The Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, was in Geneva for two days for a side-event of the UN Human Rights Council. The Mission of the Holy See and Caritas Internationalis –a confederation of over 160 Catholic member organisations doing humanitarian work — had invited him on a peace campaign.
The ancient city of Aleppo has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. It has seen intense fighting in recent days --parts of the city have been sieged by armed opposition groups—and its possible recapture is of much significance to the Syrian government.
Speaking at a press conference at the UN headquarters in Geneva, Audo, who is also the head of Caritas Syria, said that in five years of war, the city of Aleppo has been emptied out of Christians with only 40,000 remaining out of the original 1,60,000 Syrian Christians. A total of one million Syrians have left the country out of the original 1.5 million. The Islamic State has killed thousands of Christians. In February, Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox church head, Patriarch Kirill, had issued a historic statement where they decried the flushing out of Christians from the Middle East—a region considered the cradle of the faith. The Christians in Aleppo now live mostly in areas under government control.
In a counterview to the mainstream narrative about Syria, Audo, said that the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was not be blamed for the war, that more than 80 percent of the Christians would support Assad if he were to run for re-elections, and more than 50 percent of the overall population, including Sunnis, would vote for Assad.
“Even the Sunnis would choose Bashar al-Assad” to drive away extremists he said. And the “demonisation” of Assad was a pure propaganda by the West, he added.
The future of Assad has been a key sticking point at the peace talks in Geneva with the "main" opposition party backed by Saudi Arabia and the West saying that Assad must go before any kind of talks on a transitional government while the Syrian government delegation has said that Assad is a “red line” that cannot be crossed.
Audo blamed the extremists and external interference for the mess in Syria. He further said that the Russians were fighting extremists and the Islamic State and that the people “were in a safe moment” during the Russian fight against the armed groups. Speaking to an American journalist, he said that the US must respect the Syrian people and not impose solutions from the outside for “economic and strategic” interests. "I think... this war is not coming from inside Syria... I think all is organised from outside to destroy Syria," he added.
Audo spoke to Firstpost
How has life changed in the last five years? Could you please tell us something about the daily lives of the people in Aleppo?
We can say that (we were a) normal city with lot of possibilities, lot of rich families, restaurants, universities, schools and we became a poor country with (poverty) everywhere. I (am) used to repeat(ing) that the rich families left Syria for Lebanon, Europe and Canada. The middle class became poor and the poor miserable. I walk on the streets and look to the people and to the faces and discover how they are sick, becoming poor, and tired without desire of living, only to have some vegetables, some bread, just to not die. This is our situation, unfortunately, in Aleppo (and) not only in Aleppo but we can say in all (of) Syria, this is the result of the war.
Our daily life in Aleppo is very paradoxical. As you (can) imagine from far, war, destruction, bombng from time to time is a reality. Where we are living is under the official army –the west part of the city. So in one way, (we have) a lot of the difficult (ies) without water, without job, without electricity, without fuel—we had a very hard winter. Terrible, really. This is one reality. The second one, we do all we can to continue (living normal lives)—to have organisations (organizing things such as) manifestations (demonstrations), theatre, prayers, scout groups—very Aleppo mentality, always trying to be together and to fight. There are schools, there are universities, there are exams and at the same time, from time to time (there is) bombing, victims, injured (people). This is our life in Aleppo, more than in Damascus or in other cities.
Was there tension between religious communities, particularly Christians and Muslims, before the civil war started?
No, no. Generally (speaking), in Aleppo, we have the tradition of living together. There is a respect for (the) other. There is an art of living together. Everyone knows who he is (but) at the same time (there is) a lot of friendship between Christians and Muslims. It is a tradition in Syria, even now. Even the armed people tried to put the idea of confessional war, even between Christians and Muslims.
Who are the armed people?
Armed people, extremists—they are not worth(y) (of) the name of opposition. They are armed people, manipulated to a big project of destruction. They tried a lot to create this ambience of confessional fighting but they didn’t succeed because the reality of Syria is different.
Do you think the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad should have a role in post-conflict Syria?
He is ready to implement the Syrian constitution. This kind of demonisation, or as we say in French, diabolisition, is not just. He is a doctor, he is well-educated. We have to put him in a context, in a history. There are a lot of (political) interests and he is in the middle of all those interests. We have to understand the situation to have the right answer. It’s propaganda, orchestration. The war is more than 50 percent propaganda—a psychological war, it is used a lot by the strong (dominant) media of the world.
What is your evaluation of Mr. Assad?
He was a normal man trying to do the best for the country—lot of effort at the level of education, construction, infrastructure. He was a normal president. But we have to put him in the context of the Middle East (situation). And this big fighting between Shias and Sunnis and they use (d) Syria to destroy, at their level, at the international level. (At the) international level, economic and military interests (were the reasons for the war in Syria).
Not because he is (an) Alwaite so (it means that) he is a demon, he is the devil. This (is) big (false) propaganda in the west –he is a dictator, he is killing women.
But the independent UN Commission of Inquiry has said that the government has also committed crimes against humanity? This is not any government saying but a group of independent experts…
How to speak about atrocities of the government and not to speak about atrocities of thousands of armed people pushed from outside to destroy Syria. From inside, there is some self-defence. Perhaps, they (the government) use violence and bombing but we have to put it in this context, it is self-defence.
Was there a huge escalation in fighting in Aleppo after the Russians started the airstrikes?
Not in Aleppo. Outside Aleppo, they attacked Daesh (Arabic acronym for the Islamic State), those armed groups to push them far out from Aleppo who were always threatening by attacks.
The writer is a journalist at the UN in Geneva