Seventeen months after demonstrations began in Syria, more than two million people have been displaced by ongoing conflict, with hundreds of thousands internally displaced and others seeking refuge in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. According to the United Nations, an estimated 19,000 people have been killed, more than 3 million have lost their jobs, and many more are finding it increasingly difficult to meet basic needs.
In March of 2011, the Arab Republic of Syria became swept up in a people’s movement for political change. Tired of the tyranny and corruption of the al-Assad regime, Syrian civilians publically demanded that their constitutional rights be respected and protected by the government. But what started as a non-violent movement for basic rights, spiraled into a civil war after being hijacked by armed groups, including some radical Islamists.
Amidst this chaos and confusion stand 20 Presbyterian congregations located throughout Syria. They are part of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), which was established by Presbyterian mission workers more than 150 years ago, and has been in close partnership with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ever since.
As the armed combat sweeps through the country, many of these Presbyterian congregations have launched relief efforts or joined national humanitarian campaigns to address the needs of the internally displaced and to protect the property of those who have already fled their homes.
As a Presbyterian pastor in the area has said, “This is a new reality (for us), which compels us as churches and ministers to try to meet the urgent needs of those entrusted to us. This is an essential part of our calling in this society, given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In addition to seeking food and medical supplies, church officials and lay people are attempting to address the psychological trauma experienced by all who come through their doors.
Besides offering what humanitarian support they can, Christians in Syria are trying their utmost to stay neutral in what has become a pugnacious and convoluted situation. The Rev. Fadi Dagher, General Secretary of NESSL, points out: “Syrian Presbyterians remember the plight of Iraqi Christians following the US-led invasion of 2003. This minority population seemed to be attacked from all sides, inciting a mass exodus to Syria and other neighboring countries.
Almost a decade later, many Iraqi Christians are still reluctant to return. This is worrisome to Syrian Christians. Though Syria has historically been a safe haven for this population, attacks on Christians and church buildings are becoming increasingly widespread, making their security in the region quite precarious.
In response to the immense suffering of the displaced, NESSL is establishing a humanitarian relief arm in Beirut, Lebanon. With assistance from the PC(USA) and other ecumenical partners, NESSL has been able to provide financial support to over 110 displaced Syrian families since the conflict began. Local Presbyterian congregations in Lebanon have provided shelter in homes and church buildings for those who have fled the country to evade the fighting. PC(USA) Regional Liaison Nuhad Tomeh observes, “We are seeing the good work of NESSL multiply as more and more local congregations are raising relief funds to assist the displaced.”
Presbyterian World Mission and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) are in conversation with NESSL regarding capacity building and training to enable the Synod to address the rising needs of Syrian refugees. World Mission and PDA have additionally issued an appeal to PC(USA) constituents to assist the church in its humanitarian presence.
Last month, members of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and the Syria-Lebanon Mission Network, who are in close communication with Syrian Christians, proposed a commissioner’s resolution for the 220th General Assembly. This resolution calls for Presbyterians to “become more fully informed about what is actually happening in Syria, …. [and ] urge the U.S. government to support a mediated process of cessation of violence by all perpetrators, … and to refrain from military intervention in Syria.” This resolution was approved by the General Assembly, thus making it a new church mandate.
Dagher, who attended the General Assembly, endorsed the resolution saying, “We prefer no outside troops, especially from the U.S. because this will make it very difficult for Christians, who are too much viewed as associated with the U.S. government.”
To date, the United States government has not pursued military action in Syria, though an array of sanctions have been enforced since the beginning of the conflict. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has emphasized the need to dispense “non-lethal assistance” to Syrian citizens in the form of humanitarian aid and recently announced that the U.S. will be sending an additional $5.5 million in relief to Syrian refugees.
It is clear, however, that the United States is leaning toward supporting the armed opposition groups, despite its divided composition and history of violence. Back in April of 2012, Clinton asserted that the United States would go beyond humanitarian aid to support “civil opposition groups” by way of providing communication technology. The United Kingdom is embracing a similar strategy, as Foreign Secretary William Hague recently approved £5 million in non-lethal aid for Syria’s opposition groups.
Many Syrians are leery of anyone taking sides in this war and find this outspoken support to be rash. As a Syrian church leader who asked to remain anonymous cautions: “I very much doubt that we can describe what is happening in Syria as a people’s revolution. It is my conviction that ‘revolutions’ that promote violence do not harvest a positive outcome.” This assertion supports popular, Christian sentiment that the conflict in Syria is driven by many self-interests that rarely work to uphold the rights of the Syrian people.