Melkite Archbishop Jeanbart brings urgent plea for Syrian Christians on US visit

Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria (Aid to the Church in Need)

Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria, is in the United States for a few days, discussing the desperate plight of Christians in the ancient city of Aleppo and in war-torn Syria.

The 72-year-old Jeanbart is being hosted by the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Catholic charity Aid to the Church In Need, which operates under the guidance of the pope. Jeanbart held a prayer service and delivered a talk at The Catholic Center at New York University on Tuesday. His plans involve traveling to Washington, D.C., before flying to Europe.

Jeanbart met with NCR for an interview about the importance of Syria to the universal church, the urgent need for a political solution to end the war, and a proposal to create a pilot program for the rebuilding of Aleppo by Christians. This interview has been edited for length, style and clarity.

NCR: Christians have been living in Syria for over 2,000 years -- since the beginning of Christianity -- within a predominantly Muslim country. It was on a Syrian road to Damascus that St. Paul became a tireless defender of the church. What have been the conditions in which Christians have been able to live peacefully with Muslims for so many years prior to the current civil war?

Jeanbart: I just want to say a word about the Christians of Syria who were baptized by the apostles themselves in Jerusalem on the day of the Pentecost. If you read the Acts of the Apostles, they were gathered from around the region -- thousands of Jews came into Jerusalem.

When St. Peter spoke, there were 3,000 Jews baptized. In the past, I thought [that number] was a kind of literary figure, an inflation, but now I realize, no, it was an exact number of people baptized by the apostles, and these 3,000 went back to Syria, where they came from. It is not far away from Damascus. It was only a two- or three-day walk from Jerusalem. The Christians in our country, Syria, are the sons of the Pentecost, baptized by the apostles, and formed the first church in the world.

When the important people in the Jewish community in Jerusalem wanted to arrest the Jews who became Christians, they had to send Saul to Damascus to find them because they did not have many of them in Palestine. Instead of capturing them, he was captured by the Lord and baptized by the Christians of Damascus, Syria.

Paul has been baptized by the church of Syria, the first church. And this is very important, and this gives me reasons to make huge sacrifices and to try to keep the church alive in these days of war when the land of Syria is irrigated with the blood of millions of innocent Christian martyrs.

This is very important. You cannot imagine me, a bishop, a successor of the apostles. It is something in which I believe. It is fundamental teaching of the theology [of the church]. It is not about being proud of being a bishop. That's why I feel united to the first apostles and to all the apostles across the centuries and to all the successors of the apostles in the world. I feel very close to every single bishop in the world. They are the same successors of the apostles. And this gives you the meaning of what I am doing for my visit to meet Christians in the world, to meet other successors of the apostles, to call them to help us, to honor this responsibility the Lord gives us. To defend and to promote and to give the church to continue to the day the Lord comes back.

Aleppo is the commercial hub for Syria and has the largest population of Christians, an estimated 170,000 before the war.

This 170,000 used to represent some 50 years ago 40 percent of the population for Aleppo. Aleppo has grown because there has been an immigration phenomenon of Christians and an immigration phenomenon of people coming from the suburbs into the city of Aleppo. Before the war, Aleppo counted 3 million people, and the Christians numbered 170,000. There used to be 400,000 people in Aleppo 50 years ago [with the same number of Christians].

Will you describe what the Christian community looked like prior to the civil war and what life was like for Christians in Aleppo?

Before the war, Christians in Aleppo lived quietly. We had all our rights. We were respected by everybody. We had good relations either with the government or with [people] of the other religions. You know Aleppo, Syria, holds around 20 denominations -- 11 Christian denominations and nine or so Muslim and other denominations -- and we all live together peacefully as citizens.

And we didn't have problems. We have had problems ourselves -- Christians -- and Catholics, let's say, 50 years ago when [the government] confiscated our schools. It was after the war of 1967. They confiscated all of the Catholic schools. ... Through that time, the government gave us a possibility to offer schools, and in the last 10 years, we were very comfortable with our schools and with our execution of our Christian movement. We were free to write books and to publish magazines, and we were free also to have the right to organize meetings.

