Catholic patriarch fears extremist slant of Syrian rebel groups

London, England, Oct 22, 2013 / 12:03 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch has said that the success of Syrian rebels could worsen the plight of Christians because of the extreme Islamist elements among the rebel forces.

“The extremists are against even the normal rebel opposition,” he said Oct. 16, according to the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph. “This is an issue for Muslims as well as Christians. I am not afraid of Islam, I am just afraid of chaos, which will allow these groups to play a very destructive role.”

The Patriarch of Antioch discussed the Syrian situation in an address to more than 300 benefactors of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need at an event last week at London’s Westminster Cathedral.

On Oct. 15 Syrian extremists planted two bombs at the old Cathedral of Constantine and Helena in Yabroud, a city 50 miles north of Damascus.

“It was a church before Christianity, it was a temple of Jupiter and converted, an old beautiful church,” said Patriarch Gregorios.

One of the bombs had been planted in the confessional. Both were discovered and disarmed. The attempted attack is part of the continuing civil war that has afflicted Syria since March 2011.

The conflict has killed over 110,000 people and has forced millions to flee their homes. At least 450,000 Christians have left the country or are internally displaced, including the patriarch’s family on his father’s side.

“Syria is experiencing a lengthy, bloody way of the cross, stretching along all the country’s roads,” the patriarch said. “A lot of our priests, our people, our relatives and friends have been kidnapped.”

Patriarch Gregorios said Christians are targeted because they are considered weak and a source of ransom, Aid to the Church in Need reports.

“You may think that it is safe here or unsafe there, but at any moment you may be killed by bomb, missile or bullet, not to mention being kidnapped or taken hostage for ransom, or murdered,” he said.

The bombs were planted at the cathedral despite the $35,000 Christians in Yabroud have paid in protection money each month since 2012. Yabroud, the patriarch explained, is controlled both by opposition troops and by “jihadists.”

“…the opposition is okay, but jihadists are something else,” he said.

Kidnapping and financial extortion, he added, are severe problems facing the Christian population.

Patriarch Gregorios noted last months’ attack at Maaloula, a town 35 miles northwest of Damascus, where Islamist rebels tried to force Christians to convert to Islam. In the aftermath of the attack, many villagers are still missing and all the residents have fled.

Six Red Cross relief workers were reportedly abducted by gunmen Oct. 13 near Saraqib, about 35 miles southwest of Aleppo, in a region largely controlled by the Free Syrian Army, an opposition group.

According to SANA, media outlet of the Assad regime, the kidnapping was carried out by “terrorist” rebels. As of Oct. 14, three of the six were found, though the whereabouts of the remaining workers are still unknown.

Patriarch Gregorios emphasized that many ordinary Muslims had also suffered. He said Syria has historically had harmonious relations between the faiths. He said most jihadists in the conflict have come from outside Syria.

Syria’s Christians have tended to support the Syrian government, led by President Bashar Assad. The president and much of his government adheres to the Alawite branch of Shiite Islam, while the rebel forces tend to be Sunni Muslims.

Patriarch Gregorios downplayed claims that Christians show favoritism.

“Some people are saying that we Christians are the friends of the regime, but we are not, we are just ordinary Syrians, and we pray for all,” he said. “Besides, even if we are for the regime, that is our right as free people.”

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