Future uncertain for Syrian Christians, church leader says
Dagher urges American Presbyterians to advocate non-intervention by U.S.
Despite the growing violent turmoil in Syria, Christians in that country oppose U.S. military intervention, a leading Syrian Presbyterian told the Presbyterian News Service in an exclusive interview here July 6 during the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
“For us, we still believe the future is unclear,” said the Rev. Fadi Dagher, general secretary of the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL) and an ecumenical advisory delegate to the Assembly. “Christians [in Syria] have been peaceful, but after Bashir Al-Assad (Syria’s embattled president) we just don’t know.”
Syrian Christian churches ― there are many Presbyterian churches across the country, including large ones in each of the main cities ― “are trying to remain neutral,” Dagher said, “but the opposition doesn’t see it that way. Christians saw what happened in Iraq (where Christians were attacked from all sides and most have now left that country) and are afraid. The U.S. was no help to Christians in Iraq.
“We prefer no outside troops, especially from the U.S.,” Dagher said,” because this will be very difficult for Christians, who are too much viewed as associated with the U.S. government.”
Christians and Muslims have co-existed peacefully in Syria for 1,500 years, Dagher said. “Before this conflict, we were known as the most peaceful country in the Middle East,” he said, adding that “Syrian Christians have not fled the country ― they have just gone to safer places in Syria.”
The unsettled situation has placed the NESSL in a new role as a humanitarian agency. “We have started a humanitarian assistance program to help the people who have fled as well as the injured,” Dagher said. Funds to support the effort have come from NESSL, the PC(USA) and the Outreach Foundation ― an independent Presbyterian organization in covenant relationship with Presbyterian World Mission.
“Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is preparing to help us with capacity-building,” Dagher said, “because we have o experience with this.”
Still, it’s a challenge because the Presbyterian population in Syria numbers between 4,000 and 5,000. Beyond the large city churches in Latakieh, Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama, Presbyterians are widely scattered, with little political power.
“Christians are not perceived as ‘opposition,’” Dagher said, though some are [anti-government], of course. The opposition is mostly fanatic Muslims ― from both inside and outside Syria ― plus a significant number of defectors from the army.”
“My church’s opinion is that the situation will continue like this for some time,” Dagher said, “because other countries are interfering for their own policy reasons.”
Dagher asked American Presbyterians “to speak up for us. We are small and our voice is not heard.” He thanked Presbyterians in the U.S. for their “financial and moral support for our church.”
The main problem throughout the Middle East, he said, is the seemingly intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. While divestment [from companies profiting from non-peaceful business practices in the region] “would have been better for Christians in Syria, we are affected by statements calling for peace and justice in the Middle East and there have been many positive ones over the years.”