How many Christian ministers were in Aleppo before the war?

Around 65 to 70 ministers altogether.

Prior to the war, were Christians active in politics, active in the community, leaders in the community?

You know, it's complicated. I'd say that the Orthodox and the people living in the villages near Aleppo, for example, they were involved in politics because they have been in the Ba'ath Party for 40 years or so. The Ba'ath Party was the leading party in Syria. And in Damascus, they were mostly Orthodox. The Catholics spent too much time connected to the West and to France and to the church, and we were not involved in this social movement or involved in the Ba'ath Party. Perhaps for all these reasons, it didn't encourage us to push our people to enter politics, even though in the last two decades, they began to involve themselves. Our commitment of our people and the Catholic citizens was less important than the involvement of the Christians in the villages.

How would you describe Aleppo today?

Even 10 years ago, Aleppo had grown and improved culturally, industrially, economically, on the level of education, and in tourism. Aleppo has a university with 160,000 students and homes for about 15,000 students, and all that was free, almost free, the university was free, but they would charge something like $2 a month to live in the student homes.

Hospitals were free for any citizen who wanted to go to the government hospitals. It has industries with something like 1.2 million workers. We have archeological remains that make Aleppo more attractive for tourism.

And the people were living well. We didn't have miserable people. We had poor people, but these people were not beggars. They used to live based on the work they had, and they had what they needed. Their children's education was free, the food was very cheap because it was funded by the government. Houses were built for the workers, who would pay very little. Life was good for everybody before the war. But now, everything has been destroyed, stolen. The businesses are frozen. Many, many hospitals have been destroyed. The schools have been destroyed or closed.

How do you communicate with priests and other religious in Aleppo today during the war?

I communicate by telephone, but also by meetings. For my 19 priests, we have a meeting every Saturday and have lunch together, and we spend three to four hours together. We have a weekly meeting with the bishops in Aleppo with their vicars. Every month, we have a meeting between bishops and all heads of Christian denominations, an ecumenical meeting. We have a monthly meeting with all the priests of all the denominations. So we have occasion to meet this way, as well as personal meetings at parishes when I visit them.

The Syrian war is a complicated war with government forces, opposition forces, Kurdish forces, the Islamic State group (ISIS), and gangs. Conflicts within these groups create wars within wars. The fighting and terror is neighborhood-to-neighborhood, province-to-province, with different groups controlling different parts at different times. It's a dynamic environment. How are Christians navigating this war?

I must say that the Christians cannot be comfortable, but with the government authority present, the Christians have protection. But where the government is not present, they are either killed or they have to leave. So when we live in areas controlled by the government, we feel secure.

There are two camps: the government and the official army and the other side. The opposition is in several groups like ISIS, and you have plenty of mercenaries. They are mostly mercenaries coming from abroad. They are opposition fighters. Many are Europeans, Turkish, Algerian, Tunisian. You have Sudanese, Saudi Arabian fighters.

The ISIS-targeted killing of Christians is being called a genocide, an ethnic cleansing, and Christians are leaving their homes with just their clothes on their backs on an exodus, a real via crucis causing an unprecedented dislocation and migration within Syria and out of Syria. Is it possible that the Christian population in Syria can be wiped out?

ISIS is killing not just Christians, but Christians and others who are not Muslims of the kind they want. But mostly Christians. If the war continues, a lot of Christians will leave afraid and scared about what could be the future because when they are in cities and in areas controlled by the government, they have not much to fear. They suffer because of what ISIS is doing to them.

What is occupying Christians is the fear of the future, what the future of Syria will be. If the war continues, we are afraid that many, many, many of them will leave. Certainly, we will have remaining a small group of Christians. I hope the war will end quickly and the Christians will remain. I will do my part to help them stay.

You support Pope Francis' call for legitimate military action against an unjust aggressor such as the "religious cleansing" by ISIS fighters against Christians.

