Maronite Bishop Elias Sleman heads the Eparchy of Latakia in the north of Syria, a region that so far has been spared the violence of the country's civil war, which may come as a surprise to many in the West who imagine the entire country to be in the grip of violence. The territory is home to Alawite Muslims, who run the country, and who continue to live peacefully beside a Christian population of some 45,000.
Latakia and neighboring towns are a haven for Syrians fleeing the fighting, Muslims as well as Christians, the latter having fled Damascus, Aleppo and Homs (which is part of the Latakia Eparchy) in great numbers, the majority of them currently stranded in Lebanon.
Bishop Sleman is on a visit to the U.S. to rally support for his local community, not only to help him cope with the needs of the internally displaced -- whose status, unlike that of refugees, make them ineligible for UN aid -- but to give local Christians a chance to sustain a livelihood through farming. He is aiming to buy livestock and machinery for agricultural production, such as cheese-making.
"If Christians cannot make a living here, they will leave, and most of those who leave -- particularly for the West -- do not return," the prelate said, adding that "their enduring presence here and throughout the Middle East is vital for the well-being of Muslim society," serving as an indispensable antidote to fanaticism and extremism.
Also high on the bishop's wishlist is the establishment of a residence for young women attending school and college in Latakia, a haven that will ensure parents of the safety of their daughters, whose education is critical to the future of Syria. The bishop spoke with Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity, on Oct. 17, during a stop in New York.
After two years of fighting and so much bloodshed, what is your vision of a formula to establish peace in Syria? What is your message for the American audience?
Great effort must be made to establish a dialogue between the regime and moderate elements of the opposition. The world's big players must get involved in earnest and put real pressure on the various parties to come to the negotiating table: America and its allies--France, all the Europeans, Israel; and Russia, which must call on Iran and its allies. But there has been no real leadership up to this point. The big challenge is religious fanaticism. This is a very difficult issue, of course.
The problem of so many media is that they don't really grasp real picture of the situation. The Arab spring has been depicted as this clear push for liberty and democracy--but the actual results in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, for example, are proving otherwise. In many respects, the West is poorly informed, including its Churches, despite good intentions.
Right now, in Syria, the story needs to be told that moderate rebels and Islamists have begun fighting each other. The world's major powers must intervene--now--to stop Syria from tumbling into utter chaos. I am very worried about the situation. Nonetheless, I continue to have hope--call it a foolish hope, if you will. But with God everything is possible.
One of the enormous stakes is the ability of Christians to remain in the lands of the birth of their faith.
We need the solidarity of people and governments in the West to ensure the ongoing presence of Christians in Syria and throughout the Middle East. We cannot allow the land to be without Christians, because the Christian presence helps Muslims to be moderate. That is what John Paul II said about Lebanon: "it is more than a country, it is a message [of the coexistence of Muslims and Christians]." The environment of Islam benefits from the engagement of the Christian faith, which ensures, of course, also our own openness with regard to the Muslim world.
That is what I want to tell American Christians and Catholics. To be able to really live out my faith I stress two principal pillars--God, who is absolute in heaven, and man, whose value is absolute on earth. In touching the one, you touch the other. Any kind of religious fanaticism is a breach of this fundamental respect for God and man. That is the message of the Christian witness, its presence in the Muslim world, which Christians in the West make possible through both prayer, and material support.
However, I don't believe that we should rely on a constant supply of money--only while the fighting continues. Eventually, local Christians must find ways to become self-sufficient and thus be able to stay. We must find ways to prevent them from becoming refugees themselves! The local Church is seeking to play a crucial role in this regard.
In Syria, and elsewhere in the region, Christians and Muslims have lived side-by-side for centuries.
I cannot and will not speak separately of Christians and Muslims. We have lived together in Syria for 1400 years. Why can we not manage to live together any more? That is the big question. We Christians want to stay and moderate Muslims want the same thing. Why do Jihadists and fundamentalist Muslims come to Syria, and elsewhere, to insist that this coexistence is no longer possible? We should not split up countries and regions along religious lines. This is a great risk: a country with a single religion becomes extremist, provoking war. Religion must not be used as a pretext for violence.
So there is nothing in Islam that is fundamentally incompatible with regard to tolerance of Christians?
Indeed. Again, we have lived together for 1400 years. Now, Saudi Arabia is a different matter. Countries that are 100 percent Islamic are a different story; there, Muslims have not been forced to find ways to live together with Christians, have not been pushed to arrive at an openness. But in Syria, Lebanon, in Jordan, and so forth, we have lived together for the longest time. In those countries it is hard to imagine Muslims living without Christians or vice versa.
There are occasional reports of Muslims coming to the aid of their Christian neigbors.
It happens the other way around as well. For example, Sunni families fled Aleppo and came to my diocese. Religious sisters came to their aid, and where told by their guests; "we are busy killing you, but you are giving us food to eat. We will not forget you." That was the first time these Muslims had met Christians and they discovered that these believers were not what they expected. We cannot let such experiences not bear fruit. This is extraordinary. We can live together. When Christians and Muslims live together in a particular region, it is not Christians who close up but Muslims who open up. It is ignorance that makes us afraid of the "other."
Our religion is one of mission--it is not a religion that closes in on itself. We cannot accept the logic of uniformity; we stand for openness; that is the genius of Christianity.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.