Aleppo's Franciscan bishop administers to his flock and internally displaced Syrians from behind government lines. Georges Abou Khazen has called for an end to embargoes and a unified fight against "Islamic State."
In 2013, amid some of the heaviest fighting of Syria's civil war, Georges Abou Khazen was appointed Franciscan bishop of Aleppo. He began working in the country's most populous city in 2004, after previously having served in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Aleppo's Franciscan mission and hospital are located in a government-controlled area of the city, and Khazen makes it clear that he feels something of a debt to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for its protection. "I don't want to use 'the regime,'" Khazen said at one point in a long discussion of what he has observed from inside protected territory during the five years of the war so far. "I say 'government' - the Syrian people."
The conversation between Khazen and DW has been condensed and edited below.
DW: Can you describe how the war began from your perspective?
Georges Abou Khazen: We didn't expect war. When it started, we stayed about one year in Aleppo without anything. It was quiet and natural, and then things started worsening, the city was completely surrounded, factories and everything were destroyed and the machinery stolen and sold in Turkey. ... And the population started suffering - fear and death, destruction.
What is the role of a bishop in times of conflict?
A bishop is a pastor, and the pastor has to be always with his people. Our first job is to stay with our people, to give them hope and strength, because many people are leaving because of the situation. We told them, "OK, you can do what God aspires for you, but we are with you, and we shall stay with you." And then we try to help with humanitarian aid, and we give much humanitarian aid - in food, for hospitalization, for electricity. We are without electricity, and now we have it for two or three hours a day, but there is a big generator and, if you want some electricity, you have to pay for it weekly. So we help those poor people to have electricity in their own house. We are often without water, so we help them to have water, and especially we have daily bombing and apartments that are destroyed and everything, so we help those poor families to repair their houses, or to find another house, another apartment.
Does your work with people of other faiths or other faith groups?
We help mostly people of the church, but not only people of the church. We help many of the non-Christians. We help them, especially the refugees, because in our quarters we have had many, many refugees, and we help them, too, but we can't help everybody and we can't do everything. ...
Islam in Syria is very moderate and very open, and we cooperated with each other and continue to. All Christians in Aleppo live in the quarter under the government's control, and many Muslims do, too, so more and more we are cooperating together.
In 2014, "Islamic State" (IS) gained prominence in Syria. How have things changed?
Islamic State means no civilization, no history, nothing - only killing. Where Islamic State has arrived, especially [in areas] with minorities and moderate Muslims, what did they do? They killed the men and sold women and children as slaves.
You have publicly supported Russia's intervention against IS and other groups.
During almost two years, the United States and 60 allies said they were fighting the Islamic State, but meanwhile the Islamic State occupied 50 percent of Syria and had the control of 9 million people in Iraq and in Syria. When we had the Russian intervention, in two months the Islamic State has lost 25 percent of the territory it occupied, and the control of the people went from 9 million to 6 million-something now. We appreciate the Russian intervention, not for the military action, but for its role in pushing the parties to dialogue together, and if we are in Geneva, it is thanks to Russia. Not only that - there is something happening inside Syria and for us it's very important, an internal reconciliation.
So far more than 500 villages and towns have reconciled: People are back, people are turning back to their lands and homes, and they have opened schools. The schools that were closed for five years, they started opening in January and February. So we have many generations without anything and now they are starting again, thanks to the Russian intervention and its pushing, and we really hope to arrive at a pacific solution, something with all the parties.
The Syrian army has just entered the province of Raqqa for the first time since IS captured it and declared it their capital in 2014
You've made a number of statements that seem to support the government, as well.
We don't defend a person or regime - we defend Syria ... and the pluralistic way that it is: 23 different ethnic and religious groups. We live together in peace, peacefully, just like a beautiful, beautiful mosaic. That's what we want. We don't want a Syria of only one color, a black color.
What is the nonmilitary role of the international community?
We thank Europe, we thank Germany for receiving the refugees, but what we ask really is to help us stay in our country and for them to be back in their country. And to do that in Syria, we need peace, so don't give us weapons, don't sell weapons, please: Push for peace, for negotiation, for a dialogue. That's what we want. Syria has lost the best of her sons, the younger people, cultivated people, prepared people. ...
Under Islamic State, nobody shall be back, even the Muslims, and you shall have more refugees and more confusion, believe me, believe me. If Syria is divided, it shall be the same thing, and more and more and refugees, but if we have a modern Syria, moderate Syria, pluralistic Syria - most of the people want that - many of our refugees will be back, because Syria is a rich country, a very rich country, so it may assure the welfare of all its inhabitants. ...
Lift the embargo on Syria. The embargo is really a crime - a crime against humanity. What Obama said in Cuba, about the sanctions, the embargo: He said it was wrong. And now they repeat it, and who suffers? It's not the high-ranking people or the government or the other groups. They can get weapons from every side and even from Europe, sending weapons for everybody, but who is suffering are the poor people, the poor people, in everything.