By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
DAMASCUS, SYRIA (BosNewsLife)– Leaders of Syria’s embattled Christian minority urged prayers Monday, January 20, as prospects for a peace conference in Geneva were thrown into doubt after the opposition threatened to withdraw from the planned talks.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition, which had only voted to attend the day before, said it was suspending its decision because the United Nations unexpectedly invited Iran to the January 22 conference, also known as ‘Geneva II’.
“The opposition said it would boycott the peace conference “unless [U.N. Secretary] Ban Ki-Moon retracts Iran’s invitation.”
Ban Ki-Moon told reporters in New York that Iran, which supported Syria’s government, had been invited after it agreed that the peace talks should pave the way for a transitional authority in Syria that would take power away from President Bashar al-Assad.
The latest stand-off came while Gregory III Laham, Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and Jerusalem, urged Christians worldwide to join Syrian Christians in praying for the success of the conference.
Christians have been targeted by both Islamic opposition forces and troops loyal to the president, with many believers being killed or kidnapped, church leaders and activists say.
In one of the latest incidents, suspected Islamic militants beheaded a young Christian man, Fadi Matanius Mattah, 34, on January 8, Catholic and other sources said.
He had been travelling by car with fellow Christian Firas Nader, 29, from the city of Homs to the Christian village of Marmarita, according to church officials.
Some five militants reportedly intercepted the vehicle and opened fire on the car. When they noted that Fadi was wearing a cross around his neck, they beheaded him. They took money and documents, leaving Firas on the ground wounded, believing he was already dead, said local Christians.
Firas managed to escape, reaching the town of Almshtaeih on foot and was reportedly rushed to hospital.
In remarks distributed by the Middle East Concern (MEC) advocacy group, the Greek Catholic patriarch urged international believers to “pray for true reconciliation in ‘Geneva II’.”
He was quoted as saying that “the key to the success of Geneva II is faith-based, human, cordial, national, and truly Syrian reconciliation.”
In a separate statement, the World Council of Churches, including Syrian church leaders, urged all Geneva II delegates “pursue an immediate cessation of all armed confrontation and hostility within Syria,” where the war has left as many as 130,000 people dead and millions more displaced.
Church leaders also asked all parties to release detained and kidnapped persons, including Christians, and urged the UN Security Council to implement measures ending the flow of weapons and foreign fighters into Syria, including Islamic militants.
Among those held by suspected Islamists since last year are three priests, two bishops and a dozen nuns, Christians said. Churches, monasteries and other Christian sites have been attacked by militants.
It was unclear whether the situation of Syrian Christians would be on the agenda at the upcoming conference, with talks expected to focus on forming a transitional government that would include officials of President Assad’s government and delegates of opposition groups.
Activists have urged more attention to the plight of troubled Christians in the mainly Islamic nation. MEC, which is in close contact with Syrian Christians, told BosNewsLife that the confict “has seen religiously-motivated persecution of Christians.”
More than 600,000 Christians – a third of the total Syrian faithful – are internally displaced or living as refugees in neighboring countries, according to church estimates.
Church leaders fear the massive exodus of Christians from Syria could seriously jeopardize the future of Christians in the heavily Islamic nation.
Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reportedly said those staying behind in the cities of Homs, Marmarita and Hamat, “live in severe discomfort and without food, heating, shelter and medicine because of the bitter cold weather that has worsened the humanitarian crisis which exists due to the conflict.”
MEC told BosNewsLife that local Syrian Christians have been asking to pray that “all [peace conference] delegates will prioritise the needs of the Syrian people, and not their own agendas.”
The group and local Christians also demanded prayers for “all who are bereaved to know the comfort of Jesus, and [that those who are] the wounded and traumatised [will experience] His healing and presence.”
Prayers were also needed for “the millions of Syrians displaced either internally or abroad” and for the release of “those detained or kidnapped”, explained MEC in a statement.
It was crucial that “those that seek to use violent means would know the Spirit’s conviction of sin, and respond to the Father’s offer of new life through the work of the Son” [Jesus Christ], the group commented.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is ‘Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals’ since 2004).
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