This interview with H.E. Saba Esber, Antiochian Orthodox Metropolitan-Archbishop of Bosra, Horan and Jabal al-Arab appeared in the Syrian magazine al-Haqiqa. Arabic original here.
Note: Archdiocese of Bosra, Horan and Jabal al-Arab is located in the south west of Syria
English translation courtesy of the blog Notes on Arab Orthodoxy
Your Eminence, the Syrian crisis or catastrophe is approaching the end of its third year. What is your analysis of this crisis? Where is it taking us?
Throughout history, the Levant is a region over which great empires have competed and struggled. This has been the case since the 13th century BC. All the powers that have passed through the Middle East have had a presence here and have interacted with the place. With the start of the modern era, the western powers have not deviated from this rule. When Europe arose from its slumber, it came to this region and colonized it, and this continues to be the case in various ways and through diverse means.
Externally, if we follow the development of this region's security and political situation over its modern history, at the very least since the beginning of the nineteenth century, or especially from the Balfour Declaration until today, we notice that the colonialist political plan does not want prosperity or stability for Arab region in general or for the Levant in particular. Internally, we notice that the concept of the nation has not sufficiently been absorbed by the majority of the population of the Arab world. The life-span of the nation-state in the modern sense is very short in our country. It was born in 1920. For a long time, the Middle Eastern citizen became accustomed to life in a country without boundaries, to living with the concept of the state as umma rather than the nation-state. For this reason you see his attachment to tribe, clan, family or sect stronger than his attachment to the nation, and private benefit stronger than public benefit. This dialectic in the Arab nation was not treated appropriately, going back to various causes that this discussion can't go into. The lack of experience and the short life-span of the nation in the modern sense and that Arab-Israeli struggle are among the chief reasons. There have been many movements that have sought to establish a modern state wherein a person lives according to the principle of true citizenship, but they have not suceeded in achieving the least of their goals. It is very difficult for this region to remain in peace and to realize what it desires so long as Israel continues to exist, along with the political, military, and religious struggles that it creates.
Three years ago, at the start of the Arab Spring, those who said that the revolutions of the Arab Spring contained deception for the Arab peoples were castigated. There are those who have exploited the need of these peoples for freedom, dignity and self-determination, in order to turn what was called a Spring into destruction for the extant countries, with the goal of partitioning them. No one denies the peoples' right to development. This right has become legitimate in contemporary culture and one of the most basic human rights. It is the right of every human being to live with real dignity, but the path to realizing this goal was fraught with dangers. The scene has now become clear. It was a game of right substituted with falsehood. The external aspect has become clear and we are faced with a very complicated situation. Our emerging from this ordeal depends on the major international powers and is not only internal?!
Nothing in history lasts forever. All the travails experienced by the peoples come to an end. In our Syrian case, the burning question is: when and how? I see in the tormented souls and eyes of the people a cry for salvation and an eagerness to emerge from this ordeal as soon as possible. Along with everyone, I hope for salvation, the realization of the common good and the hopes of this good people, so that it can play its role in this great nation in the purest and loftiest way. This hope is what constantly propels us to not despair and to constructive work for the good of the nation and its people. With all those who are conscientious, we look forward to a better future, a brighter tomorrow and a more beautiful Syria.
How has this crisis impacted the social fabric of Syria in general and of the South in particular?
I'd like to begin with a medical analogy. The immune system differs between one person and another. There are some people with fortified bodies and strong immunities against diseases and others with weak bodies that collapse immediately whenever any disease inters them. In the country, there are those who have proven that they posses a high level of patriotic immunity, there are those who appear to be quickly influenced by the flux of the situation and there are those who are between the two to varying degrees. This ordeal has revealed the positive face of the Syrian people, possessors of a long history of civilization and the birthplace of the first alphabet. There is still exists cooperation among citizens, consciousness and true harmony. Otherwise, the country would have completely collapsed. What we palpably know of harmonious life among Syrians transcends the tragedies and allows for optimism about passing through this ordeal.
Up to this day, at the height of the conflict, we find abundant examples of every element of society coming together to contribute to cooperation, building up and overcoming barriers. This nourishes hope and banishes the specter of despair. In this regard I have some criticism for the media in general, both locally and internationally. They do not sufficiently show the beautiful face of Syrian society. Instead they focus on the tragedies and atrocities that might afflict people more, but the media must be constructive and not provocative. This allows us to say all the attempts that have been made for years and until now with a view to creating an unbridgeable rift between elements of this society have only partially succeeded. We must distinguish between those who have been impacted and whose immunity has easily collapsed and those who have been impacted due to proximate causes, such as being in certain regions and being in need of the daily necessities of life, or being motivated by oriental sentiment.... etc.
