Region: Christian leaders’ appeal for Mideast peace embraced by Syrian Armenians

As fierce fighting has reached the Armenian-populated quarters of Syria’s Aleppo, one event of recent days may have rekindled hopes for an approaching relief for the war-torn region and its people, including many Christians.

When Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, met in Havana, Cuba last Friday in the first-of-its-kind event since the Great Schism of the 11th century, the plight of Christians and others in the Middle East was on the minds of many, including Armenians.

Russia is one of the active parties in the five-year-old conflict in Syria where it supports the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and says is fighting terrorist groups like ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and others. Its deployment of air forces in Latakia and regular air strikes since last September have helped the Syrian government forces regain control of vast swathes of territory and reach the outskirts of Aleppo, a beleaguered city that is home to a sizable Armenian community.

Western democracies and leading human rights organizations, however, have accused the Russian military of mostly targeting moderate opposition forces as well as civilians despite Moscow’s claims that it fights only terrorist groups in Syria.

Bombings in Aleppo earlier this week resulted in damage of several Armenian facilities, including the medical center of the Armenian Relief Cross of Syria.

Since the start of hostilities in 2011, an estimated 16,000 ethnic Armenians have fled their homes in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria and moved to historical homeland Armenia. Many also took refuge in neighboring Lebanon and other countries in Europe and America.

Thousands of ethnic Armenians, however, still remain in Syria, bearing the hardships of the conflict along with their countrymen of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds.

In their February 12 declaration issued from Cuba, the leaders of the world’s two leading churches also referred to the “massive exodus” of Christians from the Middle East, “the land in which our faith was first disseminated and in which they have lived since the time of the Apostles, together with other religious communities.”

“Thousands of victims have already been claimed in the violence in Syria and Iraq, which has left many other millions without a home or means of sustenance. We urge the international community to seek an end to the violence and terrorism and, at the same time, to contribute through dialogue to a swift return to civil peace. Large-scale humanitarian aid must be assured to the afflicted populations and to the many refugees seeking safety in neighboring lands,” Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill underscored.

Armenian Assembly of America Board of Trustees Co-Chairman Anthony Barsamian, who has recently been named the Head of the Massachusetts Council of Churches and will be working with members of the Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches, says Armenians throughout the United States, Europe, Latin America and Russia have always maintained excellent relations with the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian Churches.

“This has allowed us to work closely on matters relating to the treatment of Christians in general and specifically Syria and Turkey these past weeks. Especially, the destruction of an Armenian Hospital in Aleppo and the bombing of St. Sarkis Armenian Catholic Church in Diyarbakir,” he said to ArmeniaNow in a comment sent by email.

Many of the Armenians who live in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East today are descendants of the survivors of the 1915 Genocide in Ottoman Turkey.

In the context of the Francis-Kirill meeting and its impact on the region, Barsamian also emphasized the importance of last April’s Pontifical Mass in Rome on the occasion of the centennial of the Ottoman-era Armenian Genocide and the statement of the Pope regarding the Armenian Genocide.

In clarifying his statements on the Ottoman Empire made in a recent televised interview, Patriarch Kirill in January also reaffirmed the Russian Orthodox Church’s position on the 1915 Armenian Genocide. His representative, Deacon Alexander Volkov, told the Armenian press that the massacres of Armenians a hundred years ago set the precedent for modern-day persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria.