NEW YORK -- Saying that his people are "suffering day and night" and don't see "any light at the end of this tunnel," the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, visited The Huffington Post on Thursday to offer his take on solutions to the ongoing violence in his nation.
Ibrahim, who leads Orthodox Christians in the Syria's largest city, has been visiting the U.S. and other nations to appeal for humanitarian aid and international diplomacy in hopes of stopping the civil unrest in Syria, where Christians make up about 10 percent of the 22 million majority-Muslim population.
The conflict in Syria, which has led to tens of thousands of deaths, arose after a government crackdown on democratic demonstrations that began last year during the Arab Spring. The fight is mainly between the regime's army, led by President Bashar Assad, and those who want to overthrow it, the Free Syrian Army. The government is dominated by Alawites, a Shiite sect, while the opposition is controlled by Sunnis. Caught between are the nation's Christians, who the government has said will not be supported under the opposition.
"The main important thing is that Syria cannot remain as it is now because it is an important country in the Middle East and if no solution comes to Syria, it might bring a very sad event for the whole region. My mission and my plea will be the importance of having a concrete, comprehensive plan for the future," said Ibrahim in a meeting with HuffPost Religion. "What we need is security, stability, prosperity, peace, fraternity. This is what we need because we come from different religions and all the teachings of these religions are pushing us to do something for the benefit of human beings."
On Thursday, rebels took control of key areas in Aleppo, a battleground city near Turkey that has a significant Christian population, and the Syrian government agreed to a four-day ceasefire in observance of the Islamic holiday of Eid Al-Adha. Two days before, the Vatican announced that it had delayed a peacemaking group's trip to the region. The group, which was to include Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan, has not been rescheduled.
"We have to be sure this is accepted by all the parties, not only the government," Ibrahim said about the ceasefire, which is supposed to begin Friday, though it's unclear if either side will abide. "Yesterday, (rebels) occupied the complex where I have a school. It means they are not far from the city center."
While strife between religious groups is taking place, the archbishop stressed that he believes most Syrians believe in peace between religions and freedom of religion. Violence and suppression of religious freedom are "not the teachings of religion, it is the interpretation of religion which sometimes comes from fanatics, closed minds or ignorance,” he said. “And we have it. We have to acknowledge, from both sides, that we have those who cannot really see what are the depths of religion concerning peace and coexistence.”
"If you take the Quran, take the Gospel, you will not see something that says to do something against the others. It's all for peace and tranquility of the human beings," he added.
But Ibrahim said he is praying that his city does not continue to fall to the rebel forces.
"Aleppo is the second most important city in Syria....If you go out of Aleppo, it is occupied by the Free Syrian Army. This is something that has to do with the whole future of the district. Now, they are planning to capture the citizens, which is important. Now, after that, everything will be collapsed," he said. "You will not find the government, you will not find anything there, and (rebels) will go in and control it. That will bring many sad things for the future."
When the conflict ends, the archbishop said he believes one of the most important points of agreements between different sides will need to be over preserving the nation's religious diversity.
"The energy, the goodwill, the efforts of the all the Syrians coming from different backgrounds will help very much to rebuild Syria...Syria is not Iraq, is not Egypt, is not Libya. Those who are against any future are very tiny, a very small number," he said. "The coming constitution should mention all the rights of the religions. It should contain an opportunity to act in a positive way for all of society. And remember, we are a very religious society...I think religion can play a very positive way in the future of Syria."