Entries with tag syria .

Abducted Syrian Bishops Serve as Models of Christian Service

This month marked four years since two Christian hierarchs were abducted at gunpoint in Syria. While Metropolitan Paul of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and Bishop John, the Syriac Orthodox bishop of Aleppo, were en route from Antioch to Aleppo, they were stopped by unknown assailants and taken hostage. The deacon driving their car was shot and killed.

The bishops’ whereabouts and status remain unknown. As Syria has been embroiled in a devastatingly violent and multifaceted civil war since 2011, various factions immediately blamed each other for the abductions.

The extended disappearance of the bishops has had a marked and heart-rending effect on the Christian population both in Syria and around the world. Both men were known as prominent and dedicated clerics in their communities.

And there’s one more important detail to the story that I haven’t mentioned yet.

The bishops were returning from a humanitarian mission when they were kidnapped.

In today’s charged political climate, much of the conversation here in the United States and in Europe centers on security over humanity and dignity. Civil authorities endlessly debate the merits of offering humanitarian aid and of safe haven in our own communities, particularly to the victims of violence in the Middle East.

Metropolitan Paul and Bishop John, both residents of Aleppo, probably knew better than anybody how dangerous it was to venture out past their front gates and into the world. And yet they did it anyway.

They took their Christian role as servants very seriously, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The bishops could easily have decided that it would have been too risky to travel. They could very well have remained secure in their homes, offices and cathedrals.

But they didn’t. They went out into the world to serve.

As Christians, our ambition is to follow the example of Jesus; to live a Life in Christ.

And though we still do not know where Meropolitan Paul and Bishop John are, their service reminds us that our individual and collective potential for helping others is far greater than the power of death.

Indeed, the anniversary of their abduction during this Paschal season emphasizes the power of Christ in the world. Christians, after all, are not deterred by danger; we go out into the world and open the doors to our communities in service for many.

Andrew Romanov is a Fellow at the U.N. for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org).

The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.


Arduous Journeys Across Seas and Deserts

Let’s say you had to move away. Actually, let’s say you had to move far away—like, outside-of-your-country far away.

In this scenario, the economy has gotten so bad that nobody—not even the most skilled individuals—can find work anymore. If you want to live comfortably or even put food on your table, you’ll have to go elsewhere.

Or, you grew up in a low-income family, but you studied hard, defied all expectations and earned a spot at the best university in the world, located somewhere across the sea. This is an incredible opportunity that would forever change your life and that of your family.

Or, there’s violent civil war in your country. The most recent election was hotly contested and the military staged a coup in an attempt to retain power and maintain civil order, pitting faction against faction and neighbor against neighbor. There are bullet holes in your windows and the inside of your house is covered in dust and dirt from the constant artillery shelling in the city. There’s no more electricity and tap water, and several of your family members have already died.

So, what would you do in each of those situations? Would you actually leave?

Those are only a few of the many reasons people might choose to become migrants and leave their homes. Sometimes it’s a conscious choice to leave, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, the reason for leaving is positive and happy, and sometimes (more often, actually) the reason is not so optimistic.

Right now, at this very moment, there are more forcibly displaced people than there have been since World War II. Many are “refugees,” who were actually able to leave their country in search of new homes and communities where they can live and learn and work. Others are internally displaced, and aren’t able to reach safety outside of their homeland.

or people who didn’t really have a choice when it came to staying or leaving—who probably don’t want to leave but are now looking for new homes and communities where they can live and learn and work.

Tragically, many of them don’t ever reach asylum. Thousands die while trying to reach safety via dangerous land and sea routes just in the last few years.

If you did have to move away—far away—how would you want people to think about you? How would you want them to treat you?

The next time you hear about migrants or refugees in the news or in politics, think about the reality of the situation for these people and their actual lives. Should you welcome them into your community with open arms and understanding (like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously did)?

Or, should you reject them on the basis of that they might be dangerous (which isn’t really true)?

