Reuters logo
in 6 months
GUESTVIEW:In Syrian conflict, American faith communities aid displaced, advocate for non-violent solutions
February 8, 2017 / 1:19 PM / in 6 months

GUESTVIEW:In Syrian conflict, American faith communities aid displaced, advocate for non-violent solutions

22 Min Read

Syrian refugee Baraa Haj Khalaf (L) is greeted by her mother Fattoum Haj Khalaf after arriving at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. February 7, 2017.Kamil Krzaczynski

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans is a religion columnist for Lancaster Newspapers, Inc., as well as a freelance writer.

When the long-running war in Syria makes headlines in the United States, it is often because of an outbreak of sustained violence, as in the shelling of eastern Aleppo late last year, or when there is a debate over whether to accept Syrian refugees in the United States.

Last week President Donald J. Trump created an executive order that bars refugees from any country for 120 days, and citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries, who can’t enter for a minimum of ninety days.

Syrian refugees are prohibited from entering the United States for an undetermined period.

The order has elicited protests from religious organizations that have been working them in the United States and elsewhere. It is currently being challenged in the United States courts.

“We’re trying to figure out what the next steps are” said the Rev. Steven Martin, communications director for the National Council of Churches, which has a collegial relationship with the Middle East Council of Churches. “There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty.”

In a pastoral message addressing Trump’s executive order, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, said that she had already conveyed her concerns to the Trump administration.

“I agree with the importance of keeping our country secure as the administration stated in its executive order last Friday, but I am convinced that temporarily banning vulnerable refugees will not enhance our safety nor does it reflect our values as Christians,” she said. “Instead, it will cause immediate harm by separating families, disrupting lives, and denying safety and hope to brothers and sisters who are already suffering.”

The daunting challenges of navigating the religious and political Syrian landscape may have kept many denominations from taking on a public advocacy role, as many Protestant groups have done in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But more quietly, United States denominations, including the Mennonites and the Roman Catholics, continue to send aid, both to Syria and to surrounding countries that have taken in millions of displaced families.

Though the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) don’t have churches on the ground in Syria, they are engaged in multiple ministries both in the Middle East and here in the United States, said Peter Makari, who represents the two denominations as executive for Middle East and Europe Global Ministries.

That includes humanitarian support for displaced persons both in the Middle East and in Europe, using a web of partnerships with local denominations and ecumenical bodies to provide funds for food, shelter, clothing and other necessities.

As part of Church World Service, a collaborative network of Christian denominations and communions, both denominations have also been advocates for ongoing refugee resettlement, said Makari.

In the U.S., the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees (MFA), which has more than 70 participating organizations, continues to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and to act as an interpreter for Americans struggling to understand the complicated conflict. MFA also provides material support for Syrian refugees (experts estimate the ongoing war has killed approximately 500, 000 Syrians and left at least 11 million displaced, with millions more in need of humanitarian aid).

A project of the New York City-based Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, the MFA issued a statement on Monday condemning last week’s administration directives.

“The post-World War II promise ‘Never Again’ is being violated. We cannot stand idly by as victims of war and terror suffer and perish because of unfounded fear and prejudice,” it said.

Most religious organizations in the United States work through intermediaries on the ground in the Middle East, either in Syria itself or neighboring countries like Lebanon and Jordan, says Shadi Martini, Syrian advisor to the Multifaith Alliance.

In the United States, they direct resources to the Syrian refugees here. In 2016, according to the Pew Research Organization, approximately 12,500 were admitted. It is highly uncertain how many President Trump will allow in.

Syrian refugees attempting to resettle in the United States, in contrast to many countries in Europe, have undergone strict background checks, said Martini.

It's been challenging to explain both the roots of the situation in Syria and the needs of refugees to an American public grappling with a lack of information about Muslims and religious minorities in Syria as well as the different situations confronting refugees in the United States and Europe, said Martini.

Most minority religious groups have been living peacefully side-by-side for more than a thousand years, said Martini, a Muslim married to a Christian, who moved here in 2012 and became a U.S. citizen in 2015. Now, under the pressure of civil war, some religious communities have aligned with the government of Bashir al-Assad and some against,

“We try to explain to people, especially in the United States, that there is an organized process here, involving background checks to make sure people who come here are not a threat to the security of the country,” he said.

