LOUISVILLE (PNS) — Mary Mikhael is in the United States to spread the word about how the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon is responding to the violence and turmoil in Syria.
But when she’s tried to get updates from U.S. media here, she hasn’t learned much.
“You hardly have news about this situation,” she said in a Feb. 20 interview with Presbyterian News Service.
Mikhael, who retired as president of Beirut’s Near East School of Theology in late 2011, will spend three weeks in the United States meeting with Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders, schools and congregations to share updates on how the PC(USA) partner church is ministering to those in the region.
She will cut a wide swath during her visit, traveling to Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky and Washington, D.C. before returning to her Beirut home March 8.
Congregations in Syria — where two Presbyterian churches have been destroyed — are working with internally displaced persons (IDPs) to provide spiritual care and worship services. One pastor came to Homs after the Presbyterian church there had been destroyed. He is now leading weekly services from a church-related nursing home nearby. He then travels to another town to lead worship for IDPs there and meets with other clusters of Presbyterians in the area.
The church is also working to provide financial aid and food, clothing and medicine to IDPs. Though exact figures are impossible to calculate, an estimated 1 million Syrians are internally displaced in the country.
“Churches have been heavily involved in helping people with daily needs plus helping them spiritually,” Mikhael said. “Many have lost everything. They thought the conflict would be over in weeks or a month ― now it’s been more than a year,” she added with a deep sigh.
A chief concern for the church is encouraging Christians to stay in Syria. Many have fled to other countries, but it is important for Syria to maintain a Christian population, Mikhael said.
“We cannot empty Syria of its Christian community,” she said. “Christianity existed in Syria ever since Pentecost and it would be a sin for it to be emptied.”
The Synod of Syria and Lebanon has provided $50,000 of its own money to help its displaced members and has also received aid from the PC(USA) and The Outreach Foundation, among other partners and international agencies.
“No church — no church ever — can carry this responsibility on its own in the Middle East,” Mikhael said, adding that “you cannot say ‘no’ to the displaced people of your church under any circumstances.”
More than 350,000 Syrian refugees have poured into Lebanon since the Syrian crisis began. Lebanese society is divided about whether to provide aid to these refugees, Mikhael said. Some want to close the undefined borders between the two countries and some want to provide help as Syria helped Lebanese refugees in the past. But Lebanon is already overwhelmed with refugees.
“We cannot even properly care for the refugees from Palestine who have been here many years,” Mikhael said. “The churches were expecting many Christians from Syria to come to Lebanon and they were trying to find ways to respond to their needs.”
Interfaith work exists in Lebanon to some degree, but faiths are largely concentrated on helping their own members, she said.
Violence is violence, and no participant in a war is pure, Mikhael said. But the situation in Syria has brought a kind of criminal and brutal violence that is unimaginable. Children are being trained to kill, innocent civilians are being murdered and bodies are being dismembered and thrown in rivers, she said.
“The Syrian situation is very tragic because the whole world seems not to understand that Syrians have not been brought up this way,” she said. “Christians have historically fared well in secular Syria, where we have a saying, ‘Religion belongs to God, the country belongs to all.’”
Before the conflict erupted two years ago, Syrians lived securely and in peace. Their world was not perfect, but they were able to hold jobs and function in society while steering clear of the government.
“It was free for us to do what we need to do as Christians,” Mikhael said.
But now, Syrians — whose country once hosted refugees from around the region — are refugees themselves, living in camps where they are subjected to violence, rape and bitter cold.
“It has been very difficult, to say the least,” she said. “It’s a very big burden on everyone’s shoulders. It is a tragic situation in the proper sense.”
For Mikhael, having one side in the conflict win over the other is not the answer. She hopes that government and anti-government forces can come together and arrive at an agreement.
“I say 100 times no to [Syrian president] Assad. We are not in love with Assad. We are in love with the country. But if he is forced out without a political solution it will be loose hell in Syria,” she said. “We must plan the future together.
“We cry for peace and justice and international help and for people to come and sit together and dialogue,” she said. “Nowhere else have so many taken sides. We now speak of war ‘on’ Syria, not war ‘in’ Syria. Why do so many wage criminal activity in the name of God, with tons of money coming from other countries?”
The Synod of Syria and Lebanon is asking its partners for prayer, solidarity, partnership and the promotion of peace and justice.
“We must understand the root causes of evil practices and work as churches to uproot them,” she said. “Unless we know the root causes, we can really be unjust ourselves.”