In reality, it’s the migrants who have usually faced danger—leaving behind family, friends, relationships and any sense of normalcy to make their way across treacherous terrain in order to reach the border that promises safety.

Which means that migrants are some of the most courageous, resilient and resourceful people on the planet. They are more than people in need—they are people wanting to give and make a meaningful contribution to society.

After all, remember what the most famous refugee, Jesus Christ, went on to do.

International Migrants Day is on Dec. 18. The International Organization for Migration is calling on the international community to come together and remember the refugees and migrants who have lost their lives or have disappeared while trying to reach safe harbor after arduous journeys across seas and deserts.

Andrew Romanov is a Fellow at the U.N. for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org).

The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the U.N. (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.


Death by Snow: Syrian Refugees Face Struggle to Survive in Winter

Death by snow: it’s a reality that receives little attention in the international media, but for the more than 11 million Syrians living as either internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside the civil-war torn country or as refugees in neighboring states, the effects of winter weather make our extreme weather problems here in the US look like a winter wonderland.

Think about it.  Earlier this week, the US government shut down because of snow.  This past weekend, New England was hit by another blizzard.  The country’s southern states have been paralyzed by the shock of snowfalls.  Meteorologists are predicting the continuation of record extreme weather conditions for the rest of this month.  Through it all, the US news cycle reports that wet and heavy “heart-attack snow” has claimed many victims; hospital E.R.s have seen a spike in visits for treatment of grizzly frost bite symptoms; urban commuters have been trapped in subways stopped by frozen tracks and power outages; public school superintendents are scrambling to reschedule the rest of the academic year after the onslaught of snow days; and homeowners are struggling with freezing pipes and buckling roofs caused by ice dams. 

But we in America would do well to put our angst about winter into perspective.  In the words of a wise teenage whose maturity and compassion and humor bring daily joy to my life, “these are first world problems!”  She’s absolutely right.  The reality of winter for Syria’s IDPs and refugees is a daily struggle for survival against the winter elements.   Consider the following facts, simple and bleak.  Since Syria’s descent into civil war since 2011, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees has registered 2.2 million Syrian refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, and the government of Turkey has registered 1.5 million Syrian refugees.  Other neighboring countries in the Mideast and North Africa, as well as in Europe, have taken in an estimated 100,000 refugees from Syria, bringing the estimated total to 3.8 million refugees, with an additional 6.5 million Syrians living as internally displaced persons. 

Simply put, 50% of Syria’s population (more than 11 million out of 22 million) has been moved, either voluntarily or by force, because of the unending violence of civil war between supporters of the al-Assad regime and a motley coalition of opposition forces which have now been infiltrated and marginalized by the expanding terror footprint of The Islamic State (IS/ISIS).   As The Wall Street Journal reported early this year, Syria’s population shifts since 2011 would be the equivalent of “more than 160 million Americans either fleeing the U.S. or moving to other cities or states because of fighting in their neighborhoods.”  

Imagine our extreme weather conditions of the last few weeks against that sort of backdrop, and you have a sense of the winter nightmare being endured by Syrians.  During the months of January and February, winter conditions, including blizzards, rains, heavy winds, and freezing temperatures, have swept Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.  Indeed, winter struck just after international humanitarian providers raised the alarm about the humanitarian consequences of impending snows in the Mideast.  At the end of 2014, the World Food Program (WFP) announced that flagging donor support was forcing the suspension of the WFP’s food voucher program, a cut that would terminate the ability of  1.7 million Syrian refugees in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey to buy food in shops; the United Nations agency emphasized that the suspension of the food voucher program would be disastrous for Syrian refugees and IDPs already at risk of perishing from malnutrition and lack of regular access to clean drinking water. 

