Geneva II: Christians looking for concrete steps towards peace in Syria

APSyrian expatriates gesture as they hold a Syrian national flag during a protest organised by Jordanian tribes in solidarity with the Syrian people in Mafraq city, near the Jordanian-Syrian border

Christian Aid, Tearfund and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) have joined with other Christian organisations to call for a peaceful solution to the ongoing crisis in Syria as delegates meet for the Geneva II summit today.

The long-awaited international peace conference has invited representatives from Syria's government and its opposition alliance to meet with officials from 30 countries, including the UK's Foreign Secretary William Hague, to try and negotiate peace. It marks the first time that members of opposing Syrian factions have come together since civil war broke out almost three years ago.

Christian leaders from Syria, the Middle East Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches and the Holy See released a statement on January 20 in which they urged participants of Geneva II "to pursue an immediate cessation of all armed confrontation and hostility within Syria".

"We call on you to develop a comprehensive and inclusive process towards establishing a just peace and rebuilding Syria...Geneva II must be transformed into a peace-building process," the statement read.

"All efforts must be made to secure the peace, territorial integrity and independence of Syria."

The WEA has fully endorsed this statement, and has voiced particular concern for Syrian Christians, many of whom have fled the country following targeted abuse and persecution.

"We are deeply concerned for the Christian community in Syria. Like all minority groups they need protection from the very real threats that have been made against them," says Dr Geoff Tunnicliffe, Secretary General of the WEA.

"In addition, it is imperative that as the future shape of Syria is being determined, Christians who have had a presence in the land for two thousand years be represented.

"We encourage Christians worldwide to pray for Syria, its suffering people, those who seek refuge and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ," he concludes.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who, the BBC reports, has warned delegates they face "a formidable challenge" and labelled a failure to end the conflict in Syria as "unforgivable".

The violence has left over 100,000 people dead and 9.5 million displaced, and the crisis is continuing to escalate. As refugees flee to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, there are fears of further instability across the already fractured Middle Eastern region.

Christian Aid maintains that in order for real headway to be made in establishing peace, a comprehensive political solution must be found.

"Only an inclusive political settlement will...enable the people of Syria to rebuild their lives," said head of Middle East Janet Symes, who also expresses the necessity of rebuilding trust between opposing groups and parties.

"A broader engagement that goes beyond the main political actors to include local people committed to non-violence including women, faith leaders, and representatives of refugees and internally displaced populations will be an essential part of creating a lasting peace," she contends.

"Our experience of working in conflict situations informs our view that peace building is a process that includes critical steps, including building trust between communities, providing protection for minorities, establishing transitional justice mechanisms and rule of law as well as disarming paramilitary groups."

Tearfund has echoed this call, focusing particularly on the plight of over two million Syrian refugees who have been forced to live in unsanitary and inadequate conditions to avoid the conflict.

"Please pray with us that this week's peace talks bring an end to the devastating conflict, bombings, fear and violence that have plagued the lives of so many millions of Syrian people," said Justine Nola, Tearfund's Syria Crisis Manager.

"Life is incredibly difficult for the Syrian refugees we are serving in Lebanon and Jordan.

"In Lebanon, for example, there aren't any formal organised camps so one of our biggest tasks is to find the people who are struggling. People from our local partner organisations go from door to door looking for those who might need help, and they often come across groups of a few families living together in very crowded, make-shift conditions, sometimes without running water or electricity.

"We have even found families with small children living in a shed built for chickens because they had nowhere else to go."

Aid organisations and charities are thus urging governments to give a greater response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and its bordering countries. "We urge the international community to redouble diplomatic and humanitarian efforts and use the conference as an opportunity to set out a clear course towards achieving a peace process," Ms Symes concluded.

"The UK government has played a leading role in the humanitarian effort to assist the Syrian people. We urge the UK government to use its influence to engage in intensive diplomatic engagement to ensure a positive outcome."

The summit begins today in Montreux, Switzerland, before moving to Geneva on Friday.