While a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was the most headline-grabbing event of their recent trip to Syria and Lebanon, two leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) said it was the time spent listening to and learning from partners on the ground that was most important.
For about a week in January, Amgad Beblawi, Presbyterian World Mission’s coordinator for the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe, and Laurie Kraus, coordinator of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, visited with members of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), a PC(USA) partner.
The NESSL invited Beblawi and Kraus, along with other U.S. Presbyterians and European Christians, to Syria and Lebanon to discuss the humanitarian response to the crisis in Syria and to learn about the holistic role the church plays in the situation.
The Presbyterians went “to listen to our partners and to learn about their efforts in addressing humanitarian need and listen to how they understand the conflict and the role of the local church in solving the conflict and being a witness during this time, and to come back here and help the PC(USA) partner with them in that,” Beblawi said.
The role of the church as a peacemaker is very important, Beblawi said, adding that the conflict in Syria isn’t a civil war but is instead a proxy war in which many countries — including the United States — are players.
“It’s not only a civil war over there between Sunnis and Shiites. There are a lot of outside factors that are contributing to this,” he said. “Our response to this should not only be humanitarian but our response also should take into consideration the foreign policy of our government.”
The PC(USA)’s partners in Syria and Lebanon ask that U.S. Presbyterians advocate for a change in U.S. foreign policy, especially calling for no outside intervention in Syria.
“(The partners) think that the United States’ position and actions have been counterproductive at best,” Beblawi said. “The General Assembly position on this differs significantly from that of the U.S. government. It’s actually the opposite.”
The 220th General Assembly (2012) approved a resolution called “On Prayer and Action for Syria” that urges the U.S. government to:
- support a mediated process of cessation of violence by all perpetrators, including the Assad regime and armed opposition groups,
- 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.
Beblawi and Kraus shared this information during their visit with Assad — a meeting that was unplanned but important for the NESSL.
When applying for visas for a planned day trip to Syria, NESSL leaders and the visiting delegation were invited to meet with Assad. NESSL leaders asked their visitors to accompany them to the meeting.
“As partners in mission, the decision was very clear for us that we should accompany them,” Beblawi said. “This is what mission in partnership is all about.”
Such a meeting would help the NESSL to be better supported in its relief work during the crisis and to have a stronger voice once the conflict is over, Kraus said.
“The partners very much wanted to get their European and American partners in front of someone from Assad’s government because they believe … that if Assad’s regime believes that the West — and particularly the church in the West — is watching and supporting the church in Syria that it will increase their opportunities and their chances to be taken seriously as partners in mediating an end to the conflict and that they will be better supported or tolerated in terms of the relief work they’re doing,” Kraus said.
With the exception of Assad himself and a notetaker, no government officials were present at the meeting. The moderator and general secretary of the NESSL were there, as was the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Damascus. The American Presbyterians represented The Outreach Foundation, the Syria/Lebanon Mission Network, The Presbyterian Foundation and Presbyterian World Mission.
Assad spoke of Syria’s history as a religiously and culturally pluralistic society and said that he’s committed to such diversity because of its importance to the stability of the Middle East and as an antidote to radical Islamists.
“He said at one point, ‘Coexistence isn’t good enough.’ He said, ‘We have to have genuine cohabitation,’” Kraus said. “Cohabitation means that we blend our lives and we blend our cultures and we learn from one another and we reciprocate with one another.”
After telling Assad about the 2012 General Assembly resolution and presenting him with a letter from Stated Clerk the Rev. Gradye Parsons, Beblawi and Kraus focused their comments and questions on Syrian refugees and humanitarian aid for Syrians. They also praised the work of NESSL pastors, many of whom have remained in Syria despite the violence toward Christians.
“We’re concerned about the suffering of his people, and the pastors of the Syrian church are being very generous and brave both in sacrificing their own personal comfort and safety so that they could maintain a presence in communities whose Christian population have really been under siege,” Beblawi said. “It was important to us to say how much we honored our colleagues’ personal and professional sacrifices and how important it was that (Assad) continue to see them as a resource because they were providing care to people regardless of their religious tradition.”
Kraus spoke about PDA’s relief work and humanitarian aid, adding that the organization works with PC(USA) partners on the ground to determine the best course of action.
“It’s their country and their privilege and responsibility,” she said. “And it’s our great privilege to be able to help in a small way.”
In an interview with Presbyterian News Service after the trip, Kraus said that PDA has received about $226,000 in donations for aid in the Middle East. This number includes appeals for relief in Syria, which began in February 2012. In contrast, PDA has received more than $2.3 million in donations for November’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
It’s been hard to cultivate giving for the Syrian crisis largely because people don’t understand the situation, Kraus said.
“A complicated narrative shouldn’t prevent us from being generous. Because people are in need,” she said. “The suffering of the Syrian people has gone on for over two years and is going to go on a lot longer. And the Lebanese people who are trying to take them in as well. Even though it’s not a natural disaster, it’s a catastrophic livelihood disaster.”
During a visit to a refugee camp on the border of Syria and Lebanon, Kraus observed drastic inadequacies in living qualities. She visited the same camp in July and had seen a smaller, well-run camp. Now, with the total number of Syrian refugees surpassing 1 million, the camp and others have become overrun, with very limited facilities and no schools for refugee children.
Although the NESSL is maintaining its commitment to service, “there is definitely a weariness and a wariness from the people of Lebanon who really aren’t seeing any end in sight and aren’t sure how much longer many of these communities can withstand this burden on resources,” Kraus said.
Presbyterians are intelligent and able to wrestle with complex issues with compassion and justice, and Kraus encouraged them to do so in this situation.
“The complexity of this story is something that I think Presbyterians are able to uniquely incorporate … and find a faith way through it,” she said. “In our very best, that’s how we’ve spoken truth to power in the past.”
The group worshiped at the Damascus Presbyterian Church and saw the visit as an opportunity to express Christian solidarity. While the Western Christians were in Syria and Lebanon, many people expressed gratitude for their presence.
“Many said. ‘Please go back and tell the story that you see for yourself,’” Beblawi said.
To donate to PDA’s work in Syria, click this link.