According to the Syrian Refugees Inter-Agency Report for February 2015, prior to the cold snap that’s spread across the Levant, 38% of Syrian refugees were already living in sub-standard conditions which aid agencies have described as deplorable, despicable, and inhuman.  The UN reported its preference for relocation of refugees affected by winter weather, but yet again, lack of funds has made this impossible.  Syrian refugees and IDPS struggle in plastic tents with no heat and intermittent electricity.  The majority of tents are not weatherized, much less winterized, so snow and rain and wind have meant that tents collapse, camps flood, and people freeze to death.  Relief workers report that small children are either barefoot or wearing summer flip-flops in freezing temperatures.  Standard-issue plastic sheeting provides no protection, and the need for blankets and heating stoves is at critical levels.  The UN has moved urgently to distribute blankets, as well as stoves and gas cylinders for heat, but these goods are in short supply and can’t meet the needs of the full refugee populations. 

The terrible conditions in formal refugee camps organized by international aid agencies are worse still in the plethora of informal refugee settlements in which many Syrians have gathered.  For example, Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley has almost 900 informal refugee settlements, where tens of thousands of Syrians congregate unsheltered, in sheds and on farmland and in vacant lots.  The Lebanese Red Cross reported only recently that Syrians fleeing across the border into Lebanon have frozen to death on the trek, with a seven-year old boy and a shepherd, and a 10-year-old girl, the latest recovered victims of wartime winter.   The plight of Syrian IDPs is even worse.  Hundreds of thousands of Syrian IDPs live in unfinished buildings and garages, and on exposed mountainsides.  In the absence of core relief services, such as physical shelter, regular access to food and water and basic medical care, and functioning sewage systems, the most vulnerable populations (children, women, the elderly, and the disabled and emotionally traumatized) are at grave risk of perishing in winter. 

Meanwhile, here in the US, a quick look today at the short-term forecast by the National Weather Service shows that we’re in for more ice, snow, and frigid temperatures in huge swaths of the country.  But let’s remember, our battles with weather are first-world struggles.  For Syria’s millions of refugees and IDPs, the weather forecast is a matter of life and death.  Let’s try to take action, by offering time and treasure to humanitarian organizations and relief agencies that can make sure that death by snow is not added to the daily suffering, degradation, and despair that now define the lives of so many of Syria’s people.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she Co-Chairs the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe Study Group.

No Room for Lukewarm as Mideast Christians Die: Doing No Harm, Doing Nothing, and Doing Something

Last week, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) held its annual Religion and Foreign Policy Summer Workshop.  Headquartered at the corner of Park Avenue and 68th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the CFR, publisher of the venerable Foreign Affairs, is part of a small, rarified group of organizations whose weighty effects on international relations are widely recognized by global policy cognoscente.  Eight years ago, the CFR launched an initiative to bring together foreign-policy practitioners and “religious and congregational leaders and thinkers” whose ideas, experiences, and interactions can give purchase into understanding the role of religion in world affairs and as a variable for U.S. foreign policy.

At this year’s event, I bumped into many friends and met a raft of new people—preachers, academics, diplomats, think-tankers, journalists—from every point on the political spectrum and from a kaleidoscope of religious traditions.  In between the discussions about the efficaciousness and evolution of RTP (“Responsibility to Protect) in international relations—there remain serious deficits in systematic application of a consistent standard which can require collective action, whether economic, diplomatic, or sometimes, military, by the international community in order to protect populations from crimes that their states are unwilling or unable to stop—and the analysis of challenges posed by social media as a tool for religious radicalization, mobilization, and action—religious extremist groups are using Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook with unprecedented scope and sophistication, as echo chambers to amplify hate and provoke violence—I couldn’t help but wonder: Why has the international community demonstrated no sense of responsibility to protect the Christian communities of the Middle East, given the mounting evidence that very existence is becoming ever-more tenuous because of the crimes perpetrated by jihadi extremists who are uploading 72-hours-per-minute of real-time horrors from the killing zones of Syria and Iraq?

Yes, this is an issue about which I’ve posted repeatedly on this blog site, so let me drill down into some specific issues, questions, and suggestions.  I'd like to have a conversation with Orthodox Christians and the Church (my shorthand for all Orthodox Churches, of every jurisdiction, in the United States), about how to respond to the calamitous conditions faced by Christians in the places where Christianity was born. 

