Members of a European delegation to the Middle East say they were surprised by what they heard from Christians there: support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and criticism of European policies affecting them.
Chredo assembled a 30-member delegation to visit the Middle East April 16-21, stopping in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The group included seven parliamentarians from France and three from other European countries, five journalists, three officials from other European NGOs and 12 Chredo members headed by Patrick Karam, a French lawyer of Lebanese origin.
"We came to this region having in mind a clear and specific goal: to inquire about Christians' situation on the ground in these countries and learn about their needs, suffering and the existential risks they are facing," Karam told Al-Monitor. "We came to try to understand how to help these indigenous communities in order to keep them steadfast in the homelands that have been the countries of origin for their ancestors for thousands of years and try to analyze the impact of French policies on these communities, be it positive or negative. This is what we sought to achieve through all of our meetings and our discussions during the entire tour."
The delegation attended more than 20 meetings in Beirut, Damascus and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It met with various political forces and government officials including Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and a large number of Christian officials in the three countries including clerics, laypeople and officials at NGOs and relief agencies.
Al-Monitor met with the delegation as a whole, as well as with some of its members separately and asked about the visit's reasons and outcomes.
"It is crystal clear that there is a tragedy that requires taking actions regarding the situation of Eastern Christians," said Elie Haddad, a member of the delegation and head of the Rally for Lebanon, the French division of the Lebanese Free Patriotic Movement. "This community seems to be totally disappearing from Iraq. Out of more than 2 million Iraqi Christians who used to be there prior to the recent Iraqi wars, only 350,000 are still present between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan. The majority of Christians we met in Erbil expressed their inclination toward leaving the country for good. The situation is catastrophic in Syria in light of the ongoing war. The emigration is continuous."
Haddad went on, "The Christian community in Lebanon still has all of the essentials for their existence. Yet it is encountering many difficulties, most notably the attempt to impose a president that does not represent Christians. The same applies to the election of Christian [parliament members]. This is added to the attempt to impose an electoral law that does not take into account their votes and will. In addition, they were deprived of the right to vote in parliamentary elections after the other Lebanese forces managed to extend parliament's mandate."
Haddad told Al-Monitor the delegation is concerned with how Christians are affected by politics, but the group itself is not politically motivated. He said, "Chredo is an NGO similar to the other organizations taking part in the delegation. Our move is not designed to serve a particular political agenda, which we were eager to show in the formation of the delegation, which includes parliamentarians from the various French political forces, be they pro-government or opposition forces. In addition, we were keen not to meet any government or political official in Syria, unlike our meetings in Erbil and Beirut. Our meetings in Syria were limited to a number of patriarchs and bishops, in addition to the [Sunni] Mufti of Syria Sheikh Ahmad Hassoun. We made visits to the historic Christian villages near Damascus, to Saidnaya and Maaloula, and met with the steadfast Christian population. We did this is to avoid being [seen as affiliated] with this or that party to the Syrian war."
He added, "We are [adamant] about our neutrality and the transparency of the image that we are seeking to form and convey to Paris."
Karam did not hide his surprise at what he heard from Christian clerics and laypeople in Damascus. "The delegation members heard from Syrian Christians a clear support for the rule in Damascus," Karam told Al-Monitor. "They consider that this rule is protecting their presence in their country. According to them, the opposition Islamist parties pose a threat to their lives as individuals and to their survival as a community in their homeland. They did not hide their support for [Assad] and confirmed that Assad's popularity has increased among [the Christian community] and the majority of Syrians after five years of war, particularly since terrorist groups are controlling the Syrian oppositions."
Haddad said, "In addition, Syria's Christians criticized European governments' policies, specifically French policy. They clearly told us that they expect us, as Europeans, to help them stay and be steadfast in their land — not to help terrorists [or] facilitate Christians' exodus from their homelands to Western countries."
Haddad added, "We have heard the same thing from the Sunni mufti of Syria in terms of the support for Assad, which surprised parliamentarians in the delegation. They will certainly convey it to parties that they represent in France."
This was the 14th French delegation to visit Damascus since the start of the unrest in Syria five years ago. Yet it is the first time that a French parliamentary delegation has visited these three countries in solidarity with Eastern Christians. This visit could be a sign of the start of a new approach to the events in the region.
The delegation members expressed their intention to form "a Lebanese or Eastern Christian lobby" in Paris to liaise with French authorities and represent Christians' interests in shaping French policies in the region. The Christians of Syria and Lebanon, they said, had expressed their opinion that French policymakers often take into account their country's economic interests in the oil-rich countries in the Gulf, rather than the interests of the Christians in these countries.