Christian leaders in Syria say the victor of the 2008 US presidential election will have to focus on renewing peace efforts in the Middle East, with the top priority being the settlement of the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian standoff - writes Chris Herlinger from Damascus, Syria.
"That is the heart of the problem," Antoine Audo, the Chaldean Catholic bishop of Aleppo, Syria, said in an interview conducted before the victory of Senator Barack Obama in the US presidential election on 4 November 2008. He said that settling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was an even higher regional priority than the Iraqi war, because of the way it has polarised and distorted Middle East politics and geo-relations.
However, Bishop Audo said the US-led Iraq war and the humanitarian crisis it has spawned, including the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees into Syria, must also be dealt with. He hoped that the United States "leaves the war quickly, peacefully and with honour".
He also said the United States has a clear moral responsibility to help those displaced by the war in Iraq and help them resettle to join relatives in the United States and elsewhere. Audo, who is 62, and other religious leaders suggested that US policy is to some degree entrenched and would take considerable effort to change.
The bishop said it would take a great deal of work to repair the damage the Iraq war has caused the United States in the region. Asked by Ecumenical News International about what might constitute needed change for the United States in the Middle East, Audo said, "Become more friendly and be less aggressive." Still, he said it would take years to ease feelings in the region that the Arab world continues, "to be humiliated by the West".
Audo spoke before a 26 October cross-border raid into Syria by US forces based in Iraq, an action condemned by Syria.
Another leader, Bishop Joseph Absi, the patriarchal vicar of the Greek Melkite Church in Damascus, echoed Audo's concerns, saying the Israel-Palestinian question remained key for easing overall tensions in the region. Also important, said Absi, Audo and others, would be what they see as a more even-handed policy in the region. Currently, they argue, US policy is too heavily weighted toward Israel.
"If you solve that conflict, you solve the problem of peace," Absi, who is also aged 62, said of the Palestinian-Israeli standoff.
Yet Bishop Absi did not minimise the effect of the Iraq war on the region. "You confuse the world," he said when asked by ENI about the nature of US power in the Middle East. "If you leave Iraq, it's a problem. If you stay it's a problem."
The double-edged nature of US power in the region was also a concern for Samer Laham, director of ecumenical relations for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus. "You have a role to play in peace and stability," Laham told Ecumenical News International of US policy. "But you're leading the world into challenges, problems and instability."
US officials in Syria and Washington defend their country's efforts as supporting peace and stability in the Middle East, and say the United States is committed to being fair to Israel, its Arab neighbours and the Palestinians. They also say the U.S. is doing much to ease humanitarian burdens for displaced Iraqis.
In a statement earlier this year, the US State Department said the government in Washington "has increased humanitarian assistance for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq from US$43 million in 2006 to a total of US$208 million so far this year. Since 2003, the US government has been the single largest contributor of humanitarian assistance for refugees and Iraqi IDPs, providing more than US$500 million to date."
Chris Herlinger, a New York-based stringer for ENI, was among the recipients of Catholic Relief Services' 2008 Eileen Egan Award. The award from the US-based humanitarian agency included a recent trip to the Middle East.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]