While he noted that American religious leaders have been speaking out in support of Syrian refugees, he hopes that they will do more to address the long-term effects of the internal conflict on his native country.

“We have tens of millions of people who are very vulnerable, millions of women and children being deprived of any prospect for the future. Try to make people understand that they all have a stake in this country. If we try to eliminate each other, we’re going to have a long fight.”

Responding to news of Trump’s refugee ban in an email, Martini added: “This executive order will have implications to the lives of a lot of people and to the reputation of the U.S.A. that will last for much longer than the current president is in office.”

In Lebanon, Doug and Naomi Enns represent the Mennonite Central Committee, working through partners on the ground in Syria to get food, fuel, material goods like blankets and cash allowances to displaced families in places like western Aleppo, Hama, Mahardeh and northern Syria where, says Naomi Enns, the situation continues to deteriorate.

During the chaos caused by ongoing conflict, the work of providing aid continues. “We work through partners on the ground who we have long relationships with and who we trust” wrote Enns via Skype. “Money is transported from Lebanon into Syria. People are living in Syria and trying to go about daily lives. War is normalized.”

Asked what message she’d like to convey to Americans concerned about the crisis, Enns responded: “Readers need to be aware that pain runs throughout Syria, a country of people just like those living in North America who only want to live. They have been suffering so much due to severe destruction and loss of lives and livelihoods — if the West and others would stop sending arms then the war would end … the voice of actual Syrians needs to be heard and not the rhetoric of outside nations and outside fighters who have their own interest in the conflict.”

In the United States, the Mennonite Central Committee and other faith communities continue to press all sides in the conflict for a peaceful settlement, though the violence continues. In the fall of 2016, a coalition of faith communities held a global day of action and prayer Syria, calling on global policymakers to work to end the war, said Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach, director of the MCC Washington office. “I think it can be difficult to see short-term results of our advocacy work (but) it’s important that our voice continue to be heard in the discussion.”

On January 26, before the presidential executive order, the MCC released a statement criticizing Trump’s immigration policy: “These actions portray immigrants and refugees as criminals and threats rather than seeing them as God’s beloved children.

Stephen Colecchi, who heads the Office of International Justice and Peace for the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, has travelled to Jordan and Lebanon to meet Iraqi and Syrian refugees being helped both by Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a Vatican-sponsored humanitarian organization. Pointing out that countries like Lebanon and Jordan has taken in millions of Syrians, Colecchi commented: “It’s ironic that people in the United States are worried about a few thousand coming to a country of over 300 million people.”

The USCCB believes that there must be a negotiated settlement in Syria and that “there is no military solution” he added. “Secondly, there needs to be an inclusive political situation in which Sunnis, Alawites, Christians and other minorities have a voice.”

“It’s an extremely chaotic, complex situation, in which the greatest victims have been civilians” he said.

Asked if he sees glimmers of hope in the current conflict, Colecchi cited the massive rebuilding effort done in the wake of World War II. “As a person of faith, I always have hope. How do you build a future in which everyone has an investment? It would be a terrible mistake if, after the guns were silenced in Syria, everyone walked away.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has voiced opposition to the refugee ban “We will work vigorously to ensure that refugees are humanely welcomed in collaboration with Catholic Charities without sacrificing our security or our core values as Americans, and to ensure that families may be reunified with their loved ones,” wrote Austin Bishop Joe S. Vasquez, head of its Committee on Migration, he wrote after Trump’s order was issued.

An interfaith coalition’s call to continue to welcome refugees drew signatures from more than 3,500 leaders. “We decry derogatory language that has been used about Middle Eastern refugees and our Muslim friends and neighbors,” it wrote. “As people of faith, our values call us to welcome the stranger, love our neighbor, and stand with the vulnerable, regardless of their religion. We pray that in your discernment, compassion for the plight of refugees will touch your hearts.

