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November 3, 2013

In midst of Syrian war, giant bronze statue of Jesus arises

(Continued)

BEIRUT —

The project, called “I Have Come to Save the World,” is run by the London-based St. Paul and St. George Foundation, which Al-Ghadban directs. It was previously named the Gavrilov Foundation, after a Russian businessman, Yuri Gavrilov.

Documents filed with Britain’s Charity Commission describe it as supporting “deserving projects in the field of science and animal welfare” in England and Russia, but the commission’s accounts show it spent less than 250 pounds ($400) in the last four years.

Al-Ghadban said most of the financing came from private donors, but did not supply further details.

Russians have been a driving force behind the project — not surprising given that the Kremlin is embattled Assad’s chief ally, and the Orthodox churches in Russia and Syria have close ties. Al-Ghadban, who spoke to The Associated Press from Moscow, is Syrian-Russian and lives in both countries.

Al-Ghadban said he began the project in 2005, hoping the statue would be an inspiration for Syria’s Christians. He said he was inspired by Rio de Janeiro’s towering Christ the Redeemer statue.

He commissioned an Armenian sculptor, but progress was slow. A series of his backers died, including Valentin Varennikov, a general who participated in the 1991 coup attempt against then President Mikhail Gorbachev. He later sought President Vladimir Putin’s backing for the statue project.

Varennikov died in 2009.

Another backer, Patriarch Ignatius IV, the Lebanon-based head of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and All the East, died in 2012. He had donated the land for the statue, according to church official Bishop Ghattas Hazim.

By 2012, the statue was ready, but Syria was aflame, causing the project’s biggest delay, al-Ghadban said.

Majority Sunni Muslims dominate the revolt, and jihadists make up some of the strongest fighting groups. Other Muslim groups along with the 10-percent Christian minority have stood largely with Assad’s government, or remained neutral, sometimes arming themselves to keep hard-line rebels out of their communities.

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