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Assad’s Easter and mysterious attacks on Syrian Christians: GetReligion, April 24, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Antiochian Orthodox, Get Religion, Greek Orthodox, Islam, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Why are Syrian Christians being targeted by Islamist rebels?

The Western press cannot agree on a reason, a review of recent reports from Syria reveals.

Can we credit the explanation given by the Wall Street Journal — that the rebels do not trust Christians — as a sufficient explanation? And if so, what does that mean? Are the reports of murders, kidnappings, rapes and overt persecution of Christians in Syria by Islamist rebels motivated by religion, politics, ethnicity, nationalism or is it a lack of trust?

Is the narrative put forward byITAR-TASS, the Russian wire service and successor to the Soviet TASS News Agency — that the rebels are fanatics bent on turning Syria into a Sunni Muslim state governed by Sharia law — the truth?

On this past Monday, The Wall Street Journal ran a story on its front page under this headline:

Christians of Homs Grieve as Battle for City Intensifies

That story examined the plight of Syria’s Christians. The Journal entered into the report by looking at the death of Dutch Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt, who had been murdered by members of an Islamist militia in the town of Homs.

The well-written article offers extensive quotes from a second Syrian Roman Catholic priest on this tragedy and notes the late priest’s attempt to bridge the divide between Christians and Muslims. In the 10th paragraph, the story opens up into a wider discussion of the plight of Syria’s Christians and recounts Assad’s Easter visit to a monastery — whether Catholic or some variety of Orthodox, that detail is left out.

While the fighting raged in Homs, President Bashar al-Assad showed up unexpectedly on Sunday in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, about 30 miles northeast of the capital Damascus. The town was overrun by Islamist rebels in September and reclaimed by the Syrian army a week ago.

State media released video footage of Mr. Assad surveying smashed icons at the town’s damaged monasteries and quoted him as saying that “no amount of terror can ever erase our history and civilization.”

The fight over Maaloula, like the killing of Father Frans, both reflect the quandary of Syria’s Christians. Many feel an affinity for Mr. Assad. His Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, dominates the regime while the majority of Syrians—and opposition supporters—are Sunni Muslims.

Most Christians have become all the more convinced that only the regime can protect them after some rebels came under the sway of Islamic extremists who have attacked and pillaged their communities and churches and targeted priests and nuns.

Some Christians still seek to build bridges with both sides of the civil war, as Father Frans did. But in a landscape where religious and sectarian affiliations often define and shape the struggle, they find themselves under fire from both sides.

Many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians, while regime supporters see those who reach out to the opposition as naive or traitors. Father Frans found himself in that position, say some close to him

What are we to make of these assertions — “some rebels” are Islamists, or that “many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians?” Is that a fair, suffient or accurate statement of affairs?

A look at the Financial Times report on President al-Assad’s visit to Maaloula on Easter Sunday makes the argument that the Assad regime is playing up the Islamist angle for his political benefit. But it assumes the persecution is real.

President Bashar al-Assad made an Easter visit on Sunday to a historic Christian town recaptured by the army, in a rare appearance outside the capital that shows his growing confidence in state control around Damascus.

The visit also aims to portray him as the protector of Syrian minorities against a rebel movement led by Islamist forces.

The wire service stories also connect Christian fear of the rebels with support for Assad. AFP’s account closes with the explanation:

Syria’s large Christian minority has sought neutrality throughout the three-year war, and has viewed the Sunni-led rebels with growing concern as jihadists have flocked to their ranks.

The Los Angeles Times opens its story on the Maaloula visit noting that both Assad and the rebel leadership are courting Syria’s Christians.

But Assad appears to be winning.

DAMASCUS, Syria — President Bashar  Assad made a symbolic Easter visit Sunday to the heavily damaged town of Maaloula, a Christian landmark  enclave recaptured from Islamist rebels last week by government forces. The president’s visit, broadcast on state television, underscored his efforts  to portray himself as a defender of Christians and other minorities as he  prepares for an expected reelection bid in the midst of a devastating war now in  its fourth year.