In Syrian conflict, American faith communities aid displaced, advocate for non-violent solutions

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans is a religion columnist for Lancaster Newspapers, Inc., as well as a freelance writer.

When the long-running war in Syria makes headlines in the United States, it is often because of an outbreak of sustained violence, as in the shelling of eastern Aleppo late last year, or when there is a debate over whether to accept Syrian refugees in the United States.

Last week President Donald J. Trump created an executive order that bars refugees from any country for 120 days, and citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries, who can’t enter for a minimum of ninety days.

Syrian refugees are prohibited from entering the United States for an undetermined period.

The order has elicited protests from religious organizations that have been working them in the United States and elsewhere. It is currently being challenged in the United States courts.

“We’re trying to figure out what the next steps are” said the Rev. Steven Martin, communications director for the National Council of Churches, which has a collegial relationship with the Middle East Council of Churches. “There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty.”

In a pastoral message addressing Trump’s executive order, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, said that she had already conveyed her concerns to the Trump administration.

“I agree with the importance of keeping our country secure as the administration stated in its executive order last Friday, but I am convinced that temporarily banning vulnerable refugees will not enhance our safety nor does it reflect our values as Christians,” she said. “Instead, it will cause immediate harm by separating families, disrupting lives, and denying safety and hope to brothers and sisters who are already suffering.”

The daunting challenges of navigating the religious and political Syrian landscape may have kept many denominations from taking on a public advocacy role, as many Protestant groups have done in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But more quietly, United States denominations, including the Mennonites and the Roman Catholics, continue to send aid, both to Syria and to surrounding countries that have taken in millions of displaced families.

Though the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) don’t have churches on the ground in Syria, they are engaged in multiple ministries both in the Middle East and here in the United States, said Peter Makari, who represents the two denominations as executive for Middle East and Europe Global Ministries.

That includes humanitarian support for displaced persons both in the Middle East and in Europe, using a web of partnerships with local denominations and ecumenical bodies to provide funds for food, shelter, clothing and other necessities.

As part of Church World Service, a collaborative network of Christian denominations and communions, both denominations have also been advocates for ongoing refugee resettlement, said Makari.

In the U.S., the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees (MFA), which has more than 70 participating organizations, continues to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and to act as an interpreter for Americans struggling to understand the complicated conflict. MFA also provides material support for Syrian refugees (experts estimate the ongoing war has killed approximately 500, 000 Syrians and left at least 11 million displaced, with millions more in need of humanitarian aid).

A project of the New York City-based Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, the MFA issued a statement on Monday condemning last week’s administration directives.

“The post-World War II promise ‘Never Again’ is being violated. We cannot stand idly by as victims of war and terror suffer and perish because of unfounded fear and prejudice,” it said.

Most religious organizations in the United States work through intermediaries on the ground in the Middle East, either in Syria itself or neighboring countries like Lebanon and Jordan, says Shadi Martini, Syrian advisor to the Multifaith Alliance.

In the United States, they direct resources to the Syrian refugees here. In 2016, according to the Pew Research Organization, approximately 12,500 were admitted. It is highly uncertain how many President Trump will allow in.

Syrian refugees attempting to resettle in the United States, in contrast to many countries in Europe, have undergone strict background checks, said Martini.

It's been challenging to explain both the roots of the situation in Syria and the needs of refugees to an American public grappling with a lack of information about Muslims and religious minorities in Syria as well as the different situations confronting refugees in the United States and Europe, said Martini.

Most minority religious groups have been living peacefully side-by-side for more than a thousand years, said Martini, a Muslim married to a Christian, who moved here in 2012 and became a U.S. citizen in 2015. Now, under the pressure of civil war, some religious communities have aligned with the government of Bashir al-Assad and some against,

“We try to explain to people, especially in the United States, that there is an organized process here, involving background checks to make sure people who come here are not a threat to the security of the country,” he said.

While he noted that American religious leaders have been speaking out in support of Syrian refugees, he hopes that they will do more to address the long-term effects of the internal conflict on his native country.

“We have tens of millions of people who are very vulnerable, millions of women and children being deprived of any prospect for the future. Try to make people understand that they all have a stake in this country. If we try to eliminate each other, we’re going to have a long fight.”

