Pope’s Message to Assad Stirs Mixed Reactions

A Vatican delegation led by a special envoy of the Pope, Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, has recently paid a visit to Damascus, resulting in mixed reactions from both Christian and non-Christian Syrians alike. Cardinal Turkson, who heads the Vatican department for promoting human development, delivered a personal letter from the Pontiff to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

Most Syrians would welcome and support a more active role by the Vatican in protecting civilians, particularly Syrian Christians, who have suffered enormously at the hands of hard-line Islamic and Wahhabi terrorists over the past eight years. However, there is a growing feeling among ordinary Syrians that the Papal approach has been rather selective, and even biased at times, when dealing with the plight of Syria’s Christian community, which has always been a corner stone in the history of the nation, region and Christianity at large.

The meeting came as an attack killed at least 20 people and wounded dozens last Monday, and was reported to have been carried out by Russian or Syrian jets. The Russian Defense Ministry was quick to deny the allegations, and the attack is now being blamed on the extremist terror group Al Nusra Front (Syria’s version of al-Qaeda), after evidence provided by Russian satellite images and intelligence showed that the rocket attack on Maarat Al Numan, a densely populated city in southern Idlib, was launched from areas controlled by Al Nusra terrorists in the province. This was following a warning by Al Nusra to rival militant groups in the city over control of the area.

Not far away, the savage rape and murder of a 60-year old Christian Armenian woman in the village of Al-Yacoubiya in rural Idlib last week shook much of the local community and the whole nation. Three Al Nusra extremists kidnapped, raped, tortured and brutally murdered Suzanne Der Kreikor. The teacher was among some 20 Christian families, mainly elderly, who remained in the area after al Nusra and other Islamic fanatics took control of the province some seven years ago. Her body was found naked, covered in cigarette burns, a few hundred yards from her house, which was also burgled by the criminals before the murder.

Many Syrian Christians feel bitter and deserted, expecting the Syrian ‘regime’ to protect them. They have been under attack by Islamic fanatical groups, and were displaced in the hundreds of thousands all over the country, recalling endless stories of horror, killing, rape, kidnapping and torture.

Many Syrians hope that the Vatican has at last decided to intensify its efforts towards reaching a peaceful end to the devastating war in Syria. It was revealed that the Pope’s letter called for the safe return of millions displaced by years of fighting, and the resumption of negotiations to seek a political solution to the conflict.

With hundreds of thousands killed, and many more maimed or wounded, more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and further afield. On top of that, some 6.6 million have been displaced within Syrian borders.

However, Turkey is failing to honor its commitments to Russia and others regarding curbing terrorist groups in Idlib. More shockingly, it is getting directly involved in militarily, technically and logistically supporting terrorists in recent battles in rural areas, Hama and Idlib, against the Syrian Army and its allies. A major military showdown looms in the offing; recent Russian statements that “Al Nusra cannot stay much longer in Idlib” increase the likelihood of a solution by force, should that be the only remaining option.

A Turkish businessman recently sent eight US-made tunnel digging machines across the border to Al Nusra, intended for building fortified bunkers and tunnels. During this time, the Vatican delegation arrived in the Syrian capital and met with the President, carrying an initiative:

“At the heart of this new initiative lies Pope Francis’ and the Holy See’s concern for the emergency humanitarian situation in Syria, in particular in Idlib Province,” Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said in a statement. On the other hand, Syrian state news agency SANA reported that President Assad had told Turkson that “it was important to put pressure on countries supporting terrorists.”

With military and political signs gaining momentum in recent days regarding an imminent and crucial battle to regain Idlib, unless an unlikely miracle takes place, envoys, letters and messengers can do very little to silence the guns and painful facts on the ground.