Maaloula and several of its historic churches sustained significant damage  during heavy fighting and bombardment. Church leaders say priceless icons were  looted or destroyed during the rebel occupation of Maaloula, famous for its  preservation of Aramaic, a version of the language spoken by Jesus Christ.

“No one, no matter the extent of their terrorism, is able to erase our human  and cultural history,” Assad declared in Maaloula while in the company of senior  Christian clerics. “Maaloula will remain steadfast … in the face of the  barbarity and darkness of all who target the homeland.”

Opposition groups seeking Assad’s ouster generally dismissed the trip as a  stunt or faked. The exile-based Syrian National Coalition sent Easter greetings  to Syria’s Christians “at a time when Assad destroyed the country because of a  people who are demanding freedom.”

Comparing the reporting by Peter Oborne of the Daily Telegraph on the plight of Syria’s Christians to the the Wall Street Journal reveals the shallowness of the WSJ’spiece. Reporting on his visit to Maaloula shortly after it was recapture by government forces, Oborne writes:

Below, the village itself appeared practically deserted; most of its 5,000-strong, mainly Christian, population have fled since it first came under rebel attack, on Sept 4 last year.

According to Samir, a soldier who said he had been born in Maaloula, and joined up to defend his village, the ancient religious centre “will not change hands again because most of the young men in the village have joined the military”.

His friend, Imad, said there had been 32 churches in Maaloula and claimed that “all of them have been destroyed” – although it was clear from the vantage point near the monastery that in fact churches were still standing, albeit with signs of damage and some burning.

Anger among regime supporters at what they claim are the excesses of the rebels – who include radical Islamist insurgent groups – was palpable. “I can’t describe my feelings because the terrorists are destroying the Christian religion,” said Imad, who said he had been an electrician in Maaloula before he joined the military and the rest of his family moved to Damsacus two years ago. Samir claimed that the rebels had behaved brutally to young men of the town when they first arrived, killing many.

However, there have been no documented massacres of Christian inhabitants under the rebels’ rule of Maaloula and a group of nuns who were released last month after being kidnapped by the Islamist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, said they had been treated well.

Oborne’s article allows both sides to speak, while offering facts that put the claims in context. The complexity of the war in Syria is better served by the balanced but nuanced approach taken by the Daily Telegraph, I believe, than the shy style adopted by the WSJ. While I have no firsthand knowledge of the events unfolding in Syria, Oborne’s story just feels right — it is a first-class example of the craft of reporting.

Where does the truth lay in all of this? The WSJ piece doesn’t feel right to me. I am not saying it is incorrect, but it is incomplete.

As a stand-alone piece on the murder of Father van der Lugt, the WSJ article is great. It seems to get into trouble, however, when it moves into a wider discussion of the causes and political-religious currents of Syria’s civil war. Frankly, I am not convinced it is telling the full story. It leaves me wonder why the WSJ is being shy in examining the persecution of Christians by Muslims?

Pakistani Anglican bishop warns against foreign intervention in Syria: Anglican Ink, Sept 7, 2013 September 7, 2013

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Dr Alexander John Malik

The former Bishop in Lahore, the Rt. Rev. Alexander Malik has urged the United States, France and Britain not to use its military might to strike Syria.

Speaking to journalists on 7 September 2013, Dr. Malik said a Western attack on the Assad regime in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons against the rebels would make a terrible situation worse.

Read it all at Anglican Ink.

Anglican Unscripted Episode 80: August 31, 2013 September 1, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Church of North America, Anglican.TV, Church of England, Episcopal Church in Jerusalem & the Middle East, Fort Worth, South Carolina, The Episcopal Church.
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Published on Sep 1, 2013

Anglican Unscripted is the only video newscast in the Anglican Church. Every Week Kevin, George, Allan and Peter bring you news and prospective from around the globe.