Preempting the critics, I should clarify that my focus on Christians and my chat with Orthodox Christians is not a function of sectarian navel-gazing, religious parochialism, or lack of concern with other pressing matters in our world (after all, climate change, natural resource deprivation, and new forms of slavery are but a few of the tribulations that deserve our attention, since they endanger humankind and the planet).  Rather, I return to the issue of suffering Christians in the Middle East for two reasons. 

First, there are the facts on the ground.  Most recently, the declaration of a new Islamic Caliphate whose initial footprint is the swath of territory captured by the extremist-jihadi group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now renamed, simply, The Islamic State, is a gruesome climax to the decade-plus ordeal that has confronted Christians in those states with a dilemma: for some Christians, the perilous flight from their ancestral lands to the uncertainties and degradation of refugee status in Jordan and Lebanon; and, for those Christians unwilling or unable to flee, the daily privations of being kidnapped, facing slow-death starvation, or struggling to pay the jizya, the protection tax imposed on Christians as dhimmi.  There was an ominous symbolism in the fact that the ISIS's terror tactics had emptied Mosul of its ancient Christian population, so that there was not a single liturgical celebration in Mosul's churches on June 29th, the Feastday of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, the same day that ISIS chief Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the new caliphate.  The Christian drama is a harbinger of things to come, for Christians, other non-Muslim minorities, and for Muslims uninterested in living under a militant caliphate (their penalty for failing to pledge fealty to the caliphate concept is displayed in the gruesome photos of public crucifixions of Muslims in Syria by ISIS forces).

Second, the Christian drama (Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Emil Shimoun Nona, has reported to international media that every last Christian has been cleansed from Iraq’s second-largest city since its capture by ISIS forces) is a potent reminder of the universal ambit of human suffering endured by individuals because of their belief and faith.  The examples of religious freedom violations, shocking for their global range and frequency, have been catalogued in recent reports by the Pew Research Center, the Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, amongst other sources.  Emblematic cases include the unrelenting persecution of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar government; the repression of Tibetan Buddhists by the Chinese state; the disturbing spike in anti-Semitic incidents in France and Belgium; and the brutal assaults on non-conforming Muslims and Christians alike by al-Shabaab and Boko Haram across east-central Africa.  The international community's shocking indifference to the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria makes a mockery of the RTP, and sends a message to state and non-state violators of human rights that they are free to act with impunity within and across national borders.  Alternatively, a good-faith effort at collective action to protect the remaining Christians in Syria and Iraq--not a military action, but a combined humanitarian action (foods, medicines, shelter for refugees now living in unsustainable and precarious conditions in neighboring host-countries) and diplomatic initiative (decisive, innovative, and collaborative policies for pulling the plug on support to extremists of The Islamic State and al-Qaeda ilk)--will signal that the international community recognizes that peace is a chimera, absent the uncompromising protection of human rights.  

The approaching July 4th freedom commemoration of the American Revolution provides a moment for Orthodox Christians, living freely and securely in the United States, to contemplate how to make even a modest contribution to improving the conditions of Christians struggling to survive in places like Homs, Aleppo, Damascus, Mosul, Kirkuk, and the Nineveh Plain. 

The necessary first-step in constructive contemplation involves avoiding the trap of reducing the principle of "do no harm" to the default position of "do nothing."  One of the foundational ethics guiding United Nations humanitarian work and international human rights and religious freedom activities, the "do no harm" principle is a kind of normative-material value-added calculus.  In other words, efforts to bring aid and comfort to vulnerable and at-risk populations (in this case, the Christians of Syria and Iraq) must occur only if there is reasonable certainty that action (in this case, both acknowledging the problem and implementing relief policies) will neither worsen the immediate conditions or provoke new threats (e.g. reprisals, retribution) against the already-victimized population.

