“No to the [proposed U.S.] strike [against Syria], yes for dialogue, and yes for a political solution that will save the lives of thousands and thousands.”
That was the message delivered by the Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour in a Sept. 10 webinar hosted by the Presbyterian Church (USA). Jarjour, a pastor in the PCUSA’s partner church in Syria, was joined in the webinar by a fellow leader in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, as well as a Syrian-American PCUSA pastor and top officials of the U.S. denomination.
The webinar speakers agreed, in Jarjour’s words, that “there is a major consensus among the Christian leaders in Syria and in the region that any military intervention would have a detrimental effect on Christians in Syria and all the people as well in Syria, and it will not bring peace.”
The Syrian pastor stressed,“Our churches in Syria have said very clearly that we don’t want to see that our future is in the hands of anyone else but our own. … We must make our own future, and we must say that we have to be saved through our own efforts with our Muslim brothers who are with us in Syria.”
The Rev. Adeeb Awad, vice moderator of the Syrian synod, warned, “I think that the desire of the American administration, the American president, to wage a strike and just kill thousands and hundreds of thousands of people is not justified at the moment.” He added, “We have so many doubts about the intentions of the United States.”
“Why should the U.S. president be the judge for the world – regardless of the United Nations, regardless of the Congress?” Awad asked. “Why is the rush? … Let’s wait and see what the UN does.” Awad was speaking prior to the Sept. 16 UN report that gave strong circumstantial evidence implicating the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad in an Aug. 21 chemical attack that killed more than 1,000 civilians. He also was speaking before the Sept. 14 U.S.-Russian accord aimed at bringing Syria’s chemical arsenal under international control.
Praise for Russian proposal
Awad praised the initial Russian proposal that led to the accord as “a good suggestion.” Jarjour voiced his prayers that this “wonderful proposal” would be “accepted so that we can avoid war.” It would be a “great step,” he said, if the Syrian government’s “chemical weapons will be under control and not be used – if it was used; I don’t believe it was used.”
Jarjour reported, “Not only the synod, but most of the churches believe that there was such maybe poison gas attack that killed many people … but of course no one is sure who has done that, and we are not sure that it is the [Assad] regime who has done that.” Awad cited unconfirmed hearsay suggesting that it was actually the Syrian rebels who had used chemical weapons, and that the U.S. government was covering up this fact. He lent credence to conspiracy theories: “I think reports some 10 months ago started coming in that said that Western intelligence are working up a fake story to get the Syrian government in trouble using chemical weapons.”
These remarks were part of a larger pattern in which the webinar speakers deflected criticisms of Assad’s Ba’ath Party dictatorship and raised concerns about the Islamist rebels.
“In our country [the U.S.] we tend to hear about the Syrian government being repressive and killing people,” noted the Rev. Roula Alkhouri, the Syrian-born pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Batavia, N.Y. “But that’s not the only story on the ground [in Syria]. All groups have been brutal in their fighting and tactics. We hear about what the Syrian government has done, but the rebels have also terrorized the people of Syria, attacking churches, moderate Muslim leaders, bombing and hijacking civilian targets. In areas of their control, they have killed the judges and lawyers and set up their own Muslim courts where clerics would rule over the people.”
Jarjour recounted the disaster in his native city: “The whole Christian quarter of Homs that has about 11 churches – some go back to maybe the third and the fourth and fifth century – most of these churches have been destroyed, the whole quarter is besieged by militant groups, about 110,000 Christians have left there.” The Syrian pastor explained, “Churches have been living in peace and harmony, and they had their freedom under the Assad regime, and they think that they don’t want to lose that, I must say, because they are afraid that what may come [if the rebels win] may be worse.”
Syrian history as tragedy
The webinar speakers narrated Syrian history as a tragedy, in which outside forces had entered to spoil what previously had been a favorable situation. Alkhouri looked back to better times.
“In 1963 the Ba’ath Socialist Party took over Syria without any resistance,” he said. “They were welcomed by the people.” She characterized the Ba’ath agenda as “to bring peace and justice and reform to the country.”
All the speakers agreed that the 10 percent Christian minority in Syria lived well under the Ba’ath military dictatorship, which was dominated by a fellow religious minority, the Alawite sect of Islam.