Communion Bishops go to Canterbury 00:00
Texas & South Carolina Victories 07:23
Teaching Americans how to speak English 18:11
It is Just a War 31:50
Trimming the dead branches 39:38
Closing and Bloooopers 44:21

Bishop urges govt not to arm Syrian rebels: The Church of England Newspaper, June 23, 2013 p 7. June 27, 2013

Posted by geoconger in British Foreign Policy, Church of England, Church of England Newspaper.
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Arming Syria’s rebels will make a bad situation worse, the Bishop of Bristol has warned. “The history of the Middle East seems to be that today’s allies are tomorrow’s enemies.  Remember Iraq”, the Rt Rev Mike Hill wrote on his blog at the diocesan website on 14 June 2013.

The situation in Syria was bleak he observed. The Civil War between the asylum regime and the Islamist dominated opposition has led to 90,000 deaths. The use of chemical weapons by the regime was a “truly shocking way for any Government to behave and is totally inexcusable, “ and could escalate beyond the bounds of Syria.

“When I heard that our Government had been complicit in lifting the ban on sending arms to the ‘rebels’ in Syria, I was worried,” Bishop Hill wrote.

“Surely such a move brings with it some unmanageable risks.  Will sending more lethal weapons in to Syria mean more deaths not less?  What kind of Trojan Horse is the rebel movement?  What different interests lurk within their ranks? There is plenty of evidence that both sides of this conflict have been involved in atrocities.  How do we guarantee that these arms will only fall into the hands of ‘moderates’?  What will happen to all these weapons when, please God, the fighting comes to an end?  These are questions that need to be answered,” before arms are sent to Syria, he said.

The best way forward “is to work with Syria’s allies to bring about a ceasefire,” he argued.

While negotiations have so far failed to end the fighting “I would rather we kept trying this course of action rather than send more weapons to a bewilderingly complex situation.”

“I have seen first-hand the disorder that follows civil war.  Even when conflict ends, people retain their weapons, ‘just in case…’  The result is a violent and potentially ungovernable society.  Syria already has this and it’s time for the international community to bring this bloodshed to an end, not add to it or sow the seeds for future instability,” Bishop Hill said.

Prayers for the release of kidnapped Syrian bishops: The Church of England Newspaper, May 5, 2013 p 6. May 5, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch.
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The Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster have issued a call to prayer for peace in Syria.

On 25 April 2013 Archbishop Justin Welby and Vincent Nichols issued a joint statement in response to the kidnapping of Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, the Syriac Orthodox bishop of Aleppo and Boulos Yaziji, the Greek Orthodox archbishop of the city. The two clerics were abducted on 22 April in Kafr Dael near the Turkish border. Their driver, a Syriac Orthodox deacon, was killed.

Mgr. Jean-Clement Jeanbart, Greek Melkite bishop of Aleppo, told AsiaNews. “The Catholic and Orthodox Churches are doing their best to mediate with the kidnappers,” but “at present no one understands the reasons for this act and who is behind these criminals.”

The English Archbishop said their prayers “go with the ancient communities of our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria. The kidnapping” was “another telling sign of the terrible circumstances that continue to engulf all Syrians.”

“We both continue to pray for a political solution to this tragic conflict that would stem the terrible violence and also empower all Syrians with their fundamental and inalienable freedoms,” The Anglican and Catholic archbishops said. “We also call for urgent humanitarian aid to reach all who are suffering. We pray that Syria can recapture its tradition of tolerance, rooted in faith and respect for faiths living side by side.”

Massacre in Damascus: The Church of England Newspaper, April 29, 2013 May 1, 2013

Posted by geoconger in British Foreign Policy, Church of England Newspaper.
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Six days of fighting in Damascus’s Jdaidet Artouz and Jdaidet Al-Fadel suburbs have killed several hundred civilians, anti-regime activists have claimed. The deaths follow an offensive by troops and irregular militias loyal to President Bashar al-Assad to secure the capital and open the roads south to the city of Dara’a.

On 22 April 2013 the Foreign Secretary said the reports of the massacre underscored the urgent need to bring the conflict in Syria to an end.

“I am appalled by the reports of the killing by Syrian Government forces of dozens of people, including women and children, in the town of Jdaidet Al-Fadl, a suburb of Damascus. This is yet another reminder of the callous brutality of the Assad regime and the terrible climate of impunity inside Syria,” said William Hague.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 80 had died, but said the death toll could be as high as 250. Another activist group put the number at 483.

