“The more in dialogue and partnerships we can be, the more we are able to be the peacemakers we are called to be,” Beblawi told the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s Justice Committee and full board during presentations at the PMAB meeting in Louisville, Ky., Sept. 25-27.
Beblawi, coordinator of Presbyterian Church (USA) mission work in the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia, noted that Christianity has been in existence in Syria since the first century, and roughly 10 percent of the Syrian population is comprised of Christians.
The civil war in Syria has garnered national attention since peaceful protests in March 2011 turned to violence, leading to more than 111,000 deaths of civilians, soldiers and rebels, more than two million refugees leaving for surrounding countries and approximately four million who are internally displaced in the country.
“Christians have been affected. Hundreds of thousands are among those displaced,” Beblawi said. “Syria has been badly damaged as a country.”
Protests turn violent
Beblawi noted that the protests that began more than 30 months ago following such revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were met with a brutal response from the Bashar al-Assad government when those demonstrations were hijacked by as many as 15 liberal Islamist rebel groups with ties to al-Qaeda.
He said that even though the Assad regime is accused of using chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 people – including many women and children – on Aug. 21, more than half the population still supports the administration, primarily out of fear for an unknown alternative. That heinous act led U.S. President Barack Obama to seek approval from Congress to begin air strikes on Syria, a notion that has since been quelled as Russia intervened to begin talks with Syria about turning over its stockpile of chemical weapons.
“There is support for the idea of reform, but not support for ousting the regime just for the sake of ousting. They realize the alternative could be much worse,” Beblawi said. “These rebels are terrorizing citizens by attacking their villages and churches. They are Islamists fighting for an Islamist agenda.”
Beblawi said if the Assad regime fails and is ousted, there still will be fighting among the rebel factions, and hostility toward minorities like Christians is likely to increase, leading to more bloodshed and a further exodus of Syrian people.
Even in the face of such violence and upheaval, Beblawi said the Presbyterian Church, which has had a presence in Syria since 1823, needs to stand tall.
“In the midst of the turmoil and chaos, Christ calls us to be a witness to His mercy, His love and His care,” Beblawi said.
Standing in the GAP
Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion, Peace and Justice for the PCUSA, noted that organizations such as Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) are working with ecumenical partners to provide humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, and she asked that people stand in the GAP to provide additional forms of assistance.
“We need people to stand in the GAP – Give, Act, Pray,” Lisherness said. “It’s about peacemaking. The Prince of Peace is Lord over all creation, and the church should act for that peace in all the world.”
Lisherness noted a statement from PCUSA Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons that condemned the use of chemical weapons but also asked that the United States refrain from military intervention. She said it’s up to Christians here to be examples of Christ to those affected by the civil uprising in Syria, imploring American leaders to strive for peace rather than becoming involved in war.
“The more we, as Presbyterians, exercise our duties, the greater our impact will be as we seek to bear witness to Christ,” she said.
Advocates for peace
Mark Koenig, director of Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, noted in a Justice Committee meeting that the 220th General Assembly crafted a policy that calls for support to mediate a process that will end violence; all outside parties cease military intervention; a strong show of support for the situation from the United Nations; and U.S. restraint from military intervention.
“We have been advocating for peace since the beginning of the crisis,” he said. “We have been receiving letters from our brothers and sisters in that (Syrian) region thanking the PCUSA for the stand it has taken. We need to remember that we can take action by praying. Prayer is action, and I encourage you to lift up Syria.”
In a video shown to the PMAB, Dr. Mary Mikhael of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria, further emphasized the plight of Syrians, those embroiled in the civil war and those who have been forced from their homes because of it.
“Syria deserves life,” Mikhael said. “We want to live like human beings like everyone else, in peace and dignity. We don’t want more death or destruction. We seek peace in Syria. We need to come together and work for peace and reconciliation, to end the violence and tragedies Syrians have been suffering.
“We can solve the problems if both sides come to the table for face-to-face talks to make peace, end the violence and plan for the future. We need to bring this human tragedy to an end.”