Like other countries in the Middle East, Syria is a complex multi-sectarian country, once controlled by outside western powers, devastated by wars, permeated by corruption, and dominated in all aspects of life by religion. This was a picture painted by the Rev. Nadim Nassar, the only Syrian-born, Arabic-speaking priest in the Church of England.
Born into a Christian family in the port city of Lattakia, the London-based advocate for interfaith understanding and religious freedom spoke Oct. 16 in Toronto at a presentation sponsored by the Canadian International Council.
Mr. Nassar is a frequent and passionate commentator in the media on international religious affairs. In that role, he has been an outspoken critic of what he considers Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s “appalling support” for western military intervention in Syria.
Westerners hold many misconceptions about the Middle East, and it is proving a Herculean task to raise awareness among them, although the Arab Spring has helped somewhat to lift the veil and spark discussion on this region, he said.
“The West does not understand that in the Middle East, religion colours everything – economics, politics, social norms, ethics,” he said. “If you don’t factor in the religious aspect, you have no idea about the issues. But the West has been afraid to talk about religion, it’s taboo.”
Few in the West are aware of Christianity’s deep roots in Syria. “Jesus Christ was born in Palestine and so was legally a Syrian citizen since Palestine was a Roman satellite of Syria,” he told a packed audience at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Many don’t realize that having “a road to Damascus experience” refers to St. Paul’s conversion to Christianity en route to the ancient Syrian capital, he said.
Yet now, according to figures presented at his talk, resident Christians in Syria have dropped from 1.25 million in 2011 to fewer than half a million today, much of it through death and displacement. “Christian and other minority communities are at risk of being wiped off the map in the Middle East,” said Dr. Mark Sedra, president of the Canadian International Council, in his opening remarks.
Mr. Nassar founded the Awareness Foundation in 2003. It is a Christian charity whose mission is peace-building and empowering Christians everywhere to counter intolerance and promote interfaith understanding.
One of its programs is training young people in the Middle East to be ambassadors of peace and preparing them for the democracy they have never experienced. But Mr. Nassar cautioned that western-style democracy cannot be imposed but must be tailored to the norms of the region. “Democracy is like water. It takes the shape of its container, whether that’s a jug or a glass,” he said.
In his native Syria, he faced a very difficult assignment in approaching youth. “Young Syrian Christians were angry, in despair, desperate,” he said. “They were furious with the Church, with God, with the West. They were against everything.” Having lost the lives they had lived in their now-wrecked country, they were simply biding time until visas got them out – to anywhere.
Mr. Nassar related well to their nihilism since he had lived for seven years in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990. He won their confidence by showing them he was not just another expatriate living safely in the West.
He heard them out quietly, and his listening was rewarded. “It was an incredible experience turning a person from despair to embracing the idea, ‘I can be an ambassador for peace in my own broken country,’” he said.
One positive step the West can take for Syria is to use its leverage to encourage negotiations between the country’s warring factions, with the goal of re-establishing peaceful co-existence. “Why are we not pushing toward Syrian-to-Syrian dialogue?” he asked.
Mr. Nassar has long supported talks with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad – in spite of protestations from others that no one should sit at the table with such a murderous dictator. “Assad is not going anywhere,” he said. “His army is still there.” Mr. Nassar believes dialogue is the only recourse in both Syria and Yemen.
Despite few opportunities for political power, Christians will survive in the Middle East, he said. “History has proven that Christians are resilient, but we have to work for survival. This is why the Awareness Foundation was established.” Rather than aid refugees in camps – which are devoid of Christians and other minorities, he said – the foundation has chosen to support people who choose to stay in their ancestral homeland. “The only way to try to make a difference is to be inside. We want to strengthen those who remain in the country. Exporting people is never a solution.”
Asked by The Anglican what Canadian Christians can do to help Syria, he said, “Support those working inside the country to strengthen those who remain. And support dialogue between the warring parties.” Only by bringing sectarian stakeholders to the negotiating table can the already hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of evacuations be prevented from spiraling even higher, he said.