On 17 April 2013 a meeting of Christian NGOs in Istanbul called the Religious Liberty Partnership (RLP) released a statement urging the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria to pay particular attention to the country’s “vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities”.

“Religious liberty organisations are united in their concern for the plight of Christians and other minorities in Syria,” said Paul Robinson, the chief executive of Release International. “We believe the international community must act now to protect them. And we are calling on Christian leaders around the world to unite in calling for prayer for peace for this troubled nation.”

Rape a weapon of war in Syria: The Church of England Newspaper, February 10, 2013 p 7. February 14, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Episcopal Church in Jerusalem & the Middle East.
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The Syrian civil war has sparked a refugee crisis marked by gender violence and sexual assaults, the Bishop in Jerusalem, the Rt. Rev. Suheil Dawani reports.

In a 28 Jan 2013 statement published by the Anglican Communion News Service, Bishop Dawani said the “latest news coming out of Syria and the refugee camps is so deeply appalling and tragic.”

The bishop noted that U.N. estimated that 2.5 million peopled had been displaced by the fighting. “Many are women and children who are fleeing in fear from the ongoing sexual violence against them. The International Rescue Committee reports that those who finally make it into the refugee camps are also victimized.”

“As refugees, women and girls and boys remain vulnerable to multiple forms of gender-based violence, and unfortunately few cases are reported due to the feeling of shame or fear of retribution.”

The bishop said the “crisis requires urgent action.”

“As Christians, not only in the Middle East, but worldwide, we are called to respond to this crisis. Jesus is our example of how we are to live and Our Lord has specifically told us to ‘look after orphans and widows in their distress’.”

“We, as Christians, must work to be the bridge of reconciliation that can bring peace, with justice, to the Middle East. In this land, that all the Abrahamic faiths hold Holy, we co-exist, living side by side; however, we cannot be a silent witness to the brutal treatment of women and children. The ravages of war will leave, are leaving, deep scars that will take generations to heal.”

Bishop Dawani said it was also important to “change the archaic attitudes that dominate this region of the world. Generations of women know nothing more than continued suffering.”

“I have the deepest concern for all people, women and children, who are in Syria, and in the refugee camps in foreign lands,” the bishop said. “My prayers are ongoing for peace, with justice and reconciliation, that we can live in a world of non-violence, that we can hold our women and children as treasures and treat them with the respect and dignity that all human beings deserve.”

Syriana: Get Religion, Sept 7, 2011 September 7, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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First printed at Get Religion.

There are two must-read articles on Syria out this week, both containing strong religion-news angles concerning the implosion of Bashir al-Assad’s police state.

The London daily The Independent does a nice job in illustrating the ambivalence Syrian Christians have for the regime and the revolt, while the German weekly Die Zeit offers a fascinating view of life inside Syria.

I have found it hard to follow the events in Syria. Most media outlets have been banned from the country, while those operating from inside the tent have been subject to various degrees of censorship.  The press reports have been contradictory at times, and a few reports appear to have been dictated by Baghdad Bob’s Syrian cousin. Would that be Damascus Dave?

Western governments appear to be equally at sea, and are relying on their intelligence services (I hope) and the media as their eyes and ears.  The reports are often hard to distinguish. On Aug 31 the British Foreign Office released a Q&A that stated: “… security forces have killed at least seven people in southern and central Syria on Tuesday 30 August when they opened fire at worshipers emerging from mosques after early prayers marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.”

An Aug 30 story in the New York Times reported: “Security forces killed at least seven people in southern and central Syria when they opened fire at worshipers emerging from mosques after early prayers marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.”

In the back of my head I heard Dick Enberg’s voice saying “Oh my!” after I read that.

One of the few news organizations still allowed inside Syria has been RT (Russia Today). ”All is well,” the Moscow-based 24/7 news channel reports.

Actually, the disputes we are witnessing are not political but religious. Surprise.

Britain, the US and France are pushing for harsher sanctions against Syria’s President al-Assad, who is believed to have ordered the torture and death of protesters. But on the streets there seems to be no real evidence of anti-government sentiment.

