Will you be an advocate?

Syria-Lebanon Partnership Network can help you help others through advocacy

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

The Syria-Lebanon Partnership Network held a virtual gathering recently. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — The Syria-Lebanon Partnership Network (SLPN) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recently held a virtual gathering with 119 registrants from three continents, six countries and 10 time zones. The theme for the interactive Zoom meeting was “Aid Not Sanctions: Take the Knee Off the Neck of the Syrian People.” See talking points here.

This theme came from a message shared with the SLPN last fall by the Rev. Salam Hanna, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Latakia, Syria, and director of relief programs of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), who recognized the similarities in the tragic and preventable suffocation of George Floyd at the hands of police and the ongoing suffering of the Syrian people, pressed down by U.S. sanctions and geopolitical policies.

The Rev. Salam Hanna (Screenshot)

“In October 2019, 650 Syrian pounds were equal to one U.S. dollar,” Hanna said. “Today, 3,300 Syrian pounds is equal to one U.S. dollar.” That’s a devaluation of the Syrian pound by more than 500%. The average Syrian’s salary is just $15 a month, Hanna said. “Not per hour, not per day, but per month.” This wage is 75% below the global poverty line of about $2 a day or $60 a month, according to the United Nations.

“The Syrian people are reaching a point where we are out of energy and back to the 19th century,” Hanna said. Currently he has electricity one hour on and five hours off. He hasn’t filled his vehicle with gasoline since Jan. 16, when he last visited his family in Damascus.

“The most compelling reason [for advocacy] is that over the years our partners in NESSL have asked two things of us: to pray for them and to work to change U.S. government policies that are making life ever more difficult for them and almost all Syrian people,” said Walter Owensby, of the SLPN Advocacy Committee. “They leave no light between spiritual support and moral action in our political arena. So, for our network, advocacy isn’t really a choice, it is a responsibility we seek to honor.”

The Rev. Elmarie Parker (Screenshot)

The Rev. Elmarie Parker, the PC(USA) regional liaison to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, shared a letter from a Syrian colleague, providing specific examples of the humanitarian and economic atrocities Syrian citizens are facing. These are examples of the impact of sanctions on the Syrian people — sanctions that politicians in the U.S. and the European Union believe “punish the government,” the letter said:

  • Children leave school early to stand in line for hours with their mothers to get bread, then sell it at a higher price to help their families.
  • A neighbor in the building on the ninth floor suffered a heart attack, and his family was unable to take him to the hospital due to the lack of electricity to operate the elevator, which led to his death.
  • A woman in the next building had to walk down the stairs from the eighth floor to go to the hospital to give birth (because there was no electricity to operate the elevator). She stopped on the fourth floor because she couldn’t continue, and the neighboring women helped her in the delivery. The newborn needed an incubator, which led to his death before reaching the hospital.
  • According to a statement by an employee at the Ministry of Health, 92 Syrians sold a kidney in 2020.

The writer concludes, “This is a collective punishment for an entire people, a humanitarian crime against the Syrian people who seem to be destined to bear the cross of pain throughout its life, because it is found in a region in which it is not supposed to live in peace and prosperity, because this conflicts with the interests of many countries.”

American policy is much more than just about the sanctions, said Dr. Joshua Landis, the Sandra Mackey Chair and director of the Center of Middle East Studies and Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies.

Dr. Joshua Landis (Contributed photo)

Landis described a complex strategy which he believes is intended to do two things: make the Syrian people unhappy enough to rise up and demand a regime change; and, secondly, turn Syria into a quagmire in an effort to punish Russia and Iran.

Yet, that’s not what’s happening, Landis said. “What it’s doing is the opposite. It’s making the Syrian people more and more dependent on the [Assad] government for the small amount of services that they get.”

Although a very depressing story and a vicious cycle downward, Landis thinks it is one that Americans need to bring to the public and talk about with our public servants.

“We have to end this bad policy that is hurting Syrians,” Landis said. “It’s not humanitarian and it’s not going to lead to the outcomes that our politicians tell us it’s going to lead to.”

Catherine Gordon, representative for international issues in the Office of Public Witness

The Office of Public Witness, the advocacy and organizing entity in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, stands ready to assist U.S. faith partners, individuals and congregations, in advocacy and networking efforts.

Catherine Gordon, OPW’s representative for international issues, further developed the theme of the SLPN meeting by sharing a document titled “Holy Discontentment,” which provides a toolbox for advocates to assist in preparing for a meeting with a congressional representative, hosting an interfaith vigil, participating in a successful town hall or using social media, letters, emails or print media as advocacy tools for social justice.

Sue Rheem, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Representative to the United Nations (Photo by Rich Copley)

Sue Rheem, Presbyterian representative to the United Nations, encouraged advocates and supporters to watch monthly U.N. Security Council meetings about Syria, broadcast on UN Web TV. The next meeting about Syria is April 28.

Through its special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council, the PC(USA) can submit written and oral statements and meet regularly as part of the working group of the UN Security Council. Rheem said the Security Council wants to know what’s happening on the ground and what’s compelling that they can use in their policies.

What can one person do?
“If we’re determined to be ‘lone wolves,’ most people probably can’t do much,” said Owensby of the SLPN Advocacy Committee. “But becoming a part of people who care, who are informed and who act together can make a difference. We can listen together to what our partners in Syria-Lebanon are experiencing and why. We can learn together how to be effective in making our voices heard.”

Read more in the study guide, “Syria: The Burden of Memory and the Hope of the Gospel.” Take action on a number of projects, including COVID-19 relief efforts.

The Syria-Lebanon Partnership Network will post follow-up information, including ways to get involved in advocacy efforts, at syrialebanonpn.org

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