While many countries are re-establishing diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime, what implications might Cardinal Sandri’s visit to Syria have, especially in the view of a future, perhaps imminent, visit of the Pope himself?
Cardinal Sandri, the Prefect of the Congregation of the Oriental Churches, was in Syria between 25 October and 3 November, and visited many Christian communities throughout regime-held areas, with stops in Damascus, Tartous, Homs, Aleppo, Yabroud and Maaloula. Scheduled for April 2020, the visit was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
In Damascus, Sandri met the Greek-Melkite Patriarch Youssef Absi and Cardinal Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Syria since 2008. In the other cities, he visited Syriac, Maronite and Melkite ecclesiastical circumscriptions, met the local religious, priests and heads of charities and charitable associations, and took part in an ecumenical prayer followed by an interreligious meeting. The visit ended with a prayer for Father Paolo Dall’Oglio at the Mar Musa Monastery. In one of his final meetings, the Cardinal also spoke to the Catholic youth, which, in its turn, requested that the Pope might visit Syria soon.
As important as it might have been to Christian communities in Syria, Cardinal Sandri’s visit poses a few ethical and political issues, especially if considered as a preamble to a future journey of Pope Francis himself.
First of all, during the meetings he participated in, Sandri highlighted the necessity to focus on what he considers to be Syria’s main problems: reconstruction and sanctions, with regard to which, in his opinion, the international community should carry out an analysis of conscience. Sandri’s statements about Syria, as well as those of other ecclesiastical figures, were, therefore, for the most part, woven around the problem of poverty striking regime-held areas. Unfortunately, very little –let’s say none– reference was made to the Assad regime’s responsibilities towards the current situation. What is probably worse, as far as we know from reports, is that Idlib was barely mentioned, as well as the issue of detention and torture of political prisoners in the regime’s jails, and the need to hold Assad accountable for war crimes and human rights violations.
These are serious forms of forgetfulness and silence, especially if we think that thousands of people are still being arbitrarily detained in Assad’s prisons without having undergone regular trial and without their families being informed of their condition. And as far as Idlib is concerned, figures collected and published by the Syrian Network of Human Rights – statistics that are certainly worth being mentioned– show that between September and November 2021 alone, 77 civilians were killed at the hands of Syrian-Russian alliance forces, including 19 children and 11 women.
The problem is that, when dealing with Syria, the Catholic Church, and Christians in general, are often divided or, at least, non-homogeneous, in their approach. It is undeniable that many adopt rhetoric that comes very close to that employed by Syrian regime supporters. Furthermore, there seems to be a gap in the Church between Pope Francis’ perspective and that of many cardinals and bishops. In an open letter sent to Bashar al Assad in June 2019, Pope Francis talked indeed about Idlib and about the humanitarian catastrophe hitting the over 3 million displaced people living in that area. He also asked for an effort to preserve civilians and important infrastructure like schools and hospitals from harm. On the same occasion, the Pope demanded the release of political prisoners and requested that the families of detainees might have access to the information concerning their loved ones. When it’s about Syria, there is a sort of fil rouge connecting Pope Francis to figures like Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, (disappeared in Raqqa in 2013), who was well aware of the need for a change, to the point that he had supported the Syrian revolution in its beginnings and had even been expelled in 2012 by the Assad regime as persona non grata.
On the other hand, although it is not our intention to generalize, it is a well-known fact that a good part of Syrian Christian communities support, or at least well tolerate, the Assad regime. This is the consequence of a game Bashar Assad has been playing since his ascent to power: following the “Divide et impera” (Divide and govern) rule, he has managed to multiply fragmentation by promoting sectarianism and, subsequently, by setting himself as the protector of minorities against the danger of Islamism. Although this has been repeatedly proven not being accurate, it is no wonder that several Christian organizations are downright supportive of the regime.
In 2018, the Italian magazine L’Espresso published an inquiry, signed by journalists Sara Lucaroni and Giovanni Tizian, about the connection between some European, namely Italian, far-right-wing groups supporting Assad and some Syrian Christian communities and ecclesiastical groups. The European Solidarity Front for Syria, which includes the Italian Fascist group Casapound, promotes, with solidarity projects carried out in cooperation with Syrian catholic entities, especially belonging to the Salesians, what it considers to be the self-determination of the country. The Front, in fact, considers Bashar Assad as a legitimately-elected president, as Christianity’s shield against ISIS and terrorism, and as a victim of imperialist attacks and Israeli ambitions.
In its attempt to propose peace solutions for Syria, how is the Church going to reconcile these seemingly incompatible stands? How is it possible to promote reconciliation among social and religious parts while Bashar Assad is still in power and is not being held accountable for his crimes? Is neutrality good for the future of Syria? In this perspective, a possible visit of the Pope further complicates things. As we all know, in the last year, many countries have been re-establishing diplomatic ties with the Assad regime, which has been working very hard to convince the world that Syria –despite the poverty caused, not by him, but by sanctions and sanctions only– is safe and the government is rooted in solid popular consent. In this context, a visit of Pope Francis in regime-held areas in his double role of pastoral figure and head of state would certainly be, in the eyes of the west, a decisive step in the final rehabilitation of Bashar Assad.