Today’s post is written by regular guest contributor, Edward Kendall. Tweet @Edward_Kendall.
It was former foreign secretary David Miliband who once said: “While there are military victories there never is a military solution.” Nowhere does this wise observation carry more weight than in discussions relating to the present conflict in Syria.
Today sees the official start of Geneva II, an international conference to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria. It is the culmination of a diplomatic initiative that began in May of last year with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreeing to try to “bring both sides to the table” to end the bloodshed. There is a helpful summary of the aims and hopes of Geneva II here.
Prior to today’s convening, some 30 church leaders from Syria and around the world gathered last week at the headquarters of the World Council of Churches (WCC) also in Geneva and called for substantial action to be taken at the talks to end the armed conflict.
In a message to be delivered to Geneva II by Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations-Arab League joint representative for Syria, the group which is convinced there is no military solution, said in the message that there needed to be “immediate cessation of all armed confrontation and hostility within Syria”, ensuring that “all vulnerable communities in Syria and refugees in neighboring countries receive appropriate humanitarian assistance” and that “a comprehensive and inclusive process toward establishing a just peace and rebuilding Syria” should be developed.
“There is no time to waste; enough people have died or had to leave their homes,” Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the WCC, said following the meeting.
“As churches we speak with one voice.”
The church leaders and representatives came from the Middle East, the Vatican, Russia, other European nations and the United States and included representatives from Syrian churches, the Middle East Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox, Protestants and Anglicans.
The meeting, called the Ecumenical Consultation on Syria and sponsored by the WCC, was held 15 to 17 January. It is a follow up to a similar meeting in September 2013 sponsored by the WCC which also included Brahimi and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
“We are representing the silent majority, the voice of the voiceless,” said Catholicos Aram I, head of the Holy See of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church, to Brahimi who consulted with the group on Thursday afternoon, 15 January.
“Your mission is not an easy one,” Aram continued. “It is a critical, crucial mission. You can be sure that you have our full support, the full support of all churches, the full support of the global Christian community.”
When asked what the church and others can do now about Syria, Brahimi said, churches can “mobilize international opinion, to condemn all that is bad in this situation and to support all that is good now.”
When describing the plans for the Geneva II talks, Brahimi said, “hopefully we will begin talking about peace and not war anymore. Our aspiration is that Syrians put an end to their war and start rebuilding their country.”
Brahimi also recognized the ongoing work of the churches when distributing humanitarian aid in the region, saying, “we are grateful that the actual material aid that you are providing, you are providing it without asking whether it is for a man, woman, child, believers, unbelievers or Muslims.” Earlier in the meeting he thanked the group for their encouragement and prayers.
“The people of Syria crying for just peace deserve results from the upcoming Geneva II talks,” Tveit said. “Let us continue to work and pray for the people of Syria.”
The meeting was accompanied by an ecumenical prayer held on the evening of 16 January, also joined by the members of the international community to express their solidarity with the people of Syria, expressing hopes for peace in the country.
The service drew attention to the great antiquity of the Christian presence in Syria, as well as the commitment on the part of Syria’s Christians to transform violence and oppression into reconciliation.
But returning to the Geneva II talks, the question on everybody’s mind is: will it be a success? The talks are already facing challenges by the fact that groups such as the National Coalition are insisting on too many preconditions (i.e. Assad’s removal from power and the release of political prisoners). History shows that the only realistic precondition for peace talks is a ceasefire; all the conditions of a peace agreement should be mooted during the talks, not before.
But despite the challenges the Geneva II talks are facing, Tveit said that he still “sees hope for peace and cessation of conflict” concerning which “the churches will continue with their efforts in every way possible to make a concrete contribution towards a process for peace and justice in Syria.”
Additionally Open Doors, who are working closely with religious and diplomatic partners to ensure that the voice of the Syrian church will be heard during the peace conference have asked for prayer that the WCC’s message will be well received and acted upon. They also request prayer that:
- the conference will lead to a just peace and an end to the crisis in Syria
- all delegates will prioritise the needs of the Syrian people above their own agendas
- the church in Syria will play an active role in these negotiations and in the rebuilding of their nation.
Syria’s population is a patchwork of different ethnic and religious groupings in which Christians form a significant minority of 8-10%. Most Christians do not want to take sides but instead are hoping and working for peace and freedom of religion. Moreover, the Syrian church believes it is called to play a vital role in rebuilding and reconciling a post-conflict Syria in the future. This is why Open Doors and others believe that it is essential for the voice of the church to speak into these negotiations.
The full WCC statement is here.