Justifiably, the do-no-harm principle has been a frequent fallback for Orthodox Christians in America who express reservations about public calls for action to come to the aid of Mideast Christians.  However, I sense a very concerning tendency, away from the ethical gold-standard and practical imperative of doing no harm, towards the absolutist position of doing nothing.  My nagging concerns on this point derive from the face-value acceptance by a not insignificant cadre of prominent Orthodox (and Roman Catholic and Protestant) Christians in America of the Washington-manufactured twaddle that justifies lack of assistance to Mideast Christians with such political conceits as "they don't even know what they want, they're not united," culminating in the big-lie statement of "Christians in Iraq and Syria do not feel abandoned." 

The explicit statements of multiple Mideast Christian leaders of various denominations that their communities, in fact, do feel abandoned (see comments by Rev. Dr. Andrew White of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, Chaldean Archbishop of Baghdad Louis Sakko, Bishop Elias Toume of Pyrgou in Syria’s Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch) and that they are seeking humanitarian assistance, should be enough to ensure that the legitimate priority of doing no harm does not degenerate unintentionally and unnecessarily, into doing nothing.  Furthermore, While entreating the international community to act swiftly to provide humanitarian relief to endangered Christians, these same clerics demonstrate their clear understanding of the do no harm principle--in their insistence that aid come to all those who are suffering, in their identification of sectarianism as fatal for sustainable peace, and in their unambiguous rejection of Western military engagement as solution for the ailments of Syria and Iraq.

How can doing no harm comport with doing something?  What can Orthodox Christians do to bring aid and comfort to Mideast Christians?  Over the upcoming July 4th solstice,  here are some thoughts to ponder, some very basic, imminently feasible, options for doing something, options for doing no harm while doing some good. 

First, pray and remember.  Every Orthodox church in the United States should be praying for the safety of Mideast Christians--supplications for peace in the world run throughout the Sunday Liturgy, so there is no reason that special prayers for peace, memorial prayers for those lost, and vigils cannot become part of the daily reality of Orthodox Christians here in America.  Second, teach and learn.  Catechetical education at every level of parish life can incorporate teaching about the plight of today's Christians, in Syria and Iraq and, more broadly, in the Greater Middle East.  Orthodox Christians in America can learn about the realities of life for Christians in the lands where Christ and the Apostles spread the Word, the connections between Christians there and Christians here.  Third, act.  Mobilization, organization, and action to raise humanitarian relief (whether clothing, emergency kits, monies) for Syrian and Iraqi Christians without food, shelter, medical care, or jobs, should be a given in every Orthodox parish in America. The Greek War Relief Association's effort (for more on this, see the pathbreaking research of Dr. A. K. Kyrou, also a blogger on this site) during World War Two is a brilliant example of the capacity of Orthodox Christians in America to mount a staggeringly successful, grassroots, international humanitarian effort.  Orthodox Christian parishes in America can easily become a platform for relief support to  the Christians of Iraq and Syria, via cooperation with respected international actors like International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), the International Red Cross, World Vision, and others.  Fourth, discuss and dialogue.  Orthodox Christians in America have a responsibility and an opportunity to share the story of endangered Christians in the historic lands of Christianity's origins, and wherever possible, to participate in ecumenical and interfaith efforts to bring peace to the world.  For guidance and inspiration, think about the recent Holy Land Pilgrimage of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis.  Finally, go and see.  Speaking of pilgrimages, it's time for Orthodox Christians in the United States to visit and to connect with the Christians who continue to live and witness through peace and war, in the lands of the early Church. Security constraints do not rule out pilgrimages to places like Constantinople (Istanbul), Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and if peace breaks out, to other places in the region.

In the final book of the New Testament—“Revelation,” also known as “The Apocalypse”—Christ, tells the Church at Laodicea, in central-west Anatolia, “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth.”  Refracted through the lens of "The Apocalypse," the slippery slope from respect for doing no harm to the error of doing nothing could become part of the treacherous slide into lukewarm. The choices are obvious.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she will be Co-Chairing the new Study Group on the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe.

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