Monsignor Chahane Sarkissian witnessed first-hand the Battle of Aleppo from its beginning in July 2012 to the intense fighting under siege of Syrian and Russian forces that led to its end on 22 December 2016.
Only about a third of the 45,000 Armenian Christians lived in the city before the conflict began remain today, and Sarkissian described how those who stayed are rebuilding their lives and encouraging others to return.
“We are trying our best to open the schools and then the small and medium businesses to give the Armenian community the possibility to continue there, instead of leaving as refugees to other places, including other parts of the world,” he said.
“We are the people of this country, not just as Christian communities at an ecumenical level, but also with the Muslims. The majority of the population of Syria is Muslim, but we live with them, and we hope to continue our life inside the city and the country.”
Hope for the future of Syria’s Christians
Armenians have lived among Muslims and other faiths in Syria for more than 700 years, although the overall numbers of Christians in the country as elsewhere in the region has been declining since even before the civil war began.
“We cannot close our eyes, saying everything is going well. It’s not the case, but we are trying our best, and we have hope that once the diplomatic and political solution is there, we can reorganise,” Sarkissian said.
With the rise of fundamentalist groups including al Qaeda and its affiliates as well as the Islamic State armed group doing little to reassure religious minorities, Sarkissian stressed that the future of Christians in the region meant confronting the idea that these groups represent what people really want.
“The Muslims would prefer the Christians to stay, because they give them the opportunity of multicultural life, instead of having fundamentalist attitudes in the cities and regions of Muslim majority,” he said.
Christians and Muslims resisting extremism together
The Archbishop’s visit to Paris was organised by the Coordination of Eastern Christians in Danger (Chredo), a French NGO whose outreach activities show many Christians and other faiths are critical of Western policies on the Syrian conflict, especially French ones.
While acknowledging its shortcomings, many Christians in Syria see the government of President Bashar al Assad as providing stability for their communities, as opposed to extremists that form a considerable part of the rebels, and they also want Western governments to help them stay in their homelands instead of facilitating the exodus to Western countries.
Chredo already welcomed Archbishop Sarkissian in France last February, when he attested that sharing humanitarian aid brought some of Aleppo’s Christians and Muslims closer through the conflict, as an example of how different faiths living in proximity can prevent the rise of extremists.
“A politicised attitude concerning the situations of different countries and especially the Middle East is harming the realities of the situations taking place there,” he said on Wednesday, arguing that effective interfaith dialogue meant resisting some of the terms used to describe the conflict in the Western world.
“With war in Iraq and Syria, we often hear the expression ‘Islamic terrorism’. It is not Islamic terrorism: terrorism has no faith, no belief in God, and the killing of people is not acceptable to any religion,” he said. “As a Christian archbishop, I prefer not to use this expression, which harms relations and dialogues between the different communities.”
Archbishop Sarkissian was to return to Aleppo on Thursday to continue the efforts to rebuild the city, and expressed hope that his visit raised some understanding about the challenges facing Armenians and others.
“I hope that my visit to Europe gave the opportunity to speak about what I think is the reality inside the country and the social situation of the Syrian population, without differentiation according to whether people are Christians, Muslims, different communities, etcetera.”