I agree, of course, for two reasons. I agree because he is the pope and I have to consider that he has the inspiration of the Lord when he takes a position like this. And I agree because he is right. It is theologically right that we have the duty to defend life against unjust aggressors.

We have seen that U.S. drone strikes will in fact kill innocent human beings along with extremist fighters. Is the loss of innocent life in the context of fighting ISIS acceptable under the circumstances?

I don't know if the use of drones can solve what is happening. It might be initially useful, but what is necessary is for the financing and helping and fighters coming into the country from abroad to stop. The drone cannot do much. It is the army who could make the difference.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was recently interviewed on the U.S. program "60 Minutes," and he denied the use of chemical weapons, chlorine gas. Do you believe that it was the Syrian troops who used the chlorine gas in northern Syria at Assad's orders?

I think the government did it, the use of chemical weapons. [See editor's note below.]

Assad has protected Christians, but is he in any position today to do so?

I cannot say. It depends on the field and how things will evolve and develop. Of course, he protects them in areas that the government controls, especially along the coastal towns.

The Syrian church as called on Assad to implement reforms called for by a majority of Syrians. What is the relationship between the Christian leaders, you, and the Assad government?

It's good.

Do you speak with Assad? Are you in direct contact with Assad or his inner circle? Can you describe what that is like and what you believe Assad is willing to do to create peace?

It may happen, but usually, you know, the path we take is that a group of bishops can talk to him eventually. And we can send him messages through people because he will not have time to meet everybody. He is ready to help us if we ask and want to talk to him, particularly when we communicate in a way that doesn't take too much time. When it is something important, we can ask, and we can send him messages.

You have asked that the West provide long-term military protection for Christians and other minorities to create an iron-clad system of protection. What do you envision here? Does such protection include U.S. boots on the ground in Syria?

Protection comes when the West stops allies in the region from killing us, when they stop a few countries that are related to the United States and the West from furnishing arms, financing, sending mercenaries, and calling for jihad.

Do you envision U.S. troops or Western troops inside Syria?

No. It is not necessary. I think it is good to not let American soldiers in Syria. If they do, we would hope that the West would stop the outside influence. Perhaps the Syrian army could do the job on the ground to provide protection. They can do whatever the American army would do if it was present.

Turkey has pushed for U.N. protected safe zones in Syria for refugees. Are U.N.-protected safe zones a viable option?

I think the government would never accept this option because it would be a kind of camp or stronghold in the country. The Syrian army never strikes the refugee camps. ... If the safe zones are in the country, [the opposition] could organize campaigns and battles in the country.

On Friday, Angelina Jolie, the U.S. actress and U.N. special envoy for refugees who has made 11 visits to Syria, addressed the U.N. Security Council. She said this: "The problem [in Syria] is not a lack of information. We know in excruciating detail what is happening in Aleppo, in Homs. The problem is lack of political will. We cannot look at Syria and the evil that has risen from the ashes of indecision and think this is not the lowest point in the world's inability to protect and defend the innocent." Is Jolie's assessment correct? Would you add anything to her assessment?

Yes. It needs a political decision and it should be to stop fighting, not to strike Syria.

Jolie recommends that the foreign ministers of each of the 15 U.N. Security Council members come together and forge a political solution. Do you agree that this body is in the best position to develop and implement a political solution to the catastrophe in Syria?

Yes, as long as all these people have someone from both sides, that they may have two viewpoints, that they may not be people from just the coalition only. They should put together the responsible Iraqi, Syrian, Iranian, Egyptian and [regional] parties too. Any solution or recommendation has to include the voice of the Christians. They need to be a part of the negotiating table. We think it is absolutely important that Christians have a voice and a partnership in the solution, either to make reconciliation easier or to give a convivial solution to this problem.

Is Assad part of this kind of solution or does he have to step down?

Part of the solution.

You hope that Syria will form a pluralistic democracy where all Syrians can be full-fledged citizens where they are born and where their ancestors are buried.

