The Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo has slammed Europe for encouraging young people to duck military service by fleeing north, leaving behind an impoverished society. And he warned that the Western view of Syrian President Assad as a dictator is “propaganda,” accusing the west of hypocrisy for not being equally critical of the Turkish and Saudi regimes.
Speaking to Germany’s n-tv, Bishop Antoine Audo insisted that the Assad government is Syria’s legitimate government, and that peace can be achieved through civilised means.
Responding to suggestions that the only reason Assad is still in place is because Russia has propped up his regime, the Bishop said: “The Syrian government is the legitimate government of the country. Assad has the right to ask for help.
“The portrayal of Assad as a dictator is Western propaganda,” he added. “Many have died during Syria’s war, but they haven’t only been killed by government forces. Why doesn’t the West talk about the political factions which have killed people in Turkey and Saudi Arabia?
“That’s the truth. I have to say it without fear.”
Asked whether it was possible for him to speak freely and truthfully, he replied: “Yes, it’s possible.” But he added: “Please, If you want to criticise Damascus, then also criticise Riyadh and Ankara, the entire region.”
The Bishop is unlikely to be listened to, as the European Union (EU) continues to make overtures to Turkey on membership of the bloc in exchange for doing more to stem the flow of migrants northwards. Last November Turkey confirmed that the EU had agreed to fast track the country for membership, following pledges made by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU ministers.
Yet on the migrant flow too, the Bishop has routinely been critical of European policy, and the west’s tendency to look the other way. Three years ago, before the rise of Islamic State, he urged the wider world to pay more attention to the persecution of Christians within Aleppo and decried mass migration of Syrian Christians, saying:
“We get the impression we are not being listened to! No one cares whether we stay or leave.
“The priority for the West is economic power, a consumer society! It does not see the historic importance of our presence.”
Then, too, the European Union ignored his warnings, instead encouraging hundreds of thousands to make the dangerous journey into Europe with promises of automatic asylum and a new life. The consequence has been devastating for those left behind.
“The rich people of Aleppo have long since left the city and live in Lebanon,” he said. “It’s close by, and those who have the money can find everything they need from education to medical care. For Syrian society that is of course a huge loss.
“A second group have relocated to safer areas inside Syria, many of them to Latakia and Tartus, a region we call The Valley of the Christians.
“The third group consists of young people fleeing military service by heading, for example, to Germany to study or to work. Before the war, there were about 150,000 Christians alone in Aleppo. Now there are at best only 50,000.”
Bishop Audo, who is also the president of Catholic charity Caritas Syria, has described a Syria rocked by war but not overcome by it. Just last week a 19 year old volunteer with Caritas was killed in the bombing of Aleppo, he recounts, whilst daily life for those left behind is a constant struggle.
“You get through every day but it is very tiring,” he said. “If I, as a bishop, have huge problems with accessing water and something to eat, you can imagine what happens to the poor. Life is miserable.”
Yet the Bishop is optimistic about his country. After the war, he hopes to see a Syria emerge which is “more modern and is no longer determined by tribalism.
“There can be no dictatorship of religion, every human being must be recognized as a human being first and foremost. Of course I hope that there will also be a vital Christian life in this Syria.”
His hope isn’t mere fancy; the Bishop is clear on how it could be achieved.
“First, we need a truce,” he said. “Secondly, we need to stop the delivery of weapons to the conflicting parties. Thirdly, we need a political process which emanates from the people in the country.
“There should be elections. The Syrian people should decide on their country’s future.”
When challenged as to whether free elections could take place in Syria, he responds with a challenge of his own: “The United Nations could supervise the election,” he said. “And yet, by contrast, no one speaks of it.”