Even the poorest areas of the Syrian city of Homs – which, as a gathering place for people heading into the city center on demonstrations, saw major unrest – now seems quiet and secure.

People on the streets told RT that most of the disturbances in the city are based on religious differences, not politics.  People say they are not against the government, neither are they in pursuit of any political ends.

Most of the controversy in Homs arises from differences between the Alawi and Sunni Muslims.

Now how about that.  Al-Assad is “believed to have ordered the torture and death of protestors”  … the disturbances are “based on religious differences, not politics.” … People are “not against the government …”

This sort of hollow reporting takes me back to my youth. Once upon a time I had a subscription to Soviet Life. I could look forward each month to a jam-packed issue of glossy photo-stories featuring happy peasants playing their balalaikas, dancing in their brightly colored smocks, polishing their tractors … building socialism for the worker’s state. But that’s enough fun for now.

Turning to the good stuff, however: The report in The Independent that ran under the headline, “Life after Assad looks ominous for Syria’s Christian minority” offers some telling snapshots of religious-minority concerns in Syria. The bottom line: Life in Syria is bad, but it could be worse.

There is also, he admits, a fear that Islam might usurp the secular — albeit repressive — brand of Baathist socialist rule in Syria.

“Right now Christians can celebrate Easter. They can wear whatever they want. They can go to the church in safety and they can drink if they want to.

“They are afraid they will lose all this if the regime falls down.”

I wished there had been more space to develop this story, filling out the pro/con voices of Christians speaking about the regime. But at close to 600 words that is about as good as it gets these days in the British press for foreign religion stories.

With a circulation of almost 500,000 the Hamburg-based weekly Die Zeit is the largest German language news weekly. It has translated on its web site Wolfgang Bauer’s powerful and important 4800-word story, ”Die Nato soll uns helfen!” as “Nato must help us.”

Living with a Christian family in Homs, Bauer reports on a city whose 2 million inhabitants are waging war against the Assad regime. He tells of nightly gun battles and artillery tracer shells lighting up the skies, midnight secret police arrests, hospitals turned into execution centers, schools converted into prisons, and mass demonstrations of upwards of half a million people protesting against the regime.

Television and social media has fueled the revolt Die Zeit reports. What started as a local protest against a corrupt mayor grew into an uprising against the state and cries for freedom as Syrians watch events unfold in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Religion is a factor, Die Zeit reports, but not in the way RT describes.

The city threatens to explode under the enormous pressure and tension. Almost half the residents are Sunnis, 20 percent are Alawites while the rest are Christians, Yazidi and Zaidi. The cracks between the communities are widening each day. The Syrian regime is deeply suspicious of Homs ever since it rose up in revolt against the Assad family during a 1982 insurgency by the militant Muslim Brotherhood drawn from the majority Sunni community. In response, the government tried to weaken the influence of the dominant Sunnis in Homs. It built villages around the city for families from Assad’s Alawite minority, which commands power in the government and military. The Sunnis felt encircled and threatened. Since the outbreak of the current unrest, most of the Alawites have fled from the downtown area in Homs. In the suburbs, Alawite gangs have destroyed Sunni businesses. There have been reports of deaths. The Alawites have secured the streets leading to their residential areas with checkpoints. Their street barricades aren’t manned by the military, but by Alawite civilians who now fear being massacred in a Syria without Assad. Homs now resembles Beirut in the 1980s, divided along ethnic and religious lines where it’s too dangerous for people to travel in a particular direction because they will be shot if they do so.

I’m disappointed, but not surprised that the religious angle of the Syrian revolution has not had greater play.

Even Al Jazeera has been all over the place, on this point. Banned from entering Syria, the Qatar-based network’s reports have been uneven. In an account of the Paris meeting of the opposition, Al Jazeera omitted to mention the religious issues at play. Yet in a report on Syrian refugees in Turkey printed the next day, it covered the clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria. It has also seen one of its key editors quit after he charged the network’s management had abandoned its neutrality in its Syrian coverage.

