U.S. Catholic Bishops: Don't Arm Syrian Fighters

By Patrick Goodenough | June 24, 2013 | 4:37am EDT

Syrian Christians hold a prayer service and vigil at the St. Elias Greek Orthodox church in Aleppo on Saturday, June 22 2013, exactly two months after two bishops were abducted by suspected anti-regime rebels. (Photo: Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo)

(CNSNews.com) – Amid growing awareness of the effect the conflict in Syria is having on the country’s Christians, some church leaders in the West are warning that providing arms to combatants in Syria will only worsen the crisis – both overall and for religious minorities in particular.

On Tuesday, a congressional panel will hold a hearing to examine how U.S. policy can safeguard Syria’s vulnerable religious minorities amid the fighting and also once the war comes to an end.

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry last Wednesday, two leading U.S. Catholic bishops said there was an “urgent need for a negotiated ceasefire and political solution.”

“Instead of arming both sides, the international community should be emphasizing the need for a negotiated solution to the conflict,” wrote Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa and Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona.

“The introduction of more arms simply increases the lethality of the violence and contributes to the suffering of the Syrian people,” they said.

The White House earlier this month announced that it has authorized direct military support to anti-Assad rebels. On Saturday, Kerry joined colleagues from the 10 other members of the “Friends of Syria” group at a meeting in Qatar that decided “to provide urgently all the necessary materiel and equipment to the opposition on the ground.”

Rebel groups, including Sunni jihadists, have already been receiving weapons from Arab Gulf states and elsewhere for many months, while the regime is receiving support from Russia, Iran and Shi’ite elements in Lebanon and Iraq.

Pates, who heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee on international justice and peace, and Kicanas, chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services, stressed to Kerry the need for a political solution that ends the fighting and creates a future where human rights and religious freedom are respected.

“We ask the United States to work with other governments to obtain a ceasefire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial and neutral humanitarian assistance, and encourage building an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities.”

Their appeal echoes an earlier one by a senior Anglican leader in England, Bishop Peter Price of Bath and Wells, who spoke out against the British government push’s for the European Union to allow a Syria arms embargo to lapse, thus paving the way for Britain, France and possibly other E.U. to send arms from August.

Price, who is also a member of the House of Lords and now retiring, questioned the wisdom of “further arming in what is an already dangerously over-armed conflict.”

Pointing to the situation in Libya as an example of the risk of providing arms without taking into account where they may end up, he warned the government that “providing arms in this increasingly fragmented conflict makes any strategy for decommissioning arms, post conflict, very difficult.”

Rather than provide weapons, Price said the British government should focus its efforts in persuading the Syrian opposition to play a constructive role at peace talks which governments are trying to convene in Geneva.

(British Prime Minister David Cameron said last week Britain has made no decision yet to arm the rebels.)

Underlining the plight of Christians caught in the middle of the conflict, Christians in Aleppo on Saturday marked the two-month anniversary of the kidnapping – allegedly by rebels – of two bishops whose fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

At a prayer service and solidarity sit-in vigil at the city’s St. Elias Greek Orthodox church, members of various Christian denominations were joined by some Muslim leaders calling for the safe release of the bishops and others who have been abducted during the conflict.

Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim were seized by armed men while on a humanitarian mission on April 22. Their driver, a church deacon, was shot dead during the incident.

Fighting has stepped up in recent weeks in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, with regime forces trying to dislodge rebels from parts of the city they have held since last July.

‘Existential threat’

On Thursday, Pope Francis once again expressed concern about “the people of beloved Syria,” and urged believers of every faith to put an end to the violence.

At a meeting with representatives of Catholic relief agencies, the pope said Catholics were grateful to members of the Eastern churches for “keeping the faith” despite facing great difficulties.

The plight of Syria’s Christians is also concerning the new titular leader of the world’s Anglicans, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who on Sunday began a five-day visit to Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

His office said “pressures” on the region’s Christian communities are a matter of deep concern for the archbishop, who was visiting the region early on, in part, “because he is keenly aware of the particular pressures on the region at the moment – not least the devastating conflict in Syria, and its impact more widely.”

On June 25, religious freedom advocates and a senior State Department human rights official have been invited to testify at a joint hearing of two House Foreign Affairs subcommittees, focusing on the difficulties faced by Syria’s minorities.

“According to reports, religious minorities have become victims of religiously-motivated atrocities by factions within Syria,” said Middle East and North Africa subcommittee chairman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) ahead of the hearing.

“As we have learned from Egypt and Iraq, many Christians fled for fear of losing their lives and now religious minorities in Syria are faced with the same existential threat,” she said. “This hearing will examine how the United States can come up with a comprehensive strategy to promote religious freedom and protect Syria’s religious minorities.”

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who chairs the subcommittee dealing with global human rights, said religious minorities including Christians, Jews, Yezidis, and Druze are “viewed with suspicion by both sides of the civil war,” and cited warnings by some non-governmental organizations that “conditions have aligned for genocide.”

Those scheduled to testify on Tuesday include Thomas Melia, deputy assistant secretary in the State’s Department’s bureau of democracy, human rights and labor, Majed El Shafie of One Free World International, John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International, and Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.

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