Christians are a basic element of society in Syria and its environs. Do you believe that one of the goals of what has been happening for years is the expulsion of Christians from the region?
Since I became aware of this world we have been hearing of the existence of a desire and a plan to expel them and to make this country monochrome. What is happening on the territory of the Arab countries until today permits us to accept these words. What happened during and after the American invasion of Iraq made clear the truth of these words and provoked great fears. Before 2003, many people did not agree and said that we have no definitive proof. But now the picture isn't this way for the majority that continues to refuse to emigrate. We have been watching what has been happening from 1967 until today and we notice a decline in the proportion and numbers of Christians in the Arab nation. Emigration and expulsion are among the chief reasons for this decline. However, we must not forget that the increase in births among non-Christians and the opposite among Christians is the most important factory in the reduction of their proportion in the population. This contributes to changing the culture of their countries and also encourages emigration.
Since the time of their foundation at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Arab countries have not arrived at treating individuals within society on equal footing. The concept of citizenship has not entered into collective consciousness for many of the countries that established constitutions, to say nothing of the countries that essentially do not have a constitution. Syria was one of the first countries to try to come close to the principle of citizenship in the constitution, but the lesson is in the application. Hence I will say that if Syria is able to get out of this ordeal and the horror of the current tragedy, she will be the example that revives hope in every corner of the Arab nation and awakens its peoples.
Is it possible for you to imagine a Syria without Christians?
It is very hard for me to imagine Syria without Christians. At that point it would not be the same Syria that has been known over the course of history. It is hard, to not say impossible, for Syria to be monochromatic. Her civilization and her history are greater than the current difficulties and horrors. We hope to strive in Syria for a nation of equal citizenship, so that the blood that was shed and the destruction that has happened will not be in vain. May the new Syria be a nation of law, citizenship and civil rights, which brings together all her children in equality, freedom, dignity and civilization befitting the Syrians who have carried the banner of civilization through history.
The Archdiocese has an important social and humanitarian role in the region. How have you faced the crisis in practice through this role?
From the beginning of the crisis, we directed our children and our parishes to be bridges between all members of society and to avoid insularity, fear and isolation. We told them that what is happening in this country is against you just as it is against others, and you are required to protect it. When the tragedy began to be obvious with the arrival of refugees, we hurried to establish charitable humanitarian activity, which had already existed in basic form. We established centers in Dera, Ezra and Sweida to serve refugees throughout the territory of the archdiocese. We established aid centers and other centers for psychological, health and social rehabilitation and we cooperated with agencies working to provide food and necessary emergency supplies to wherever they were necessary but difficult to reach. We are undertaking this activity because it is our religious and patriotic duty and because of our belief that it contributes to solidifying the deeply-rooted Syrian tradition based on common life among all members of society.
Syria in general and the South in particular are distinguished by their religious diversity which has shaped conditions of enrichment and brotherhood. Do you fear that the crisis will impact this diversity? Is there coordination with the other spiritual organizations in order to preserve this diversity?
We hope that we will not drown in the current moment. The tragedies that are occurring today on the Syrian scene are not the true and ultimate image. We hope that this war will not have an impact on the beautiful diversity that exists in Syrian society. We should warn of the impending dangers to our Syrian nation and our Syrian society which has always been distinctive. Before the outbreak of this tragedy, we had contact with all and afterwards we worked to increase coordination. Naturally, the level of cooperation different from one region to another. However, we find good people in all places and we are trying to constantly work and cooperate in service for the good of the country and of people. This is not something new for Syrians.
We stress that we are all in one boat and preserving it is everyone's responsibility.
What do you say to Syrians in this ordeal that the nation is going through?
All nations have passed through very difficult periods. However, in my humble opinion the catastrophe has been more difficult in Syria. However, history tells us that many dark times have passed over Syria before, but she got out of them. Darkness doesn't last. The dawn always follows. Despite the horror of what is happening in Syria, Syrians must not forget the greatness and authenticity of their country and their make-up. We must not drown in the current moment. Rather, we must insist on holding fast to our patriotic, spiritual and civilizational principles. Syrians have become examples of steadfastness, fortitude and unity. Perhaps those who know this will transmit the flame of true humanitarian civilization to all the other peoples and teach them the meaning of patience, strength, resistance, freedom and citizenship, just as they brought letters and the alphabet to the world in ancient times.