A Lantern in the Murk: Interfaith Dialogue & Syria

Monday, July 22nd, 2013 4:14 pm

Syria: Baathist and Revived Independence Flags, combined


The movement in Syria precipitated in the wake of Arab Spring activity elsewhere, beginning with massive nonviolent demonstrations in January of 2011. That is common knowledge. Resistance of any kind was swiftly, forcefully suppressed by Al-Assad’s Baathist regime and bringing the conflict and context into focus, even in its very midst, became an impossible errand. Fragmentation, I think, is a companion of ignorance and oppression; Syria is no exception. Though the Assad regime has always been secular, more concerned with power than orthodoxy, the religious (and ethnic) fissures of the region became high cards in the Baathist party’s hand, just as they had been for Ottoman and European administrations.

My colleagues in Occupied Palestine speculated that Syrian Christians, as a minority, may have been reluctant to see Assad’s absolute dictatorship stumble because they indirectly benefitted from the stability of the regime. Though far from being privileged, Syrian Christians had President Assad standing between them and exclusionary Islamist governments. In the power vacuum following Sadam Hussein’s fall in Iraq, many Chaldean Christians decided to migrate and Syrians might guess, perhaps rightly, that their counterparts would become second-class citizens in Iraq. At the same time, when minorities are endowed with protections, whether they be Kurds, Jews, Druze, Christians, or Shiite Muslims like Assad himself, resentment may brew in the Sunni majority. Not surprisingly, the most robust and well organized elements of the Syrian resistance are Sunni Islamists of varying tints.

Much can be said about the nationalist and international political ‘chemistry’ and reactions within and surrounding Syria. The dynamics of control in the middle-East are notoriously complex. Media, often operating  from blinding distances, may place familiar, simplistic tags onto events in order to preclude thinking about both ancient or developing nuances. Audiences may forget – or never know—that the protests began in a stew of liberation rhetoric: predominantly Arab Muslims who believe in secular democracy, just as in Tahrir Square (Egypt), and their neighbors too. These demographics are least visible in our news because they contradict long-running storylines; it is easier for news outlets to resell monolithic misconceptions about the region, especially when right-wing extremists do, in fact, exist. Worse, they have support from sects outside Syria.

WCC LogoThose groups and the regime, perhaps less obvious players too, could have a stake in deepening religious fissures ─ to the detriment of Syrians as a whole. I started following World Council of Churches (WCC) updates on the churches in Syria almost two years ago. Personnel have been murdered or taken captive as violence escalated, prompting the WCC General Secretary to forge positions, clarifications. Some group wants to aggravate a festering distrust. Since we are not angels hovering over those abductions, we cannot know if it is an extremist militia intending to scare the Church out of Syria or, rather, Baathist militia framing them, injecting the fragmentation which keeps resistance diffuse, tribal, and alien. It could be either and the consequences are dire.

With Syrian communities in splinters, the WCC’s relationship with Muslim clerics is a glowing lantern in the smokes of war. Because of ongoing interfaith dialogue, leaders from both faith traditions can bilaterally condemn violent acts as manipulative and reaffirm the common cause of a society for all Syrians. Too often, inter-faith work is understood as only theological when its purposes are also social and political. The beatitudes, from The Sermon on the Mount, identify peace-makers as off-spring of The Divine. Jesus stresses overcoming anger and being reconciled in his speech, where perfect orthodoxy does not merit much attention. Regardless of disagreements over the nature and law of God, people in many faiths cannot lack a relationship with one another without critically fragmenting their community. Everyone is at risk when we fail to build that trust and extend our hands in vulnerability long enough to make a vital connection.

Unfortunately, the conflict in Syria promises to get worse, according to analysis of June’s happenings. As the revolution became more religiously charged, the divisions became more and more inflamed, so that Assad can rely increasingly on foreign, sectarian allies. That picture is too complex for this article but we can turn to our own communities and identify the hairline fractures which, under pressure, turn into horrendous breakages. Through organizations like Shoulder-to-Shoulder, citizens of the United States can knit a community fabric stronger than the factions (political, religious, ethnic, and otherwise) who try to shatter our dream of full participation for all.

Meanwhile, our witness to Syria has to be one that supports Syria’s most vulnerable. Rather than standing with one ideology, every effort should be made to ensure the education, health, and safety of displaced children in order to teach them better ways: compassion, coexistence, and cohesion.  

Note: The flag at the top of the article reflects Syria's split; the flag with the red stripe and two green stars (left) is used by the current regime while the flag with the green stripe and three red stars (right) is a revived nationalist flag first used in 1932, now used by Syrian opposition forces.


JD (John Daniel) Gore is a young adult missionary working through the General Board of Global ministries. JD serves Methodist Federation for Social Action as the 'Associate for Movement Building' and worked previously in Bethlehem for The Wi'am Center. JD is a product of the Michigan State Wesley Foundation and of greater West Michigan. He aspires to work for a culture of acceptance and collective responsibility through better dialogue and creative projects.

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