That's why we feel that Assad and the regime should be part of the solution. They would be pushing in the direction of a non-confessional or nonreligious and pluralistic regime. Either they or some European countries help them go in this direction because if you take them off or Assad steps off, there will be no more war between the government army and the opposition. The fighting will be between the Syrians themselves. If Assad steps down, there would be no voice for a pluralistic regime. It is important to keep the security and to give guarantees for the future for the minorities and the government be non-confessional, nonreligious, and the solution can be a pluralistic solution.

Lebanon Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai has said, "Christians, Jews and Muslims are invited to rediscover the will of God in union and in harmony within the human family; they are invited to consider the believer of another faith as a brother worthy of respect and love," and that this framework should lead to a "positive secularism" in which religion is free from the state. Are there Muslims in Syria who embrace Rai's words of peaceful coexistence and friendship?

Part of the Muslim population is not necessarily the majority, and when you speak of the Muslims, you have to make the difference between the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Alawites. Each of these denominations has a percentage of people open to peaceful coexistence more than others.

How do you envision cultivating reconciliation among the warring factions once peace is restored?

Syria needs to heal itself and to find reasons to resist and survive to go ahead. Healing comes from the people themselves. Reconciliation may come as soon as the weapons will shut down. Reconciliation will come as soon as they sit at the same table, and the majority of Syrians in the opposition and among the loyalists look with anxiety to the day they make a settlement, an agreement, a compromise to live together, as they realize the country is destroyed and is going to be destroyed more and more if they do not reach an agreement. The Syrians who love the county will do whatever it takes to reach this reconciliation and a political solution.

You would like to create a Christian social movement called "Build to Stay" that includes a solidarity fund that will put local Christian professionals, tradespeople and artisans in the position of re-establishing their lives and the concrete means to stay in Syria.

Until now, we have been going on in emergency help and programs to help people, to find what they need to keep their families, but this is not enough after all that has happened in the country. The destruction of the structures of academic, medical and business, the destruction of industries, all these kinds of things has put our people in a very bad shape. They have no work, no hope for the future. They do not know how to live, and all these are things to be rebuilt. That's why as soon as the war stops, we need to go ahead with a program that gives hope to our people that the future will be better. We need programs for human rebuilding -- the mind, the feelings, the heart -- and rebuilding the structures to give them the possibility to find education and health care, to find what they need to live, to restore their houses and apartments.

How much money does this program need for Christians in the city of Aleppo?

A lot of money, but I am looking for $1 million for a pilot project. In the longer term, it will take more money. We will eventually need much more money for housing projects and other structures.

Have you considered asking bishops in the U.S. and in other countries to take up a national collection in support of the solidarity fund?

I have written to the Aid to the Church in Need, and I have asked a few bishops to think about it. I think the $1 million does not require me to go around the world to raise it. It may be raised here in the United States, as it's not a huge amount. Later on, we will need to be supported either by other bishops around the world or by governments to be able to realize the second step. We need to give confidence and to give reasons for people to believe in the future and to know that we will be standing by them and helping them to go ahead.

In the midst of unspeakable carnage, violence and chaos and a war that has turned Syria into what you have called a land of "fire and blood," what gives you hope that peace will be achieved?

Certainly there will be people with human feelings and values who will say, "It is enough. Stop." And of course, I have hope in the blessing of the Lord and his powerful intervention to change minds and hearts and to get people to reconciliation.

[Tom Gallagher is a regular contributor to NCR. He can be reached at]

Editor’s Note: After this interview appeared, a spokesman for Archbishop Jeanbart contacted NCR asking that we correct a statement the archbishop had made about chemical weapons use in Syria. We reviewed the tape of the interview and determined that the transcript presented here is accurate. The spokesman responded that he wasn’t disputing the accuracy of the transcript but that the archbishop had misspoke. He asked that we print the following statement:

"In his interview with the National Catholic Reporter (which took place on April 27, 2015 in New York), Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart inadvertently answered 'yes' when asked if the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in fighting its adversaries. He respectfully submits to the editor the following answer to the question instead: 'I don't think so.' "

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here