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In civil war and economic collapse, Syrian ministers find hope in the Gospel, partnerships

Latakia pastor says U.S. sanctions are a ‘knee on our neck’

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Salam Hanna, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Latakia, Syria, officiates at the communion table with members of a visiting team from Eastminster Presbytery, the Rev. Mark Ruppert and the Rev. Janet Lowery. (Photo by Elmarie Parker).

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — At the Presbyterian Church of Latakia, Syria, the Rev. Salam Hanna ministers to people who have endured nine years of civil war and, recently, sanctions that have led to the worst economic crisis the nation has faced in a century.

“We rediscovered the Gospel as being a message of hope in the middle of crisis,” Hanna says of ministering during war. “The Gospels, especially Mark, were written at a time when the Christian community was going through turmoil and crisis. We try to bring that hope of the Gospel into our daily life, to say that things will end. Crisis will end and never continue endlessly. Christ is present with us.

“He’s in the midst of the ship, where we face fear from inside and wind and waves from outside. He is with us and will calm our fears and the waves and winds that hit our ship. He will provide us our daily bread. Even though we might have five loaves and two fishes, it will feed the 5,000.”

Food insecurity is one of the crises Syrians face in the wake of international sanctions against the government of President Bashar al-Assad for human rights violations against the Syrian people and cooperation with the governments of Turkey and Iran.

The United States’ Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, signed in December 2019 and taking effect in June, was meant to punish al-Assad. But Hanna and the Rev. Joseph Kassab, General Secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), say the sanctions are falling hardest on the people of Syria.

“These are two neighboring countries that have been mutually reliant for a long time,” said the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. “Our synod is both countries, but both countries are in different ways suffering terrible challenges that are very difficult to overcome economically and politically and in terms of exacerbation of the religious tensions.”

The chancel area of the Presbyterian Church of Latakia, Syria. (Photo by Elmarie Parker)

This fall, Hanna was speaking at a partner consultation of the Synod of Syria and Lebanon, which included representatives from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) and Presbyterian World Mission. He invoked an image that shocked the United States last spring and resonated around the world.

“The sanctions by the superior powers are like a knee on our neck,” Hanna said, recalling the death of George Floyd on May 25 when Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes.

“I am talking about people who cannot breathe because they are not able to live. They are suffering escalation of crisis,” Hanna said. “They are suffering a shortage of fuel. They are suffering the loss of electricity and power. We feel sometimes we cannot breathe.”

Syrian citizens are facing skyrocketing prices for necessities including fuel and are suffering from food insecurity, medicine shortages, currency depreciation, increased suicide rates and other crises due in part to sanctions by the United States and other countries. Electric service is interrupted as much as 16 hours a day, coronavirus is a major concern — and winter is coming.

The Rev. Salam Hanna stands at the door of the Presbyterian Church of Latakia, Syria. (Photo by Elmarie Parker)

“Are they punishing the people?” Hanna asks. “This is mainly my question. Are they punishing the Syrian people, the pacifist people who didn’t involve themselves in any struggle, the Christians who stayed despite all the fighting between the Syrian regime and opposition groups?

“People are not able to breathe.”

The Rev. Elmarie Parker, World Mission’s regional liaison for Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, points out that in Syria, the church has the added challenge of being a minority religion in a country where some forces want the entire population to adhere to their faith.

“Christians cannot breathe because Kurds have nationalist dreams of their own separate political entity or state,” Kassab says. “We cannot breathe because they want to force a Kurdish curriculum on all the inhabitants there. They already occupied 2,500 schools and they are enforcing the Kurdish curriculum, and at the beginning of every school year on Christian schools.

“So, it’s not just that we can’t breathe because of the United States. We have to confess to our own internal problems.”

Parker, who lives in Lebanon, which is struggling with the same and similar crises, says when she is in the United States and talking to people about her work, she talks about being a minority faith because, “We as Christians are accustomed to being the majority of the population and influence.”

She also wants Christians in the United States to consider the impact of U.S. sanctions on people in the Middle East.

“What we have found is PC(USA) congregations are very open to the conversation,” Parker says. “There aren’t a lot of other ways people hear about this region. Even people who are pro-U.S. military and pro-U.S. foreign policy have been willing to listen.”

The group is speaking in the days after Joe Biden has been declared the winner of the United States presidential election, but Kassab isn’t looking forward to any great changes as far as Syria and Lebanon are concerned.

“I don’t expect much from American foreign policy in the Middle East,” Kassab says, noting the main concerns of the U.S. in the region have been Israel and oil. “Unfortunately, these are the two priorities for American policy up to now, and I don’t know what we should expect different policy right now.”

What Hanna and Kassab have come to rely on is U.S. partners such as PDA, which has worked with churches and organizations on assistance from meeting basic needs for food and fuel to helping rebuild businesses and homes.

“People are able to have food because of the church and the partners of the church,” Hanna says. “This is the hope we felt through nine years of struggle, and now with the coronavirus, people felt everything is going into lockdown, the economy is collapsing, we are losing jobs, we are losing income, but still, we have hope this coronavirus will end and we will be back to normal life again.

The Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, visits with children in Syria in April 2017. (Photo by Presbyterian News Service)

“They were with us from the very beginning when PDA, the outreach foundation, the churches, the European churches, the American churches, all stood with our synod or people, sending support, coming to visit us, entering Syria and Damascus when it was under conflict from the groups surrounding the city. We experienced that we really are not alone. We have sisters and brothers who are not only with us financially but with us physically, by visiting, by coming every now and then, by communicating, by knowing our stories and telling our stories. We experience the presence of Christ through our sisters and brothers and through their support.”

Hanna recalled a visit to Chicago, when Kraus went to meet him at the home of his cousin, and the cousin observed, “She kept referring to ‘our church in Aleppo,’ ‘our church in Damascus.’ She considers our churches as ‘our churches.’”

Kraus says it has been hard to not be able to visit Syria and Lebanon this year. She says she has always been impressed by how leaders such as Hanna and Kassab responded to the conflict and economic collapse.

Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries director Sara Lisherness and the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus speak with children in Syria in April 2017. (Photo by Presbyterian News Service)

“I remember being so overwhelmed and moved that you were not saying, ‘We’re doing this because we have no choice and we have to.’ You looked at it from a theological perspective, and from a gospel, ‘being Jesus’ perspective, and at the end of that consultation, the synod made a declaration alongside those of us who were partners from Europe and the U.S. to say, ‘This was forced upon us, and we choose to do this as a faithful response and in faithful obedience to the Gospel,’” Kraus said. “And they have chosen to do that over and over and over again.

“To me, it’s a great act of leadership and dignity to not be a victim, required to survive, but to be an agent of transformation, and an agent of meaning-making to do this incredibly difficult and endless work, and also to do that and give voice to partnership to those of us. Our colleagues don’t see us as the people to whom you have to beg. Anybody could say, we need funds to do these things. But year after year, the synod has invited us in to do Bible study together, to engage in social and cultural and religious analysis of the region, to discern together what is the next step forward, and to do that as partners in ministry.”

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Give to One Great Hour of Sharing to enable Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to respond quickly to catastrophic events.

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