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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

  • Jonathan West

    Catholics possess a fuller understanding of what constitutes a Just War than do non-Catholics.


  • aspiring lay capuchin

    To answer your question in the title – Surpisingly it will be the non-Christian countries like Russia, Iran and China sir

  • Johnny

    I will certainly join the Holy Father. Anyone know the flight schedule for Damascus? Preferably from Gatwick.

  • Kim

    Our western leaders, don’t give a dim for the sake of Christians in Middle East.
    Rich dictatorships like Saudi Arabia ( where christians are not allowed ), are the main concern of political leaders .
    Christian constituencies in the West continue sleeping, so, no problem with what Pope Francis may say.
    On the other hand, anything that may help expansionist zionism is O.K.
    Anybody cares for chemical warfare and nuclear weapons kept in Negev desert ?.
    Certainly no U.S. Govt.
    They keep silent as usual.

  • $28180339

    No one.
    Peaceful Syrian Christians are not the “loud mouths” like the Islamic terrorists & do not offer products or services useful to the secular governments.———-Shame on these governments!

  • Mike

    Remarkable that Russia and Vladimir Putin are defending Syria’s Christians / just war, and the US and its allies are not. You’d think it should be the West that needs consecrating, not the Ruskies.

  • Laurence England

    Answer comes today: Vladimir Putin

  • la Catholic state

    We must continue to pray for the conversion of Russia… Our Lady asked the 3 children of Fatima.

    I’m so glad the Pope is weighing in on Syria. It’s amusing the way his efforts are strenuously ignored by the mainstream media…..unless I’m missing something. And it seems the blood of Western leaders run completely cold on the subject of Syrian Christians. And that means we Western Christians have to make up for our leader’s chilling indifference. Who needs them anyhow….if only we organise ourselves….by the help of the Holy Spirit.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    We should offer to take some Syrian Christian refugees in the UK, as Germany have done.

    Or is that something your conscience won’t allow either, Mr Cameron?

  • Nancy

    I think we are beyond the Fatima concern as Russia is 90 plus percent Orthodox, there is freedom of religion,
    the Berlin wall is down, Putin seems to have the only smart, peaceful and level
    head in the room, and he wears a cross 24/7. Can you see anything better with
    our own leader/s? Meanwhile our country is responsible for deaths of countless numbers of
    people thru Iran revoluton, Korean War, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya…..
    If there are problems in the world, the US only has to look in the mirror for a cause.
    Pray, Pray, Pray!

  • Nancy


  • head on the ground

    Asad did not do the bombings. A UK arms dealer has sold chemical weapons to the Free Syrian army.
    Why would Asad use chemical weapons on the Sunni Muslims when his wife is Sunni? Would he gas his wife’s people? Don’t be ridiculous and stupid same time!You call others stupid but it is you who are exhibiting your stupidity on this website.
    What would he go back and tell his wife, “Honey I just gave orders to gas your own people. How long you think his marriage will last if he did that?
    JA JA stop behaving like a child with a low IQ.
    Grow up and please don’t be seduced by Israeli and Qatari propaganda.

    Thank the Muslim and Christian Gods there is NO WAR. Obama BLINKED and Russia gave him an excuse to SAVE HIS FACE. This is high ranking diplomacy!

  • Suriani

    Christians in the ME feel abandoned. They have seen two Christian leaders, Bush and Blair, seem unconcerned by the destruction of Christianity in Iraq. They see their successors, also claiming to be Christian, intellectually distance themselves from the specific plight of Christians in Egypt and Syria. It is as if they are a side issue. The current brouhaha over chemical weapons while conventional weapons are doing the real damage appears surreal. Syria is unlikely to recover from this war as a united state. Ethnicity will ineluctably reshape the area. Christians must have a place. A Christian state in the ME should not be ruled out. Christians ought not to be forced to leave to survive. The cost of exile means the end of unique cultures. But politicians are not interested in such fine detail.

  • $28180339

    Putin is a very good politician. He doesn’t care about the Syrian Christians (I hope I’m wrong.) only the pipeline going from Russia to Iran to Syria. His personally received, pope’s letter is an added bonus to his cause.

