By Mairead Corrigan Maguire
In November 2015 I traveled to Syria with an International Peace delegation. This was my third visit to Syria in the last three years. As on previous occasions, I was moved by the spirit of resilience and courage of the people of Syria. In spite of the fact that for the last five years their country has been plunged into war by outside forces, the vast majority of the Syrian people continue to go about their daily lives. Many have dedicated themselves to working for peace and reconciliation and the unity of their beloved Syria. They struggle to overcome their fear, the fear that Syria will be driven by outside interference and destructive forces within, to suffer the same terrible fate of Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Yemen, and so many other countries.
Many Syrians are traumatized and in shock. They ask, “How did this happen to our country?” Proxy wars are something they thought only happened in other countries. But now, Syria, too, has been turned into a war-ground in the geo-political landscape controlled by the western global elite and their allies in the Middle East.
Many of those we met were quick to tell us that Syria is not experiencing civil war but a foreign invasion. They also told us that this was not a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims. In the words of the Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, “Muslims and Christians not only dialogue with each other, but their roots are inter-twined with each other. They have lived together for over 1436 years without wars, despite disagreements and conflicts… Over the years, peace and co-existence have outweighed controversy.”
In Syria our delegation saw that Christian and Muslim relationships can be more than mutual tolerance. They can be deeply loving.
During our visit, we met hundreds of people, including local and national political leaders, government and opposition figures, local and national Muslim and Christian leaders, members of reconciliation committees and internally displaced refugees. We also met numerous people on the streets of town and cities—Sunni, Shia, Christian, Alawite—all of whom feel that their voices are ignored and under-represented in the West.
The youth we met expressed the desire to see a new state which will guarantee equality of citizenship and religious freedom to all religious and ethnic groups, and protection of minorities. They said this was the work of the Syrian people, not outside forces, and could be done peacefully.
We met many Syrians who reject all the violence and are working for conflict resolution through negotiation and implementation of a democratic process. Few Syrians we met were under the illusion that their elected leader President Assad was perfect, yet many admired him and felt he was much preferred to the alternative of the government falling into the hands of the Jihadist fighters–fundamentalist extremists whose ideology would cause the minorities (and moderate Sunnis) to flee Syria or get killed.
This had already been experienced with the exodus of thousands of Syrians. They fled in fear of being killed or having their homes destroyed by Jihadist foreign fighters, and alleged moderates, who were trained, funded and accommodated by outside forces.
In Homs we saw the bombed out houses. Thousands fled after Syrian rebels attacked Syrian forces from residential areas, and the military responded causing lethal damage to civilians and all the buildings (the rebel strategy of “Human Shields”). They did the same with cultural sites (“Cultural Shields”).
In the old city of Homs, we met with members of the Reconciliation Committee, which is led by a priest and sheikh. We also visited the grave of a Jesuit priest who was murdered by the ISIS fighters. We visited the rebuilt Catholic Church; the original had been burned down.
During the candlelight meeting, we heard how Christians and Muslims in the town had been instrumental in getting the fighters to lay down their arms and accept the Syrian government’s offer of amnesty. They appealed to us to ask the international community to end the war on Syria and support peace.
Our delegation was particularly sad that day as we heard the news that the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury had publicly announced his support for the U.K. vote to bomb Syria.
If the U.K. government, the United States, and the European Union wish to truly help the Syrian people, they should immediately lift the sanctions which are causing great hardship to the Syrian people and try every nonviolent means to end the war.
We also visited the Christian Town of Maaloula, where the language of Jesus—Aramaic–is spoken. It is one of the oldest Christian towns in the Middle East. We visited the Church of St. George, where the priest explained how, after their church was burned to the ground by Western- backed rebels, and many Christians were killed, the people of Maaloula carried a table to the ruins of the church, offered prayers, then started to rebuild their church and homes.
We were sad to hear that in this same place, some Muslim neighbors also destroyed Christian homes. This story showed us the complexities of the Syrian conflict and the need to teach nonviolence and build peace and reconciliation. It also brought us to a deeper awareness of the plight of moderate Sunnis from extremists, and the plight of huge numbers of Christians now fleeing Mid-Eastern countries.
If the situation is not stabilized in Syria and the Middle East, there will be few Christians left.
The overall Middle East has witnessed the tragic and virtual disappearance of Judaism, and this tragedy is now happening at an alarming rate to Christians.
I call upon all American and European citizens to demand that their governments stop bombing Syria, end their violence, listen to the voice of peace from the suffering Syrian people and actively pursue nonviolent ways to end conflict and suffering in Syria.
Nonviolence can still work in Syria. There can be a nonviolent solution to war and violence in Syria. There is hope and Syria is a light to the world because there are many good people there working for dialogue, negotiations, reconciliation and peace.
This is where the hopes lies and we can all support that hope and those pursuing nonviolent solutions by rejecting violence and war in Syria.
Mairead Maguire won the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize and founded Peace People. She lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland. See: www.peacepeople.com