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Christians in Syria systematically targeted: Lord Alton

By editor - 01 March, 2014

British government questioned as to what it is doing to stop the flow of weapons into Syria.

Lord David Alton

Lord David Alton

Christians and other minorities in Syria are being systematically targeted in the ongoing civil war, Lord David Alton has warned.

In a debate on Syria and the Middle East in the House of Lords on Thursday, he revealed that 47 churches have been closed; two priests and a nun have been murdered; and two bishops, three priests and 12 nuns have been abducted.

“A new video of the nuns has just appeared with their traditional cross removed from their habit. Do we have any news of their whereabouts and when they may be released by their jihadist captors?” he asked in his speech. 

Lord Alton also expressed his concern over the plight of Jesuit, Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio, who was kidnapped in July 2013 after entering rebel-held territory.

“I have been looking at first-hand accounts which Aid to the Church in Need has received from Syrian Christians. Typical is this note from Basman Kassouha, a refugee now in the Bekaa Valley area of Lebanon.”

“He says that the militias, ‘stormed my house, giving me one hour to evacuate or else they will kill me … I’m heartbroken. I’ve lost everything’.”

Quoting the Maronite Bishop Elias Sleman of Laodicea, Lord Alton said, “There are many events that show that Christians are targeted, such as those of Maaloula, Sadad, Hafar, Deir Atiyeh, Carah, Nabk, Kseir, Rablé, Dmaineh, Michtayeh, Hassaniyeh, Knaïeh, and some villages of the Valley of Christians, Yabroud, Aafrd, the Jazirah region such as Hassaké, Ras El-Ain Kamechleh, and many other areas. Christians are increasingly targeted in horrible and unspeakable massacres”.

He added, “The mostly Christian town of Saidnaya has experienced repeated attacks by extremists. The fourth attack on the city occurred on 19 January.”

Elsewhere, the ancient site of the Convent of Our Lady on Mount Qalamoun has been frequently targeted by mortars.

In Homs, a Dutch priest, Fr Van der Lugt, trapped in the old city, described how residents cut off for more than a year developed chronic mental health problems following the breakdown of social order. He said, “Our city has become a lawless jungle”.

Lord Alton asked what the British government was doing to stop the flow of weapons into Syria.

He concluded by questioning whether evidence is being collected for future prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

Courtesy: Independent Catholic News – http://www.indcatholicnews.com

The full text of Lord Alton’s speech follows.

My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for tabling this Motion for debate today and for the tone that she set in her opening remarks. I refer the House to my non-financial interests as honorary president of UK Copts, a board member of the Aid to the Church in Need charity and a patron of various human rights groups that work in the region.

Earlier in our debate, my noble friend Lord Wright of Richmond made an important and authoritative speech. I entirely agreed with his remarks about Syria and later in my remarks I will concentrate on what is happening there today. As he spoke, I reflected that I first met him in 1980 when he was our distinguished ambassador in Syria. With the noble Lord, Lord Steel, I arrived in Damascus on the very day when the war broke out between Iran and Iraq—a war that claimed some million lives. Perhaps in the context of what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has just said to the House, we should remember that.

During that visit, we met with Ḥafez al-Assad, Yasser Arafat, King Hussein and Anwar Sadat. In our subsequent report, we advocated a two-state approach as the only one likely to achieve sustainable peace between Israel and its neighbours. Our visit was three months after the Muslim Brotherhood had made an assassination attempt on Ḥafez al-Assad, and his response was then to align Syria with Iran. King Hussein declared Jordan’s support for Iraq. One week after we met Assad, he was in Moscow signing a mutual friendship treaty. Depressingly, as my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup indicated, the lines in today’s conflict are not newly drawn.

In 1980, I wrote about the repressive nature of the region’s regimes—repressive then and repressive now. Iran’s human rights record remains appalling. Saudi Arabia, referred to in this debate as our strategic ally in the region, also commits egregious violations of human rights and remains one of the deadliest exporters of global terror. Back in 1980, Syria was expelling journalists and massacring dissidents. Surely the failure to see reform, change and sustainable solutions has had these disastrous consequences, nowhere more so than in Syria.

The failure to find solutions now includes 130,000 dead with millions more driven from their homes. Nine million are said to be displaced and 3 million have fled to neighbouring countries. One hundred and fifty thousand families are deprived of their father, 2 million dwellings are destroyed, 2 million families are without shelter and 2 million students without schools. The economy is in ruins, the currency is devalued by 300% and there is growing violence, anguish, division and bitterness every day.

Sarin gas has been used against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus. Barrel bombs have rained down on Aleppo. Citizens have been under siege in Homs and elsewhere, being starved to death. Just over a week ago the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, pointed to what he called “the unspeakable suffering” of the country’s children, with 10,000 children now dead in Syria. The United Nations report published last week details arbitrary detention, ill treatment, torture and horrific abuses of children by both sides including beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons, sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape, mock executions, cigarette burns, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement. The report says that the opposition forces too have increasingly “engaged in such acts.”

