Archbishop Shahan Sarkissian: "We are not against Muslims"

Mélinée Le Priol
Translated by Vartan Matiossian 

In a visit to France, the prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of Aleppo offers a message of reconciliation for a "renewed" Syria.

- What represents the Armenian community in Syria, particularly in Aleppo?
His Eminence Shahan Sarkissian: The presence of Armenians in Syria goes back to the thirteenth century. During the genocide perpetrated by the Turks in 1915, Syria was their final destination, and many survivors remained there afterwards. Before the explosion of the Syrian crisis in 2011, there were 80,000 Armenians in Syria, of which 45,000 in Aleppo. This town is considered the capital of Syrian Armenians. Today, 30,000 Armenians are said to remain in Syria, with half of them in Aleppo. 

- To what extent the destruction of these last months has affected your community?
His Eminence Shahan Sarkissian: Today, sixty-five per cent of the city of Aleppo is completely destroyed. We Armenians have suffered like the other citizens of Syria, whether Muslims or Christians. Our community is located in the center and the west of the city. Out of eleven Armenian schools in Aleppo, half of them had to close and two were totally destroyed. Two of our twelve churches had to close and two others were destroyed; one of them, St. George, was set to fire by an unidentified extremist militia. Another Armenian church was attacked in Syria: the one in Deir ez-Zor, dedicated to the memory of the Armenian genocide. It was not bombed by air, but by a bomb that the extremists set inside the church. We have no doubt that the responsible party were allies of Turkey. We have to remain there to continue our Christian and Armenian witness in Syria, not far from Turkey, which massacred the Armenians between 1915 and 1923.

What attitude do you adopt in this crisis?
Mgr Chahane Sarkissian: We have proposed a third way, a sort of "positive neutrality." It is hard and pricey, but we have to remain faithful to humanitarian and Christian principles. For example, when we received humanitarian assistance from Armenian and Christian communities, we did not only distributed it to Christians, but also to Muslims. Today, we have their friendship.

This war, therefore, would have got you closer to your Muslim neighbors?
His Eminence Shahan Sarkissian: Yes, Muslims have started understanding that the presence of Christians within a Muslim society is not a threat; it is above all a chance to moderate the extremist tendencies of some people. On the other hand, when I hear Westerners telling me that they want to engage for Christians in the Orient, I ask them to pay attention, because they do not know the situation: we are not against Muslims! They are our friends, we have lived with them for centuries, and the Muslims are not against Christians. Extremism has neither faith nor religion. Anyone may decide to destroy a country and sow terror.

How do you see the future?
His Eminence Shahan Sarkissian: Today, when Aleppo has been liberated, the town is again reunified and one may move without problem. The solidarity between Christians and Muslim is expressed above all in Aleppo, but is becoming general: in each town and village, people have started reflecting about how to live together, or, moreover, re-live together. To start life anew, it will be necessary to cure the wounds of this heinous war and set a living dialogue within the population. Nowadays, it is expected that the great powers find a convenient solution for all. It is hard, but if this solution is not convenient for everyone, there will be another war.

"Le Croix," February 13, 2017.

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