  • buckingham88

    Perhaps this would be better phrased’ some Catholics possess a fuller understanding of what constitutes a just war than non Catholics and some do not’
    But then I think what is being expressed is ‘those who,have read the catechism of the Catholic Church have a ‘fuller understanding’ of a Just War than those who have not.I don’t necessarily agree with that.

    The then leader of the Australian opposition, now prime Minister made the point that Australia had no ‘assets’ in the Syrian area and had no need to intervene militarily.
    He went on to say that any military response must be proportionate and measured.
    It appears that the winds have changed as far as Australia is concerned and a far cry from the ‘coalition of the willing’.
    I note your conclusion about Catholics is presumably based on the Blair assent to invade a sovereign power on the assumption of WMD being present, which was based on disinformation and lack of judgement.
    The Catholic PM of Australia has not made that mistake.

  • la Catholic state

    True….but we cannot bligthly ignore Our Lady’s request. Once Russia was a brutal atheistic state… it is more Christian than the West (which really isn’t saying a lot). Who would have thought that. But we must continue to pray for it. Great things will come from it.

  • la Catholic state

    I think Putin is culturally attached to Christianity….and to his credit he has said he wants to help persecuted Christians. Can you imagine any Western European leader saying that?!

    I wonder will the Catholic PM of Australia wear his care for his co-religionists so nobly on his sleeve?! I hope Im wrong….but I doubt it.

  • jock

    of course it goes without saying that the Christians are abandoned. No one thinks of them. When Iraq was invaded the first people to feel the head were the Christians. Churches were bombed by the USA. Priests were killed, nuns were allegedly raped.

    On Syria, the Free Syrian Army is supposed to have killed 2 Catholic priest with their knives – meaning they died slowly or may even have been decapitated. And Obama wanted to bomb to side with them. 2 term President and he still knows little of International Relations Lucky the Russians came in. Otherwise he would have started World War 3. Its would not have been a slam dunk.

  • la Catholic state

    I hope and I pray for a Christian state in Syria. The Pope must forment its formation if possible. God Willing.

  • jock

    During the Soviet era, the Russian Orthodox church still existed. The priest were not jailed in some GULAG.
    Even Stalin trained at an Russian Orthodox seminary until he found a more earthly calling. He proudly told his mother that he had become the Commisar of the Communist Party. Then he had to explain to her what a Commisar did. To which she replied, “I would have much preferred if you had become a priest” (its recounted in the early part of the book – chapter 1? – Hitler and Stalin writted by Lord Bullock

  • la Catholic state

    Christians were arrested for praying. I have a little book written by a Lithuanian woman who was sentenced to 10 years hard labour in Siberia…..for organising prayer meetings. She died in prison from overwork at the age of 34 just before she was due to be released. Her cause is being considered by the Vatican.
    Her little prayer book is called ‘Mary Save Us’ and is printed by CTS.

  • agent.provocateur

    Are you kidding me???????
    Hundreds of thousands (if not milions) of Orhtodox Christians were persecuted, imprisoned or killed under Communism rule in Russia.

  • agent.provocateur

    Russia is NOT the Christian country????

  • pm

    What has ‘zionism’ to do with Christians being murdered (again) by Muslims? You don’t seem to have a problem with the fact that no other religions are welcome in Saudi Arabia. It’s OK for them to be so bigoted. IF there are any chemical weapons and nuclear weapons in Israel, they’ll stay there. Safe and sound. Unless the Arabs and Muslims decide to attack using their own first.

  • cjkeeffe

    Certainly not the UK or USA or France.

  • Miriam

    This is the best article I have read on the horrendous persecutions and unimaginable sufferings of Christians in Syria and Iraq.
    YES, WHERE ARE ALL THOSE “GOOD CATHOLICS”, with influence in society; politicians, journalists, writers, professors, artists, ordinary lay people?
    I NEVER hear catholics in a parish talk about theses horrors. Afraid of the cake during coffe after Mass on Sunday getting stuck in their throats?
    At least, TALK ABOUT THESE MASS MURDERS, even if you have no direct influence.
    Politicians MUST act NOW!
    Remember how the West hurried to the aid of perscuted moslems in Bosnia, around 20 years ago? They didn’t hesitate then.
    Cameron and many other politicians in Europe will otherwise give us the impression of hating christians. As well as hating their own christian heritage.

  • Paul

    Why don’t you just change the teaching on Just war? A pacifist church would change the world