NEW YORK -- Bringing refugees from Syria to the West is not the answer to the crisis, said the leader of Catholics in the disaster-stricken country, insisting that more can be done to help displaced people both in-country and elsewhere in the Middle East.
While sympathizing with refugees who seek a new life in the West, Damascus-based Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch urged that aid programs be boosted both within Syria and in neighbouring countries and thus enable Christians to stay in the region.
Re-asserting the calls of many Middle East Church leaders for Christians and others not emigrate from the Middle East, Patriarch Gregorios said that there would be little chance of them returning if they were given asylum in countries such as the, the USA and Australia.
In an interview with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Patriarch Gregorios said: "It is better to help the [destitute] people within the country or the region and not invite them to go outside.
"Of course, we cannot decide for ourselves what response our people should make, the suffering is so great, but the real answer is to provide more help -- more relief -- on the spot and not outside, which will encourage them to leave.
"But if they must go, we understand their situation."
He added: "The danger is that if they leave the Middle East, they will never go back. This applies to other groups as well as the Christians."
The Patriarch's comments come a day after British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the British Government was actively considering a plan to accept "particularly vulnerable" Syrian refugees into the country, even as the Secretary stressed that the UK government's "main effort" remains helping destitute people in and around Syria.
Patriarch Gregorios said that, in spite of the overwhelming pressures on Jordan, Turkey and other countries that share borders with Syria, it remains possible to step up aid programs there. He said: "There is more that can be done locally -- within the region." Appealing for more help, the Patriarch said: "Daily the suffering is getting worse, daily the problems are growing. The level of suffering is much greater than the aid provided."
The Patriarch's comments come against the backdrop of Syrian peace talks that are making little progress so far. "It is really very important that the US and Russia and Europe have one common vision, this can help the two groups [Syrian Government and Opposition] go ahead," he said. "When the big countries are divided, it means the others will be too. What matters is that we have a local, Syrian solution to the problem."
The Patriarch repeated a call for an end to the import of arms into Syria -- especially those ending up in the hands of Jihadist and other extremist groups.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. Websites: United States, Great Britain, Australia, Ireland.