(CNSNews.com) – Leaders of Britain’s largest churches are calling for a special focus this weekend on the civil war in Syria, as the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby encourages people to ask their members of parliament “to think very carefully about the wisdom” of introducing more weapons into the conflict.
Growing awareness of the particular difficulties faced by Christians in the civil war comes amid ongoing debate in Western countries about arming anti-Assad rebels. Some Arab Gulf states already have been doing so for more than a year, while the regime is supported by Russia, Iran and its Hezbollah ally in Lebanon.
Welby, the titular head of the world’s Anglican (Episcopalian) church, made the comment at a meeting hosted by the religious freedom advocacy group Open Doors U.K. and Ireland, which launched a petition and special report highlighting the plight of Syria’s Christian minority.
“It’s absolutely clear that Christians in Syria are being persecuted,” he said. “We know for example that in many areas of Aleppo – historic Christian areas since the first century – people are being chased out in large numbers.
“I would encourage people to pray very strongly, continue to pray and to support this kind of campaign, and to write to MPs asking them to think very carefully about the wisdom of supplying further weapons to an area of such complex and extreme violence.”
Welby pledged to share “what I have said to you today” with government figures when he meets with them.
His concerns about providing weapons echo those expressed earlier by two leading Catholic bishops in the U.S., who in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry wrote that sending more arms into the conflict zone “simply increases the lethality of the violence and contributes to the suffering of the Syrian people.”
The Obama administration said a month ago it will arm vetted rebels but has run into hurdles in Congress, where concerns range from the commitment being too small to worries that the weapons will end up in the hands of jihadists, including militants linked to al-Qaeda. White House and State Department spokesmen said Wednesday consultation would continue.
The British government, having successfully pushed for the European Union to allow its Syria arms embargo to lapse, is mulling its options. The House of Commons on Thursday passed a symbolic motion requiring the government to seek its “explicit prior consent” to any future decision to arm the rebels.
On Friday, a special Mass will be held in London’s Westminster Cathedral for the Syrian community and all those suffering the effects of the civil war.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, urged Catholics to offer prayers focusing on humanitarian needs and for political leaders to move quickly towards holding a postponed Geneva summit aimed at resolving the conflict.
He also asked Catholics to offer practical support where possible, through relief agencies working with refugees and internally displaced Syrians.
The (Anglican/Episcopalian) Church of England has also issued special prayers for this weekend. Bishop Stephen Platten, who chairs the church’s liturgical commission, called on Christians whatever their denomination to pray for peace in Syria and give practical support to the humanitarian relief effort.
“The international community must redouble its efforts in breaking the diplomatic impasse and in meeting the humanitarian costs of the conflict,” he said. “It is high time that we saw peace, security and stability restored in Syria.”
‘Leave or die’
In its new report, Open Doors examined the complex situation facing Syrian Christians, who are often pressured to leave Syria – as many have – and are also vulnerable to kidnapping for ransom.
It quoted one church leader as describing in an interview last April a situation in one Christian-Muslim town that is home to about 7,000 Christian families. “And from the minarets they told the Christians to leave, otherwise they would be slaughtered one by one.”
Like other Syrians, many Christians are displaced inside the country, while others are refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere. The report quoted a Christian worker as saying Christians are reluctant to go into refugee camps, “because of fear of sectarian violence and the wellbeing of their female population (forced prostitution, rape etc.)”
Christians also face pressure to take sides in the conflict. Some have either joined pro-Assad militia or rebel units, but many are reluctant to take sides between what a Syrian pastor outside the country described as “two evils.”
One Open Doors fieldworker explained that rebels regard minorities who don’t support the opposition as traitors – even if they don’t support the regime either.
“The indications are that as the conflict has become more sectarian in character, there are increasing signs of Christians being targeted by both sides, and for both political and religious reasons,” the report said.
It said most Syrian Christians are Greek Orthodox Church (around 500,000 members), Armenian Orthodox (up to 160,000 members) and Syriac Orthodox (about 90,000 members.) Among other denomination is a small evangelical community and a small number of converts from Islam. (Syria’s population is around 22.4 million, of whom more than 1.5 million are refugees according to the U.N.)
The release of the report coincides with the launch of a global petition, urging “all those who have influence over events in Syria” to take steps including stopping assaults, kidnapping, torture and killing of Christians by extremist and criminal groups, safeguarding their right to worship in peace, and making it possible for them to live in safety or return safely to their homes, without fear of violence.
“We are convinced that it is timely and vitally necessary to urge all those who have influence over events in Syria to consider carefully the impact of their actions on the people of Syria, and not least those who belong to a vulnerable and increasingly targeted religious minority,” Open Doors said.
“The Middle East is in the midst of an enormous upheaval. The Christian church, which originated in this area, is facing destruction by exile. The massive exodus, prompted by the war in Iraq and reinforced by events in Egypt, is being accelerated by the conflict in Syria.”