Sant’Egidio announces conference in Cyprus for Middle Eastern Christians in March

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The community’s founder, Andrea Riccardi, sends out another appeal to save Aleppo with the UN’s backing. Christian, Muslim and government representatives will be meeting on the Mediterranean island from 5 to 6 March.

In an appeal issued at a press conference today, the founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, Andrea Riccardi, called on the international community (under the aegis of the UN) to rescue the Syrian city of Aleppo, through an initiative that would allow the opening up of humanitarian channels, freeze the current conflict without removing Syrian sovereignty over the city and take swift action to prevent the Arab world’s third Christian city after Cairo and Beirut ending up like Mosul in Iraq. Christians were driven out of Mosul by the jihadists of the self-proclaimed Caliphate. A conference on the future of Christians in the Middle East in Cyprus from 5 to 6 March was also announced at today’s press conference.

“An overall strategy has not been prepared yet: you cannot ask Christians not to emigrate from the region is there are no guarantees, a big international agreement is needed,” Riccardi said. “I met Christians who were fleeing Erbil: they say they will not return unless there are guarantees. Sometimes the region’s Christians leaned on dictatorships because these offered them guarantees. I don’t approve of this but I can understand.” Hence the idea of holding a big conference in Cyprus, an island in the heart of the Mediterranean, to bring together representatives of the Middle Eastern Christian community, Muslim representatives and political figures representing countries that are willing to commit to this cause. Some governments have already confirmed their attendance but full details will be given later on. Why Muslims? “The flight of Christians from the Middle East is a tragedy for them and for the whole of society. Today it’s Christians who are being persecuted, tomorrow it will be Muslims that belong to a different group, liberal Muslims, women … defending Christians in the Middle East means defending pluralism and democracy in the Middle East.”

In the case of Aleppo, “it is not about saving Christians, but about saving an environment,” said Riccardi, an historian and former minister who took the opportunity during today’s press conference in Rome, to launch the hashtag #savealeppo. The appeal was originally made last June and attracted support from various figures, including: two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Desmond Tutu and Perez Esquivel, influential Catholics, Muslim representatives such as Kamel Kabtane, rector of the Great Mosque of Lyon, Dr. Mohammad Sammak, Secretary-General of Lebanon’s National Committee for Christian-Muslim Dialogue, rabbis such as David Rosen and Francis’ friend Abraham Skorka. “Pope Francis’ support would obviously be of help but there could be one hitch: why appeal for Aleppo and not for Homs, for example?” Meanwhile though, Aleppo is on fire and the mosaic of faiths and cultures that it represents risks falling to pieces. “Time is key: it would not be dignified to mourn the loss of Aleppo after what happened in Mosul, a tragedy we had seen coming,” Riccadi explained. In today’s globalised world, the historian of Christianity said, “we all depend on each other, and the fact that Rome itself is mentioned in some of the irrational messages sent out” by IS jihadists “is proof of this.” Riccardi also firmly condemned today’s attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem.

In the June appeal, the founder of Sant’Egidio explained that: “In July 2012 the battle began in the most populous city of Syria. However, its two million inhabitants stayed on, preserving the thousand-year-old coexistence of Muslims and Christians. The city is segmented: the majority of the districts are in the hands of the government, but there are areas under rebel control, though they have withdrawn since Summer 2012. The rebels, in turn, are pressed from southwest by the government forces. Surrounded by the opposition, including intransigent and bloodthirsty fundamentalists, the people cannot leave the city. For Christians, to leave the area under government control means to risk their lives. The two bishops of Aleppo, Gregorios Ibrahim and Paul Yazigi, who were seized more than a year ago, are well aware of this.” In Aleppo there is death everywhere. The people are suffering. Assad’s air forces strike the areas under rebel control with missiles and barrel bombs; in the meanwhile the rebels bomb the other districts with mortars and handmade rockets. The people are starving and missing medicines. The jihadist groups threaten the city by stopping the water. The war is terrible, and death comes from all directions.”

Hence the decision to re-launch this appeal for international intervention to free Aleppo with UN backing (“It is not up to us to come up with a solution. What I personally have in mind is an intervention by the UN peacekeeping force,” Riccardi said in answer to journalists’ questions), help from the big regional powers, “from Turkey which has sided with the rebels and Russia which has a certain influence through Assad.” The humanitarian corridor which leads to Lebanon is certainly fragile but it is still there and is vital for the survival of the Aleppians. “Italy has a role to play and so does Germany,” Riccardi said today, “Aleppo is suffocating, there is not just the risk of massacre but of ethnocide as well.” The worst of it all is that we do not know what the protagonists of the current conflict have planned for Aleppo.” “This is why we do not want to change the political reality as it is and take away Syria’s sovereignty over Aleppo; we just want to freeze the Syrian conflict: not free but freeze.”

Isn’t it a little unrealistic to try to save Aleppo - a bit like trying to pull a piece of wood out of the fire - when the war in Syria in raging on? “At the moment there don’t seem to be any comprehensive peace processes underway,” Riccardi replied. “Meanwhile, let’s try to pull this piece of wood out of the fire even at the risk of getting burnt so that there is less wood being burnt and we save a precious piece of wood.” This could become a model for peace for the entire region. The President of the Community of Sant’ Egidio, Marco Impaggliazzo, was also present at today’s press conference. He was recently received at the UN headquarters in New York by the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

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By Iacopo Scaramuzzi