Syrian Christian Leaders in Washington

From January 26-29, 2014, the Westminster Institute and Barnabas Aid hosted a delegation of Syrian Christian leaders in Washington, D.C., in order to raise awareness of the humanitarian catastrophe that the Syrian conflict has become, and to explore concrete steps that can be taken by the United States to help end the crisis and to protect Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in Syria. At the conclusion of their trip, the members of the delegation issued the following statement.

We are a group of Christian leaders who came from Syria to Washington this week in order to tell the story of the suffering of Syria’s people.  Newspapers and televisions have shown the images of bombings and destruction, but these cannot convey the depth of individual suffering.  We came to tell the story of a young Catholic man named Fadi from the Valley of Christians (Wadi al Nasara).  On his way home from work one day he was forced out of his car by an armed group and shot. They cut off his head and took it with them, leaving the body.  His family had to bury the decapitated body.  And we wanted the West to know what happened on November 11th, when rebels fired mortar rockets at the Armenian Christian Tarkmanchats High School in Damascus just as the children were leaving for the day.  Their school bus was hit and four first-graders and the bus driver were killed.  Just a few weeks ago, on January 6th, the day of the Armenian Christmas, 10 Kurdish Muslims and two Armenian Christians s on a bus leaving Aleppo were abducted by ISIS fighters.  The two Armenians were taken from the room where the 12 were held; a few hours later one of the rebels came into the room holding two large cookie boxes, which they offered to the Kurds as gifts.  They opened the boxes and found inside the heads of the two Armenians.  On April 22, 2013, two bishops were kidnapped while on a humanitarian mission, and we still have no idea of their fate.  Eleven nuns were abducted from the historic city of Maaloula and they are being held in captivity.  Forty churches have been looted, burned, or destroyed. Nearly 500,000 Christians are internally displaced.  Another 300,000 have had to flee from Syria altogether.

We came here to the United States, at the invitation of Barnabas Aid and the Westminster Institute, because we believe these stories and many others have not been heard.¬† The media and human rights groups in the West have been largely silent on the ordeal of the Christians in Syria. But we have been greatly encouraged by the very powerful response of those we met with‚ÄĒmembers of the Congress and Senate, State Department, U.S. Institute of Peace, NGOs, academics, church leaders, media and interested citizens.¬† All acknowledge the difficulty of the situation in Syria, and that there is no easy resolution to the war.¬† However, all agreed that religious freedom and protection of minorities must be a part of any future in Syria. We must make every effort to preserve the mosaic of religions and ethnicities that have made up Syria for thousands of years, and Christians must be a part of this mosaic, in this country that Pope John Paul II called the Cradle of Christianity.

Syria has become the central battleground for Al Qaeda and other extremists from around the globe.  According to CNN, Israeli Army Intelligence reported on January 26th that an estimated 30,000 foreign jihadists are now fighting in Syria. We believe the only solution now to ending the spiraling violence lies with the Geneva peace process and in stopping the influx of foreign fighters into Syria. We urge the American government to make sure that these two elements go side by side.

We ask the American people to pray for Syria, to pray for an end to the violence, and to tell their lawmakers that religious freedom and the protection of minorities are important to them.  The situation of the Christians in Syria is a tragic one, both for those who have been able to stay in their homes and those who have been displaced, and we therefore also appeal for humanitarian support.  The refugee camps are unsafe for Christians, and so they must turn to their neighbors and families for help, often placing a tremendous burden on families already strained by three years of war.

The calling of the church is to serve as a prophetic voice, challenging governments and societies for the building of communities where peace, justice and freedom prevail.¬† We are now calling on the United States as a superpower with a moral standing in the world–its leaders and citizens alike–to seek wisdom and understanding in dealing with conflict, in accordance with the values of their Founding Fathers.

May the peace of God be with us all.

Rev. Adib Awad, General Secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon.

Rev. Dr Riad Jarjour, Presbyterian clergyman from Homs, Syria, formerly General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches (1994-2003).

H.E. Bishop Dionysius Jean Kawak, Metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox Church.

His Grace Bishop Armash Nalbandian, Primate of the Armenian Church of Damascus.

For more on Armenia, see Svante Cornell’s lecture on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Crisis.