Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in August 2011 more than 3 million people have lost their homes and been displaced or refugees in neighboring countries.
Pastors and other leaders from both Lebanon and Syria gathered together to host the delegation from the PC(USA) and to share their struggles, hopes and prayers as they seek to remain faithful and vibrant witnesses during this time of great adversity.
“Given this situation, we ask you Reverend Neal, and thru you all the PC(USA) synods, presbyteries and congregations to pray for peace, safety, stability and justice in Syria and for all Syrians,” began Rev. Fadi Dagher, General Secretary of the Synod of Syria and Lebanon.
“We ask you to take the influential role and action in two areas: First to urge countries that are supporting violence in different ways to know that violence will only lead to violence,” he continued.
History, Dagher urged, shows how hard it is to break the cycle of violence using violence.
“Second, we urge you to work on different levels to bring all Syrians parties to dialog so that they may found a state of democracy, peace and justice.”
“Our church partners in Syria have urged us to do all we can to oppose any military actions by any outside force including the United States” said Amgad Beblawi (World Mission, coordinator for the Middle East and Europe.) The 220th General Assembly (2012) called on the U.S. Government to “to support a mediated process of cessation of violence by all perpetrators… [and] to refrain from military intervention in Syria”.
For the Syrian pastors who were able to brave the roads and border crossing to attend the day-long conference the gathering was a break from the ever-present stress of living in the midst of what has become regular violence.
“This invitation is a sort of retreat for me – and my wife, to come to breathe fresh air and not to hear the bombs,” shared Syrian pastor Rev. Boutros Zaour who was not sure, until that morning, that he and his wife would be able to make the relatively short, but treacherous journey.
“The world is a small village – you know better than us every small event,” he continued. “But the question is we the church, the Presbyterian church, what are we doing, and can we do more?”
“We as Christians in Syria, we are really suffering,” concluded Zaour.
Dr. Mary Mikhael, former President of the Near East School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut, Lebanon, shared some of the challenging statistics with those gathered.
“As you may know a minimized report estimates that over 80,000 have been killed (as of May, 2013) but there are those who speak of 130,000,” Mikhael shared. “Most of those are civilians, with 40% being women and children,”
A Syrian government report at the same time estimated that there were 2.8 million people who had been displaced from their homes due to the escalating conflict, with over 2 million of those seeking shelter as refugees in neighboring countries.
“What can the church do in a situation like what is going on in Syria?” asked Mikhael. It is both hard and easy to answer, she admitted.
“It is easy to say the church can do nothing – but can the church do nothing? No.”
Mikhael acknowledged that this part of the world has experienced many wars and much tragedy. “But what Syria has been going through has no precedent – I can say that with confidence.”
“What can the church do in a situation like what is going on in Syria? It has to do something with what it doesn’t even have – it has to work to ease a tragic situation in Syria,” said Mikhael.
In response to the escalation of the situation in Syria PC(USA) Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons issued a statement calling upon Presbyterians in the United States to “challenge policies of our government that help to fuel conflict in Syria and proxy wars across the Middle East.”
“Now is the time to heed the voices of our church partners who pray and call and work for peace,” urged Parsons.
Now, it appears, is just such a time.