Russian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Kirill on Saturday started a peacemaking bid to unrest-swept Syria for talks with President Bashar al-Assad and other leaders, officials said.
“I am deeply convinced that all the problems can be solved peacefully and through dialogue,” Kirill told journalists at Damascus airport, the Russian news agencies RIA Novosti and Interfax reported.
“The most important thing is that human blood is not spilled. History teaches us that when human blood is spilled it will be hard to solve the problem,” he said.
Patriarch Kirill is due to meet Assad on Sunday and travel on to Lebanon the next day for talks with President Michel Suleiman, the church said in a statement.
It did not explicitly tie the trip to the eight months of violence gripping Russia’s traditional regional ally, but a spokesman for the patriarch said Kirill was travelling in a peacemaking role.
“His Holiness the patriarch is travelling to the region with a mission that includes that of peacemaker,” spokesman Igor Yakimchuk told Interfax. “Most likely, he will issue a call for a dialogue between all sides.”
Kirill will also meet with Ignatius Zakka I, the Syriac Orthodox Church Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, who is based in Damascus and operates independently while maintaining close relations with Moscow.
Christians account for between four and nine percent of Syria’s predominantly Muslim population.
Russia has rejected tough U.N. sanctions against Assad’s regime for his deadly crackdown on the opposition, fearing that the move could lead to foreign military intervention similar the one Moscow opposed in Libya.
But past bids by Moscow to force Assad to accept political reforms and end the violence have been fruitless, leading to a warning from President Dmitry Medvedev in October for the Syrian leader to either change course or step down.
Upon his arrival in Damascus, Patriarch Kirill will have a brotherly talk with His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatios of Antioch and All the East.
On the same day, there will be the opening of an exhibition devoted to relations between the Patriarchate of Antioch and the Russian Orthodox Church and a presentation of the Arabic version of Patriarch Kirill’s book ‘Freedom and Responsibility: In a Search for Harmony’.
His Holiness Kirill is also expected to meet with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Prime Minister Adel Safar as well as Grand Mufti of Syria Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun.
Patriarch Kirill will visit the Moscow Patriarchate Representation to the Orthodox Church of Antioch located in the church of St. Ignatios the God-Bearer in Damascus and meet with compatriots there.
On November 14, His Holiness will visit St. George’s Cathedral in Beirut to conduct a thanksgiving there.
His Holiness will meet with President of Lebanon, Gen. Michel Suleiman.
He will also meet with the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Bechara Boutros al-Rahi.
It is planned that on November 15, His Holiness will visit the Balamand University in northern Lebanon to meet with its faculty and students. He will also present the Arabic version of his book on Freedom and Responsibility there.
The visit of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill to the Orthodox Church of Antioch will consolidate the traditional bonds of friendship between the two Churches and between the peoples of Syria and Lebanon and the countries which belong to the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate.
During the meetings in Syria and Lebanon, it is planned to discuss further development of bilateral cooperation, also in the fields of pan-Orthodox interaction, pastoral care and some other topical subjects.
In his talks with the Primate of the Orthodox Church of Antioch and leaders of major religious communities in the two countries, Patriarch Kirill will touch upon the political situation in the Middle East and the situation of the Christian minority in the region. He will also discuss ways of developing dialogue between religious communities and increasing the contribution of religious leaders in promoting peace and public accord.
His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatios IV of Great Antioch and All the East was born in 1920 in Syria. He was elected Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Antioch in 1979. He visited the Russian Orthodox Church in 1981, 1988 and 2003.
There is a Moscow Patriarchate Representation to the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, functioning in Damascus.
There are Russian-speaking communities in Beirut, Homs, Aleppo, Latakia, and some other places in Syria and Lebanon.
There is a Representation of the Patriarchate of Antioch to the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia which works in Moscow.