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Who will join Pope Francis in standing up for Syria’s Christians?

We must demand that our moralising, ineffectual political leaders take action

By on Thursday, 12 September 2013

Pope Francis led a vigil to pray for peace in Syria in St Peter's Square last weekend (CNS)

Pope Francis led a vigil to pray for peace in Syria in St Peter's Square last weekend (CNS)

Slandering your opponents is the default mechanism of those who have lost an argument. The tactic is old, often effective, and always pernicious. It is now being deployed against those who oppose military intervention in Syria. MPs who rejected David Cameron’s attempt to bounce Britain into another war in the Middle East were described by Downing Street as “giving succour” to the Syrian regime. The Prime Minister has since warned that MPs must live with their consciences for failing to “stand against the gassing of children”.

The abuse has a purpose: it is to shame Parliament into a new vote to get Britain involved. That is still the intention, however the latest Russian-backed chemical weapons plan develops.

So what can those who believe that military intervention in Syria is wrong now do? The first requirement is to strengthen the resolve of MPs to stick by their decision. There may or may not emerge compelling evidence that chemical weapons were used by President Assad’s regime against its enemies. The use of these weapons, particularly against civilians, is a revolting act. But it could not change the basic calculation of whether western military intervention is justified. Here the criteria are clear, and they are altered neither by Mr Cameron’s emoting nor by alleged loss of national “influence”.

Catholics possess a fuller understanding of what constitutes a Just War than do non-Catholics. But the principles, being based on the natural law, are universally binding, and, as the strength of British public opposition to intervention suggests, they are very widely grasped. In the present case, it is clear that three of the key conditions listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church are unfulfilled. It is, for example, not possible to claim that “all other means of putting an end to [the conflict]… have been shown to be impractical or ineffective”. Reconsideration by external parties to the conflict – notably the US and Russia – and their exertion of pressure on the internal parties to compromise is neither impossible nor unthinkable, as the latest developments show. So the condition is not met.

Equally necessary to a Just War is that, “there must be serious prospects of success”. But what would “success” in this case be? A limited missile strike would not overturn the Syrian regime, nor would it destroy all chemical weapons. Insofar as it weakened the regime’s control over those weapons, it would make them more, not less likely to be used, especially by the Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists, who form the military core of the opposition.

Third, “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated”. That is the single most important reason to oppose military intervention. The US estimate of 1,429 people killed in the likely chemical weapons attack of August 21 must be compared with the 100,000 killed in the conflict so far. More than two million have fled Syria entirely. Western intervention will only foment more violence and increase, not diminish, those figures.

Some people oppose intervention in Syria simply because they do not think that it is Britain’s business. They reckon that the British Government should concentrate on domestic priorities. And they have a point. But for many others that is not the only, or even principal, consideration – which is moral. Those who propose to use lethal force must prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. The military interventionists have not done that; and it is why they choose, instead, to belittle their opponents as heartless egotists.

The Prime Minister is, however, right in one respect. Even if Britain keeps out of the Syrian war, we have a moral duty to cope with the consequences. That obligation is especially binding on British Christians. Our co-religionists are more threatened, and less defended, than any other group. Mr Cameron has promised that Britain “will lead the world” in getting humanitarian aid through to Syrian refugees. He must be held to that pledge and also made to ensure that it gets to Syria’s beleaguered Christians. As things stand, this will not happen.

Neither America nor Britain has expressed the slightest concern for the horrors which Syria’s indigenous two million Christians, and the many more that fled there from Iraq, are facing. Day after day the evidence of persecution, intimidation, kidnapping, murder and religious “cleansing” accumulates. But nothing is said, and nothing is done.

At the G20 summit Mr Cameron called for humanitarian aid corridors to be opened up. But no effort is being made to ensure a corridor into Aleppo, where a large Christian minority is trapped within the city by rebel forces intent on starving them and other victims into submission. The Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo describes “people that run endlessly with bags in their hand, trying to find a bit of bread”. Mr Cameron should be pressed to fill those bags.

But who will do the pressing? Indeed, who will speak up for the Middle East’s Christians? One answer, of course, is Pope Francis, whose pleas for peace have reverberated far beyond St Peter’s Square. But other voices are needed. That is especially so in Britain, where most Christians, and indeed most Catholics, seem paralysed by pessimism, timidity and good manners.

Where is the committee of public figures and Church leaders demanding that the security of Middle East Christians be preserved, their rights upheld and their claims to refugee status taken seriously? Why are not the Churches with significant numbers of faithful in Syria demanding to be involved in humanitarian aid distribution? Many Christians do not register as refugees because they fear conscription in the camps into rebel forces. But the local churches know where and who they are.

In Iraq international aid did not get to the Christians because others diverted it. That must not happen in Syria. A special envoy from the Vatican could perhaps be appointed to coordinate the direction of such relief.

Pope Francis has spoken movingly of the “ecumenism of suffering”. Western Christians, witnessing the Calvary of the churches of the East, should heed his words. And they should also speak forceful words to their moralising, but morally illiterate political leaders.

Robin Harris is a former member of Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street Policy Unit

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 13/9/13