We visited Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and the Christian town of Maaloula, which had been taken by Islamic State, and we met a wide range of people. It was a pastoral visit. We were invited by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch, the Grand Mufti and other Church leaders.
Talking to Syrian people, everybody whom we met including the Church leaders, say that the alternative to Bashar al-Assad would be much, much worse. For some they have actually moved to appreciating the fact that it is he, with Russian help, who’s helped to get most of Syria rid of ISIS and all the other Islamist terrorists. They’re the greatest enemy of all, with the atrocities they perpetrate. You don’t hear much about that on our media here.
I met a Muslim woman who had seen her husband and her son beheaded in front of her. She said “war is terrible, there is shelling on both sides, one side you die from shelling and the other side you die from shelling and beheadings and we don’t want the beheadings”.
The jihadist militants took 4,000 hostages to East Ghouta: they were meant to be released as part of the Syrian Government’s permission for the fighters to leave with their families. When it came to the time for their release and the families were there to welcome the hostages back, only 200 came; the rest had been killed. The atrocities are there on both sides but the priority for the Syrian people is to get rid of ISIS and all the other related Islamist groups, and that should be a priority for all of us.
But what the British Government is doing is actually prolonging the war. There has been evidence that we’ve given taxpayers’ money to groups associated with the jihadists – we are just prolonging the war, prolonging the suffering of the people of Syria.
'No proof' of chemical weapons
There’s no proof that Assad used chemical weapons. Robert Fisk – a journalist who has been into the area since then – has found no evidence. It’s very worrying that you would actually attack another country with missiles before there’s any evidence of who actually carried out the chemical weapons attack if it was done at all. One’s not condoning things that are uncondonable, but this situation did not merit the use of missiles by the West in that way – it’s very, very disturbing.
The bottom line is that the truth must come out, and we know as Christians that only the truth will make us free. There is a lot of concern in Syria, which I can understand and share, that we’re only getting one side of the story for much of the time.
The atrocities are there on both sides and the priority for the Syrian people is to get rid of ISIS
So we must find the truth – that was one reason for going to meet the people, at least to find out their perceptions of their reality, not judging it from a foreign land.
We should let the people in Syria decide their own future. They’re a deeply civilised people and we should stop interfering with proxy wars.
Everyone is deeply, deeply angered by the use of missiles by the UK, the US and by France, for three reasons: it was illegal, there was no mandate and Syria’s not about to attack our country, so there’s no legal justification, and also the timing: the missiles were launched the day before the chemical weapons investigators were due to begin their work. So there’s a lot of anger there.
There’s also a lot of concern about the British government’s continuing commitment to so-called regime change. There is no moderate armed opposition left so any regime change would create a situation similar to another Iraq, another Libya – that’s the last thing they want. There is also great concern about sanctions that we still impose which are causing a lot of suffering through dire shortages of medicines and food and so on. These are real concerns we heard from everyone whom we met.
Reduced to rubble
I’ve got photo after photo of destruction in Homs, Aleppo, Maaloula, so destruction is massive and widespread, but destruction is not the whole story. The morning after the missiles were fired by us and America and France, Damascus was going on as normal: people refused to submit to this kind of oppression and devastation. You can also see people beginning to live again. New life is coming through the devastation.
The Armenian Christian Church up in Aleppo, which suffered horrendously in the war – have rebuilt six schools, four of them in Aleppo itself. It’s very difficult with sanctions, but they are rebuilding. There’s hope and a desperate passion to rebuild and to build a better future for Syria.
The Church response
We visited a town that had been attacked by ISIS but which had managed to resist. We were told that when that battle was going on, the nuns and monks there prayed, and the focus of their prayers was first of all for forgiveness, for the attackers, forgiveness for the jihadists. Secondly they were praying that if they were captured, whatever they were subjected to they would not betray their faith. Those are two powerful prayers in the midst of a terrorist attack.
The prayer request of people on the ground in Syria can be summed up by the Chaldean Catholic priest who thanked us for coming. The Gospel the previous Sunday was the story of doubting Thomas who wouldn’t believe in Christ's resurrection until Our Lord appeared to him. When he put his hands into Our Lord’s wounded hands and side, Our Lord said, “Now you believe, go and tell.”
This priest said to us: “Thank you for coming. You have put your hands into the wounds of our suffering, now you believe, go and tell.” Our brothers and sisters want people to engage, they want people to visit, they want people to understand and to pray for them. That is their real cri de coeur.
I believe they would also pray: please give us Syrian people the right to decide our own future.
Baroness Cox is a cross-bench member of the House of Lords and founder of Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART). She was speaking to Marcus Jones on Premier Christian Radio’s News Hour