Keep your eye on this channel (GetReligion), as I am confident that in the weeks to come, religion will play an important role in shaping Syria’s future. I just don’t know if it will be good or bad. And I don’t know how much solid coverage we’ll see in the mainstream press.

No alternatives to Assad on the horizon in Syria: The Church of England Newspaper, Sep 2, 2011 p 6. September 1, 2011

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The Rev. Nadim Nasser

First published in The Church of England Newspaper.

Opposition to the Assad regime is “fragmented and divided,” a Church of England priest reports following his return from Syria.

In an interview broadcast on Aug 30 by the BBC, the Rev. Nadim Nassar described the unrest he witnessed in his home town of Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast during a three week visit last month.

Syria was “full of fear,” said Mr. Nasser, the Church of England’s only Syrian-born cleric.  “Fear of the future, fear of what is going to happen, fear of each other.”

At the same time the mood in the street was “exciting”, as for the “first time in my life I hear people talk about politics,” he said, adding there was a flowering of debate and discussion in Syria after years of repression.

In a statement released on its website this week, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office reported that according to accounts received from Syrian Activists, the security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had killed at least seven people in southern and central Syria on Aug 30 “when they opened fire at worshipers emerging from mosques after early prayers marking the end” of Ramadan.

“According to a range of sources including Syrian human rights activists, more than 2000 Syrian civilians have died and thousands more have been detained and tortured since the beginning of the uprising, now in its fifth month,” the statement said.

However no effective opposition to the Assad regime existed, the Syrian cleric said.  “If the regime fell today, do we have an alternative? No,” said Mr. Nasser, the director of the London-based charity.  Founded in 2003 under the patronage of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Awareness Foundation’s website states it was created “in response to the disturbing increase in religious conflict and violence around the world.”

Bishop presses govt to intervene in Syria: The Church of England Newspaper, Aug 5, 2011 p 3. August 9, 2011

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The Archbishop of Canterbury and the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, during a 2007 meeting in Damascus

First published in The Church of England Newspaper.

The Bishop of Bristol has questioned the government’s hands off policy towards human rights abuses in Syria, and has urged the Foreign Secretary to take a tougher line on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Writing on his blog on the diocesan website on Aug 1, the Rt. Rev. Mike Hill stated “I can’t be the only person wondering why the West, having rapidly decided that intervention in Libya was a righteous and necessary cause, seem less interested in the wholesale slaughter taking place in Syria.”

The Reuters news agency reports that 84 people have been killed by Syrian troops in the city of Hama after tanks shelled the city on the eve of Ramadan.  In 1982 several thousand people were killed in Hama when the Muslim Brotherhood led a revolt against the rule of the President Bashar al-Assad’s father, Haffez al-Assad.

In March the government ordered most foreign journalists out of the country, however, reports out of Syria indicate the government has launched a severe crackdown on dissent in response to the ‘Arab Spring’ that has seen autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia swept from power.

U.S. President Barack Obama said the “horrible” attacks “demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime,” but still stopped short of directly calling for Assad to step down.

The UN Security Council will due to meet this week to discuss the situation in Syria, but armed intervention akin to NATO’s support for Libya’s rebels has been ruled off the table.  “We do want to see additional sanctions,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC. “We want to see stronger international pressure all round. Of course, to be effective, that can’t just be pressure from Western nations, that includes from Arab nations, it includes from Turkey.”

However, military action against Syria was “not a remote possibility,” said Mr. Hague.

Bishop Hill stated the Foreign Secretary’s “spirited attempt to justify our inactivity” was unconvincing.  “While all this diplomatic wrangling seems to be going nowhere slowly, the Syrian regime sends tanks to quell largely unarmed protesters.”

The bishop noted that his earlier words of “caution” over the Arab Spring appeared to have been borne out.  “The Egyptian revolution appears to have stalled; the Libyan rebels, having been recognised by the UK as the ‘legitimate’ government of Libya, contrived to murder their leader allegedly from within, are a cause for concern.”

Bishop Hill stated that what had arisen from the Arab Spring was “a foreign policy mess. We Brits, of all people, should know that an early spring can quickly fizzle out, become protracted and rob us of our summer.”