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Archbishop Speaks out on Middle East

Friday 5th October 2007

Robert Pigott, BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent, talked to Archbishop Rowan Williams on BBC Radio 4.

The following is a transcript of an interview between Robert Pigott, BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent and Archbishop Rowan Williams, which was transmitted on BBC Radio 4. It followed the Archbishop's return from visits to Syria and Lebanon.

Q: Archbishop, I wanted to give you the opportunity to share with R4 some of the stories that you've picked up, particularly from these Iraqi Christians that you've been dealing with in Syria.

A: We're talking about something like a million and a half Iraqi refugees in the region and a very large number of them in Syria. We had the opportunity of meeting nearly 300 Iraqi refugees not far from Damascus about a week ago, in a facility that's run by the Syrian Orthodox church there. And these are largely people from Christian communities in Iraq who wanted to talk about what had led them where they were, and their present conditions as refugees. And the stories we heard were, I have to say, really hair-raising. These are undoubtedly stories of targeted ethnic cleansing by certain groups within Iraq. We heard of the firebombing of houses and shops, we heard of abductions, and of murders and we heard stories e.g., a young woman who was travelling in a car with her father (a Christian family). Her father had been shot and killed in the car, she had been left for dead because she was covered with his blood, and when she got back to her home afterwards she had further threats –'next time we'll finish the job ...' and so she had to leave.

When you add those stories up by the hundred and by the thousand you see something of the fantastic human cost of what's going on in Iraq at the moment.

Now, these refugees in Syria have a great deal of help from the Syrian government and Syrian society, for example the children can have free education. But for those in higher education, for those who've lost businesses, have lost livelihood, getting work is extremely hard. Getting into anything like higher education or professional education is almost impossible. And the upshot is that this is a very, very destitute community indeed. And one woman said with floods of tears 'I've lost all my dignity'. Now that's a classic refugee problem. The Syrian government is under huge pressure because of this, and they're going to have to tighten up their controls very soon. And there are already new regulations coming in – and that of course is even more frightening for these people.

Q: Help me understand Archbishop, why these Christians, these exiles from Iraq have been targeted?

A: Since the Iraq war, Christian communities in Iraq which have lived there for literally thousands of years have been seen as, in some sense, agents of the West. People described how the sort of notes that were pushed under their door, the messages and threats they received said 'you are American agents' or 'you are Zionist agents and we're going to have to get rid of you.' So there's a very clear link in people's minds with the conflict.

Q: That link is a causal link in effect and I don't want to put words into your mouth. Britain and America invaded Iraq and therefore these Iraqi Christians are suffering. Is that a link that you would make?

A: I'm afraid it's a very clear link. This is the link that's made locally and whether justly or not, that is how it's seen. Now, as I say, these are Christians who've lived in that society for generations, they're not newcomers, they're not aliens. Certain - I'm happy to say small - extremist groups regard them as aliens, it suits their own political agenda. But these are groups with no scruples and with considerable resources.

Q: These Iraqi Christians, that young lady who was left for dead, the thousands of people from the Christian community in Iraq that are suffering: they're only a small proportion of the people in total in Iraq that are suffering. How does that all inform your opinion of the invasion of Iraq?

A: I was never in favour of the invasion of Iraq. I, like others, feared consequences exactly like those that have come to pass. And whatever one says now about that, it's quite clear that our governments have a very heavy responsibility to see what can be done for these people. To secure the status and the welfare of refugees and to work on what seems the almost impossible task of making a society that they can return to in Iraq. And of course when some people talk – as some do - about the possibility of a partition solution in Iraq, very often the Christians are left out of account in this.

I don't say this out of a kind of Christian chauvinism – wanting to defend my corner, The presence of Christians in communities like Iraq and Syria is actually part of what you might call a pluralist, tolerant, co-existent tradition in Middle-Eastern Arab society which is itself under threat.

So it's not just about Christians, what's at stake is much more than just the future of just the Christian community. But everywhere you go in the Middle-East, Christian people will say 'the main problem we face is the catastrophic drainage of Christians from this region'. So that what were once plural societies not exclusively or narrowly Muslim, are becoming more and more closed.

Q: You said at the beginning of your answer to that question that you feared the consequences of the Iraq war before it began; do you think the same could be said of our political leaders? Do you think that they understood the what the potential consequences of this war and particularly in terms of the Iraqi Christians and the others who are currently suffering in that region before they went to war?

A: I don't know what sort of calculations were made. I do think that two things are clear: that the effect on Christian communities in the region was gravely under estimated, and that the scale of the refugee problem was gravely underestimated. Now what we have at the moment is a refugee problem in the Middle East of almost unprecedented scale. We've already got the Palestinian refugee problem and I also visited some Palestinian refugees on the outskirts of Beirut; we now have on top of that another million and a half – and growing – number of Iraqi refugees and this is where, when people talk about further destablilising the region, when you read about some American political advisers speaking about action against Syria and Iran, I can only say that I regard that as criminal, ignorant and potentially murderous folly.

Q: Ok. I don't know whether you have the ear of David Milliband or Gordon Brown, but let's suppose that you do; what will you tell them, or what would you tell them about this situation given the opportunity.

A: I'd want to talk about the human cost of what's been done in the last few years. Not that I imagine they're unaware of it, but it brings it a little closer when you've actually heard people at first hand telling these stories. I'd want to say very urgently to them and the United States of America that further deliberate destabilisation in this region is terrible folly, terrible folly and I'd want to ask what can be done now in strengthening the hand of various relief agencies, in making sure that these people are looked after, and that their future is taken seriously in any future planning for civil society in the region.

Q: What so you mean by 'deliberate destablilisation'?

A: I mean that we do hear in some quarters about action against Syria or against Iran; I can't really understand what planet such persons are living on when you see the conditions that are already there. The region is still a tinderbox. We've seen recently how the Lebanese situation has escalated in the last twelve months; how instability fear and deep anxiety about communal relations and intra-Muslim relations there, how that's come to shadow the whole sky in Lebanon. And people I spoke to in Syria say that Lebanon is a small country, but a small switch can trigger a large explosion. If Lebanon dissolves then other countries suffer the consequences. If the larger nations like Syria and Iran are further destabilised, we'll see a multiplication of these tragedies, an almost unimaginable multiplication, we'll see more millions displaced.

Q: You're clearly deeply concerned about all of this, in practical terms what can and will you be doing in the coming weeks months and years to try to make sure that what you want to happen in the Middle East will happen in the Middle East?

A: Well resources are limited. I can speak about what I've seen. I can talk to people in government, and write about it and make sure that these stories do not fall off the edge of people's perception. We're also in regular contact with our own churches and our partners in the region. We have a small but very active Anglican presence in Syria, and in Lebanon, which does quite a bit of work with refugees of one sort and another. And we have a very long and happy partnership with Syrian Orthodox who are doing a lot of primary work with Iraqi refugees in the north of the country. So my hope is we continue to make those relations work, to try and speak also with the relief agencies, and make sure the priorities don't slip there.

Q: Do you think there will ever be a time in the future when we look back at the invasion of Iraq and say yes actually that was for the best?

A: No.

Q: Looking forward to Iran as well, it's clear that both America and the UK are anxious about the political situation in Iraq – what would you advise on that front?

A: I think given the instability of the whole region, and given the volatility of Iranian politics, remembering that we are dealing, of course we are dealing with an authoritarian society, it's not the kind of society we particularly like or feel at home with, nonetheless there is more to be gained by engagement than by detachment or threats.

Q: Thank you very much.

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