Responding to news of Trump’s refugee ban in an email, Martini added: “This executive order will have implications to the lives of a lot of people and to the reputation of the U.S.A. that will last for much longer than the current president is in office.”

In Lebanon, Doug and Naomi Enns represent the Mennonite Central Committee, working through partners on the ground in Syria to get food, fuel, material goods like blankets and cash allowances to displaced families in places like western Aleppo, Hama, Mahardeh and northern Syria where, says Naomi Enns, the situation continues to deteriorate.

During the chaos caused by ongoing conflict, the work of providing aid continues. “We work through partners on the ground who we have long relationships with and who we trust” wrote Enns via Skype. “Money is transported from Lebanon into Syria. People are living in Syria and trying to go about daily lives. War is normalized.”

Asked what message she’d like to convey to Americans concerned about the crisis, Enns responded: “Readers need to be aware that pain runs throughout Syria, a country of people just like those living in North America who only want to live. They have been suffering so much due to severe destruction and loss of lives and livelihoods — if the West and others would stop sending arms then the war would end … the voice of actual Syrians needs to be heard and not the rhetoric of outside nations and outside fighters who have their own interest in the conflict.”

In the United States, the Mennonite Central Committee and other faith communities continue to press all sides in the conflict for a peaceful settlement, though the violence continues. In the fall of 2016, a coalition of faith communities held a global day of action and prayer Syria, calling on global policymakers to work to end the war, said Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach, director of the MCC Washington office. “I think it can be difficult to see short-term results of our advocacy work (but) it’s important that our voice continue to be heard in the discussion.”

On January 26,before the presidential executive order, the MCC released a statement criticizing Trump’s immigration policy: “These actions portray immigrants and refugees as criminals and threats rather than seeing them as God’s beloved children.

Stephen Colecchi, who heads the Office of International Justice and Peace for the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, has travelled to Jordan and Lebanon to meet Iraqi and Syrian refugees being helped both by Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a Vatican-sponsored humanitarian organization. Pointing out that countries like Lebanon and Jordan has taken in millions of Syrians, Colecchi commented: “It’s ironic that people in the United States are worried about a few thousand coming to a country of over 300 million people.”

The USCCB believes that there must be a negotiated settlement in Syria and that “there is no military solution” he added. “Secondly, there needs to be an inclusive political situation in which Sunnis, Alawites, Christians and other minorities have a voice.”

“It’s an extremely chaotic, complex situation, in which the greatest victims have been civilians” he said.

Asked if he sees glimmers of hope in the current conflict, Colecchi cited the massive rebuilding effort done in the wake of World War II. “As a person of faith, I always have hope. How do you build a future in which everyone has an investment? It would be a terrible mistake if, after the guns were silenced in Syria, everyone walked away.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has voiced opposition to the refugee ban “We will work vigorously to ensure that refugees are humanely welcomed in collaboration with Catholic Charities without sacrificing our security or our core values as Americans, and to ensure that families may be reunified with their loved ones,” wrote Austin Bishop Joe S. Vasquez, head of its Committee on Migration, he wrote after Trump’s order was issued.

An interfaith coalition’s call to continue to welcome refugees drew signatures from more than 3,500 leaders. “We decry derogatory language that has been used about Middle Eastern refugees and our Muslim friends and neighbors,” it wrote. “As people of faith, our values call us to welcome the stranger, love our neighbor, and stand with the vulnerable, regardless of their religion. We pray that in your discernment, compassion for the plight of refugees will touch your hearts.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

0 : 0
  • narrow-browser-and-phone
  • medium-browser-and-portrait-tablet
  • landscape-tablet
  • medium-wide-browser
  • wide-browser-and-larger
  • medium-browser-and-landscape-tablet
  • medium-wide-browser-and-larger
  • above-phone
  • portrait-tablet-and-above
  • above-portrait-tablet
  • landscape-tablet-and-above
  • landscape-tablet-and-medium-wide-browser
  • portrait-tablet-and-below
  • landscape-tablet-and-below