The “Afghanisation” of Syria, with vast tracts falling under the control of dangerous jihadist groups, would hardly represent progress. We need to hear much more from the Government, and with much more clarity, of assessments of each of these various factions which are largely at war with one another. Describing them as the opposition conjures up images of a coherent and united group akin to opposition groups in parliamentary democracies. We should be very wary of using such descriptions. Take ISIS. It is said that al-Qaeda has cut its links to one of its most deadly affiliates, ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. There are also unverified reports, as we have heard, of a possible military confrontation between Hezbollah and ISIS. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what assessment she has made of the continuing use of ISIS suicide bombers, the territory it controls in north-eastern Iraq and its use of radicalised recruits, especially from the United Kingdom? I refer to recruits such as Anil Khalil Raoufi, a British Afghan who was studying engineering at the University of Liverpool and was recently killed in fighting between rebel groups. It is not just United Kingdom students – this week I sent the Minister a report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict which talks about the radicalisation of young Indonesian men who have gone to Syria via Turkey. Their director Sidney Jones says: “Jihadi humanitarian assistance teams now appear to be facilitating the entry of fighters as well”.

It is not just that their presence in Syria fuels fundamentalism—it is that they are being radicalised in the process, posing dangers to the countries to which they return. The problem is exacerbated by the flow of arms into Syria.

In appealing to hatred, many jihadists cite a seventh-century directive which requires Christians to convert to Islam and pay tribute to Muslim rulers or leave. It is being increasingly enforced by extreme Islamist groups, so there is a religious dimension to this conflict. Here perhaps I would disagree on the margin with the remarks made by the right reverend Prelate, the bishop of Wakefield who said: “No, this is not a religious but a political conflict,”

What, also of the 60,000 fighters of the Islamic Front? Do the Government believe that the Front is capable of producing a secular or plural Syria in which minorities such as those to which I have just referred are respected? Do they have the capacity to be part of a transitional body capable of restoring trust, an almost impossible task in the aftermath of such horror? It was the late King Hussein who offered the wise advice to pray for God’s protection against, “those who believe that they are the sole possessors of truth.”

These sole possessors of truth represent the biggest stumbling block in finding a peaceful way forward out of this confessional morass and they also represent the biggest danger to Alawites, Druze and Christians, and the rights of women.

Almost 1,500 years ago a wandering monk called John Moschos described the eastern Mediterranean as a flowering meadow of Christianity. That meadow is today a battlefield. Before the war the Christians of Syria accounted for 4.5% of the population. What will it be after the war? Forty-seven churches have been closed; two priests and a nun have been murdered; two bishops, three priests and 12 nuns have been abducted. I have raised these cases with the Minister and gave her notice that I would raise them again today. A new video of the nuns has just appeared with their traditional cross removed from their habit. Do we have any news of their whereabouts and when they may be released by their jihadist captors? What news also, about the Jesuit, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, kidnapped in July 2013 after entering rebel-held territory? Opposition sources from Raqqah said that Paolo Dall’Oglio had been executed by extremist groups. Do we have any news about that?

I have been looking at first-hand accounts which Aid to the Church in Need has received from Syrian Christians. Typical is this note from Basman Kassouha, a refugee now in the Bekaa Valley area of Lebanon. He says that the militias, “stormed my house, giving me one hour to evacuate or else they will kill me … I’m heartbroken. I’ve lost everything”.

The Maronite Bishop Elias Sleman of Laodicea says Christians have been specifically targeted in a number of places. I shall quote him because I hope, as we collect evidence of these sorts of events, none of this will ever be lost to history. He says: “There are many events that show that Christians are targeted, such as those of Maaloula, Sadad, Hafar, Deir Atiyeh, Carah, Nabk, Kseir, Rablé, Dmaineh, Michtayeh, Hassaniyeh, Knaïeh, and some villages of the Valley of Christians, Yabroud, Aafrd, the Jazirah region such as Hassaké, Ras El-Ain Kamechleh, and many other areas. Christians are increasingly targeted in horrible and unspeakable massacres”.

The mostly Christian town of Saidnaya has experienced repeated attacks by extremists. The fourth attack on the city occurred on 19 January. The ancient site of the Convent of Our Lady on Mount Qalamoun has been frequently targeted by mortars. In Homs, a Dutch priest, Father Van der Lugt, trapped in the old city, described how residents cut off for more than a year developed chronic mental health problems following the breakdown of social order. He says, “Our city has become a lawless jungle”. I remind the noble Baroness of the situation in Sadad, where there was a terrible massacre that some have described as potential genocide. What news of the situation there?

While the quest for peace continues, perhaps the Minister will share with us what we are doing to provide direct help to these beleaguered minorities, what we are doing to stop the flow of arms into Syria, what progress has been made on the removal of the 700 tonnes of priority 1 chemicals, and what happens—as the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, asked—if the deadline for removal of chemical weapons is passed. Even an agreement suspending the flow of arms and foreign militant activists would be a success, because the ceasing of fighting is the precondition for all forms of reconciliation.

Let me conclude by pressing for a response to the question I raised on Monday with the Minister’s noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who is sitting on the Front Bench. I asked whether we are collecting meticulous information of atrocities, and whether in the Security Council we will be referring these matters for prosecution by the International Criminal Court. If the danger of any other country raising a veto against us were to be used as a reason for not doing that, it would bring great dishonour on this country.

To read the full debate see: http://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2014/february/lords-syria-debate/
For more information see: www.davidalton.net

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