“As Christians we were happy with the type of secular life that was prevalent in Syria, in that Syria had the best religious freedom in the area,” according to Awad. “Some of the top generals were Christian. Actually, the commander of the army who died in a bomb accident just a few months ago was a Roman Catholic. Christians in Syria could build churches anywhere, get money – things you couldn’t do in other parts of the Middle East.”
When Arab Spring demonstrations broke out in Syria in 2011, Awad said, “I think everybody was happy to hear calls for reform – although Syria is not the worst policed [most repressive] country in the area. Actually, the U.S. allies in the area are the most policed countries.”
In making this assertion, Awad was at odds with many human rights groups. For instance, Freedom House has consistently given Syria its lowest ratings for civil liberties and political freedom – even long before civil war broke out in 2011. Freedom House also described problems in neighboring U.S. allies such as Israel, Jordan and Turkey; however, none of these was judged to be anywhere near as repressive as Syria under Bashar al-Assad and his father, the late Hafez al-Assad.
In the webinar narrative, Syria went over the precipice in 2011. Alkhouri lamented that the “peaceful demonstrations” of that spring were “hijacked by armed [opposition] groups” that “are really fighting a proxy war” for outside interests. Awad denounced “foreign infiltration into the country from countries that are allied with the United States, like from the south Jordan and the north Turkey, pouring in of foreign fighters, especially radical Muslims affiliated with al Qaeda.”
Jarjour mourned for a Syria that felt suddenly foreign to its longtime Christian community: “The problem that the Syrian Christians have faced, unfortunately, recently, was something very strange, that they felt that they are not being accepted by the others [Muslims], that they are not wanted to be, and I must emphasize that maybe 40 years ago, 50 years ago, Christians and Muslims in Syria have lived together in peace, in wonderful Christian-Muslim coexistence, and there were no problems whatsoever.”
‘They understand their own conflicts much better than we do’
The Syrian conflict has so far taken a toll of more than 100,000 dead, two million refugees fleeing the country and six million persons internally displaced, according to United Nations statistics displayed in the webinar.
“Our people were dispersed everywhere,” Awad said, “and we had to follow them with money” to alleviate the suffering. Jarjour explained that Syrian churches, with support from the PCUSA and other international partners, are “trying to see … how we can help our Christian people not to emigrate but to stay in that country where they have been carrying the message of Christianity, where they have been witnessing to the resurrected Lord.”
Amgad Beblawi, the PCUSA mission coordinator for the Middle East, indicated that other churches in the region stood with the Syrians in opposing a U.S. military strike.
“I can tell you that not one Christian denomination in the Middle East thinks that a military action by the U.S. – or any other country for that matter – would have a positive result,” Beblawi said. “Churches here in the Middle East are unanimous that a military intervention would make things much worse at a minimum. It would possibly prolong the conflict, but it can also result in the spread of the conflict beyond Syria’s borders. There are also fears that if the situation gets out of hand that it could result in a backlash against Christian communities throughout the region.”
The mission official stressed, “We have to believe that they [Middle Eastern Christians] understand their own conflicts much better than we do.” He did not explain how, when vulnerable Christian minorities have taken sides in a conflict or are under pressure from parties to the conflict, they may not be able to give a full and unbiased account of the conflict that threatens their very existence.
Toward the close of the webinar, PCUSA Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons encouraged U.S. Presbyterians to pray for Syria, to support humanitarian relief for Syrian refugees and displaced persons, and to make their views known to the U.S. Congress.
“There are many Presbyterians who have many different opinions on the conflict,” Parsons observed, but he pointed to a resolution from the 2012 General Assembly. That resolution urged the U.S. government “to support a mediated process of cessation of violence by all perpetrators, including the Assad regime and armed opposition groups; to call for all outside parties to cease all forms of intervention in Syria; to support a strong and necessary role for the United Nations, possibly including observers and peacekeeping forces; and to refrain from military intervention in Syria.”
The Syrian participants in the webinar thanked the PCUSA for its support and involvement.
“I hope for my church in the United States – the Presbyterian Church in particular – that it will always raise the prophetic voice,” Awad declared.