One of Syria's most senior Catholic bishops believes his country can still regain the path to peace and reform despite the armed revolt against President Bashar al-Assad now entering its 16th month.
“For me there are two solutions,” Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo told CNA in Rome June 19.
“We can go in the direction of a civil war in all Syria and it will be very perilous for everybody or we can go in the direction of reform with rationality, with sincerity, with determination but I think it will take some time.”
Bishop Audo is visiting the Vatican to participate in ROACO, an annual summit of Catholic aid agencies involved in supporting eastern churches. He briefed the gathering June 20 on the latest situation in Syria.
His assessment drew a distinction between the majority of the country and the area in and around the city of Homs which is at the heart of the uprising. In cities such as the capital Damascus and Aleppo “life looks like normal,” he said.
President Bashar al-Assad has promised to implement democratic reform since the beginning of the rebellion against him in early 2011. His Ba’ath Party has ruled Syria since 1963 with his father, Hafez al-Assad, also holding the post of president for nearly 30 years before his death in 2000.
As members of the minority Alawite religion, a branch of Shia Islam, Bishop Audo believes the years of Assad rule have been stable ones for the 10 percent of the Syrian population who are Christian.
“The Christians were protected by the regime because they are a minority like him, so we can say that they were protected,” he explained.
The confessional fault line between the majority Sunni Muslim population and the minority Alawites, who have occupied most of the senior positions in Syrian society for decades, is “the heart of problems in Syria,” suggests Bishop Audo.
He now fears that if the Assad regime falls that “Christians will be the first to pay” as has happened in other countries caught up in the so-called “Arab Spring.”
“We look to Iraq, we look to Tunisia, we look to Libya, we look to Egypt and we don’t want to become a situation of anarchy or extremism,” he said.
In the meantime, he is urging Catholics around the world to continue to support the Church in Syria through prayer, staying informed and financial aid if possible.