Culture

Let’s Get to Know Syrians

A worshiper at the Syriac Orthodox Church in Al-Darbasiyah, Syria, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)
When the gassing and bombing stop, we must continue paying attention.

Sometimes chemical weapons and missiles have an odd way of uniting people, however briefly.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, together, for just a moment. That should give us pause.

There was a day — I was there — when commuting New Yorkers stopped on 42nd Street outside Grand Central Station and applauded George W. Bush, that Friday after we were attacked on September 11, 2001. It wasn’t the same — we weren’t attacked, but humanity and decency and innocent human lives were — when Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his people. And for a moment, as President Donald J. Trump announced an attack on a military installation sheltering chemical weapons, you could see New York Times columnists, CNN commentators, and a broad swath of people never accustomed to supporting Trump (and even having trouble calling him president) suddenly fall silent or become cautiously supportive. There were calls for prayer, and not even in the “God must support what we’re doing” kind of way. They expressed a desire that a long-suffering people may find peace and that world leaders will exercise true wisdom — especially, frankly, leaders whom many are not inclined to associate with wisdom.

For one moment, everyone had the images of young children dead, of a father saying good-bye to his children. For a moment, we cared. Thanks be to God, we are horrified by the horrific. There are, in fact, lines to draw.

But how long will our attention stay with the people of Syria this time?

It was about a year ago now that Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart came to the United States to try to get our attention. One Sunday night, just after a hospital was attacked in Aleppo, speaking at St. Mary’s Church (the Dominican church near Yale’s campus in New Haven, Conn.), the Melkite Catholic archbishop of Aleppo pleaded with Americans: “Please pray for us. Speak about us. Put pressure on politicians.”

Speaking at the Knights of Columbus headquarters the next day, he said: “It is bad. I cry in my heart. . . . Thank God we are living still. Thank God there are still people living there. . . . I pray to God that I keep my credential: hope and faith.” (The Knights of Columbus run a Christian relief fund for Jeanbart’s people and other religious minorities in the region targeted by ISIS genocide.)

“Religious minorities in Syria want pluralism,” he has said. “Ask your politicians to insist on it.”

Jeanbart, 73, has been archbishop in Aleppo for more than two decades. The soil of Syria is irrigated with the blood of martyrs, he has said. “It is a holy land.” The church there dates back to some of the earliest days of Christianity, and it’s never been easy. It’s long involved bloodshed. “I will die there if I have to,” he said in New Haven.

“I don’t think we realize the depth of suffering of your people,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan told Archbishop Jeanbart while the two were discussing the situation a year ago on the archbishop of New York’s radio show.

“The church in Syria baptized Paul,” Jeanbart noted. “Paul was baptized by the Syrian Christians. . . . Paul came to Damascus like an ISIS. He wanted to catch Christians, to persecute them. And then he became Christian.”

Jeanbart spoke of the persecution of Syrian Christians:

We are persecuted. We don’t know why. Because for centuries we have lived there. . . .  When this war, this Arab Spring began . . . really it was something Satanic. . . . And we suffer a lot. Because nobody comes to say the truth, what is really happening and what is really at stake and what is really the problem.

Three thousand people filled the cathedral in Aleppo for Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday masses last year, even as war raged, even as Christians knew they were targets. “I feel committed,” Jeanbart said.

I feel responsible to continue this tradition. And I feel that the Lord asks me to fight to do whatever possible to let this church continue . . . the first church of Jesus Christ.

“I am trying to give hope to the faithful,” he has said to the charity Aid to the Church in Need. He tells his people to have courage, trying to witness to it himself. “Hope,” he says, “will keep us going.” “Peace will come. And when that day comes, Syria will be a beautiful country.”

The beauty of Syria is something Jeanbart likes to insist on — because it is not a land that was made for violence, he explains. And the Christians live there, preaching hope as they tend to wounds, including of course, so many of their own.

Jeanbart told Cardinal Dolan that Syria’s Christians do not hate their persecutors. “Christ told us not to have enemies. . . . We have many people in the country who help us, Muslims and others — Muslims, they are friends of ours.” A mufti has offered him help, even a place to pray in his mosque if he needs.

In his new book, The Islamic Jesus, Mustafa Akoyl explains some of the cultural gaps between East and West, particularly the hostility between Americans and Muslims in Iraq after the war: “It was that they were conquerors of a people whom they did not know and whose profound sense of the sacred they did not understand.” In an interview, I asked him: “Is it entirely fair to call the U.S. conquerors?”

He replied: “Good question. Perhaps I should have used the word ‘victors’ rather than ‘conquerors.’ Because, of course, the U.S. did not occupy and annex Iraq, it rather just toppled Saddam and soon left.” He continued:

What I meant, however, is that whenever you use military means on a colossal scale, you will cause “collateral damage” that you did not intend or even imagine. It is a good reason for having second thoughts before any military expedition.

(Akoyl supports the current U.S. “aerial bombarding of a genocidal regime.” But he hopes that the U.S. will keep “wiser action” in mind.)

I don’t know how long our attention will stay fixed on Syria and her people this time. We would be wise — and it would be just — if we remembered the people who have to live there, the mothers and fathers and families who don’t care to be in the crosshairs of war, as one friend put it on Facebook the night missiles started firing. Let’s not watch this like the latest Netflix series. Let’s try to keep our attention and prayers on these people and their needs — beyond not being gassed to death. As Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus has put it: “If you look at the last 15 years of American involvement in the Middle East, we could have done a better job knowing the people, knowing the culture, knowing the communities.” So when the gassing and bombing stop, let’s not stop paying attention, as we so often do.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here. This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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