Aleppo (Agenzia Fides) - "We have the election of the President of the Republic. It is normal for us to ask the people, and especially Christians, to take part in the elections". Syrian and Jesuit Bishop Antoine Audo, at the head of the Chaldean diocese of Aleppo, thus responds to the questions and also to any criticisms that may arise regarding the appeal with which the Patriarchs and Bishops of the Catholic Churches of Syria invited citizens on Thursday 20 May Syrians to take part in the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for Wednesday, May 26 (see Fides, 21/5/2021).
There are only 3 candidates admitted by the Syrian Constitutional Court to run in the elections out of 51 candidates. Opposition groups have called to desert the polls, as the re-election of current President Bashar al Assad, in power since 2000, after the death of his father Hafez al Assad (who as President had dominated Syria for 30 years), seems obvious. In the last elections, in 2014, Bashar had obtained 88 percent of the votes. He now aims to obtain a fourth term, after the ten-year conflict that has devastated the country, with the more or less direct involvement of global and regional powers.
The appeal to participate in the elections spread by Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops may give rise to new criticism from Western observers who have long accused the Syrian ecclesial communities of excessive submission to the apparatuses of power headed by Assad. Insinuations strongly rejected by Bishop Audo: "We simply asked the people to do their duty" notes the Chaldean Bishop, interviewed on the subject by Agenzia Fides, "and we have not expressed any voting preferences. We know well that the majority of those who go to vote will choose Assad again, but beyond what analysts and groups in the West can say and do, we are the people who live here. We are people of this country, we know how things are. We are immersed in this Syrian and Middle Eastern context. Let's see its connections with the geopolitical one. We realize that in the face of all this we do not need abstract theories on democracy, and that it is always very easy to give lessons to others from outside".
The assessments on the political contingency that Syria is experiencing give the Syrian Jesuit bishop a cue to broaden the horizon, expressing enlightening and non-conformist considerations on the present and future of Christian communities in the country throughout the Middle East. Their condition and their choices - remarks Antoine Audo - cannot be adequately grasped and evaluated if we do not take into account the priority criteria that inspire their modus operandi: "We want to do everything possible", explains the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo "so that the Christian communities can continue their presence and their witness in the context of the Middle East, marked in these times also by the factor of Islamist extremism. This is our priority, and starting from this priority the practical choices we make must be considered and evaluated. We try to make concrete choices by following in concrete circumstances what can be defined as a 'sapiential' spirit. To remain in our country, it is not necessary to flaunt theories or ideologies, but to resume that art of living together with Muslim fellow citizens, and thus to see the fabric of Christian life grow in this context, in the coexistence that we have already experienced in the past. We do not want authority or money, but only to be able to bear witness to our beautiful Christian faith even in front of Muslims, with whom we have already shared the experience of living together for a long time, with a certain respect and mutual listening". Antoine Audo confides how the solicitations that come from the context in which they live touch in a singular way even the most intimate level of his life as a priest and bishop: "For me" Audo highlights in the conversation with Fides - the thing that matters is living my life and my faith here, in Syria, among Muslims, including the most traditional or even fanatical ones. Sometimes it is not easy, but it helps me go to the source of my Christian faith. I do not live and speak neither in Rome, nor in Paris, nor in New York. As an Eastern Christian, my place is here. This is the place where God put me, to live my faith and be a witness of Christ. I hope that in the West there will still be people who are able to realize what we are experiencing in the Middle East today, in its difficulties and contradictions, in order to really help us, in a sincere and authentic way, with respect for everyone". Recognizing and taking note of the given context - Antoine Audo is keen to emphasize - does not mean removing any critical reflection with respect to the structures of the power and the work of the apparatuses and political authorities. "As Christians and as bishops", explains the Chaldean bishop "we are also called to educate consciences to freedom. But this can have fruitful developments only if we do not separate and do not become strangers to the context in which we find ourselves". In recent decades, a factor that has emerged in the context of the Middle East has been that of Islamist extremism, expressed with extreme peaks even in the phenomenon of jihadist militias. Also of this factor, entered with devastating force also in the Syrian conflict - suggests Audo - it is worth taking note. "It seems that Muslims too" the Chaldean bishop of Aleppo continued his reflection "expect something from us. Many Muslims find it difficult to enter into a non-destabilizing relationship with modernity, which has developed within the West, in the evolution of Western history and culture. The Church has already come to terms with Western modernity, especially thanks to the Second Vatican Council. Instead, for many Muslims, it continues to represent a pitfall, a dangerous thing". Faced with this reaction, according to Bishop Audo, it is better to wait for things to take their time to mature, without thinking of forcing one's hand, perhaps even using the slogans on the 'superiority' of pluralist democratic systems in a violent and arrogant way. "This patience" Bishop Audo points out "has an authentically Christian trait. And it seems to me that Pope Francis has understood these things and is showing us the way. He carries out gestures and initiatives - such as the meetings seen during his trip to Iraq - which represent a precious model. He shows us the path that should be followed. His encyclical 'Fratelli Tutti' also helps to reflect, and I see that its path is also opening in Muslim societies". Bishop Audo suggests that we also look with realism and patience at the phenomenon of the exodus from Syria and the Middle East of many young people, and of many young Christians. A bleeding that represents one of the major concerns for local Christian communities. Many groups say they want to help Christians, they send money, they make plans. Bishop Audo admits that there is no magic formula to keep Christians in the Middle East. "The economic aspects are important, but the essential thing is that our vocation to live our faith here is always rediscovered and preserved, showing others its richness, with respect, without pride or presumption. For this reason - concludes the Chaldean bishop of Aleppo - we must not think of the Christian presence in the Middle East as it was 50 years ago, but as it can be in the 50 years to come. It seems to me that Muslims also expect something from us. They are waiting to see that we are people of the 21st century, and that even in this time marked by modernity and secularization in large parts of the world, we live as men and women of faith, with respect for all". (GV) (Agenzia Fides, 24/5/2021)