. They agree that Europe has no right to do so.

The European supporters of the rebels say they do so in the interest of the Syrians...

Gregorios III: Excuse me, but this is really nonsense. As I said earlier, political opposition is quite different than these criminal gangs. The European countries want to overthrow the Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad. You might think it is all about one person. But this is anything but logical. Rather than acting in a positive and constructive way, the EU countries simply sponsor the destruction of Syria. Where is the alternative to the present government in Damascus? Who will replace it? Where is the opposition? It has no face. Throughout this war, there is no political opposition, there is only chaos and violence.

The western mainstream media writes that the opposition demonstrated peacefully in the beginning; it was only later, in self-defense against the Syrian army, that it armed itself...

Gregorios III: This is wrong. These gangs were active from the beginning, but no one wanted to believe us. The violence was always there. I have read the reports in the European media and was appalled by the lies and false allegations. It is a big conspiracy against Syria.

In Germany the mainstream media writes that the Syrian Christians act "loyal to the regime" because they fear for their "privileges" and that they are the "profiteers of the dictatorship" ...

Gregor III: (Laughing) they write about us as if we are immature children! These so-called privileges are a myth. Religious freedom is not the achievement of our government or any party. This is part of our Syrian identity that different religions live together peacefully and freely. Neither Assad nor his father Hafez, nor the ruling Baath Party have introduced this religious freedom here, it existed long before. Religious freedom is not a "privilege"! It is our tradition, an important pillar of our Syrian national and cultural identity.

"The Christians hold on to the regime," writes the largest German newspaper BILD ...

Gregorios III: What is that, I ask myself? Such statements show only how the media would like to see us: in struggle against the government. And because Christians behave normally and do not fight against the government in Damascus, they are now called "loyal to the regime". But to whom shall we run to please? To armed gangs? The question concerns not only the Christians in Syria. I assume that 60 to 80 percent of Syrians are "loyal to the regime" in the eyes of the West. You see, we Christians are ordinary Syrian citizens, we have no special status. We are neither preferred nor discriminated. We love our country, regardless of who is in power in Damascus. Our Christian bishops are accused that they speak with the government. But who shall they speak with otherwise? They are in favor of reconciliation, not weapons and violence. I espouse that the people come together again. This is an eyesore to the Europeans, because of their political interests they would rather see Syria in chaos and violence.

The established European media and governments always claim that there is a religious war raging in Syria. The Sunni majority of the country revolting against Alawites, Christians and Shiites...

Gregorios III: Nonsense. The victims of this war are Christians and Muslims alike. Syrians, no matter what religion they belong to, stick together in the peaceful regions. In the war zones there are mainly Muslim victims of gangs who call themselves Muslim. From the 120,000 dead in this war the majority of Muslims were killed by Islamist extremist gangs.

Maalula 2012: Manuel Ochsenreiter during an interview with a nun

Maalula 2012: Manuel Ochsenreiter during an interview with a nun

The Sanctuary of Maalula was a few weeks ago stormed and captured by "rebels", the Syrian army was able to clean the city and the old monastery again. Also Sednaya is regularly bombarded by "rebels". How serious is the threat to the Christian heritage in Syria?

Gregorios III: The risk is real. Churches and monasteries are being plundered and robbed. Precious icons have disappeared or destroyed. These treasures are irreplaceable and probably gone forever. But the martyrdom from Maalula is more moving than the material loss of cultural goods.

What do you mean?

Gregorios III: There were three real martyrs in Maalula. Three Christians were told by the Islamist attackers that they should convert to the Muslim faith. The Christians said to them: "We respect your faith, but we are Christians, and we want to die as Christians". Then the first one was shot dead, the other two had to watch it. So even though they knew the attackers were serious, they refused to drop their Christian faith. They were also killed. This is real martyrdom.

How do you see the chances for peace in Syria?

Gregorios III: I believe in the power of prayer. The whole world thought that Syria will be bombed by the United States at the same time when Pope Francis was calling in early September to pray for peace in Syria. But it did not happen. And I am sure that this is also thanks to our prayers. The Syrian government agreed to the destruction of its chemical weapons which was a good and important step. The acute danger of a fire storm on Syria was averted. Now it is important that all the powers involved, whether the countries of the EU, the U.S., Russia, Iran, the Gulf States and Syria of course, work together to find a peaceful solution. To pray for that is worthy!

Your Beatitude, thank you for the interview and a merry and peaceful Christmas.