On Tuesday of this week, I had the extraordinary privilege of hearing Dr. Mary Mikhael speak at a community gathering in Dallas. Dr. Mikhael is a representative of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria & Lebanon, based in Beirut, Lebanon, and was the first woman head of a seminary in the Middle East. She is currently in the US speaking to churches about the Syrian tragedy, as well as the refugee crisis. I recorded her address, and would like to share some excerpts:
In 2011 when the Arab Spring began, it really seemed to many of us as a promising beginning, a promising sign that there would be change, there would be reform in all the Arab countries.
When the Spring came to Syria, it began in Deraa by the Jordanian border. It was in a school. There was a slogan in those days in all the countries — “The people demand a change of the regime.” So the students had written it on the walls of the school. Unfortunately the authorities in this town were very unwise and bad — they treated the students very badly. That triggered the parents and the people of the town to go into the streets and demand a change in the regime. Demonstrations in the thousands came out, not only in one city but in all cities,demanding a change in the regime. But soon other demonstrations came in support of the regime … Unfortunately, the violence broke out after two months. Everybody blames the other, but violence broke out and moved from one city to another … This tragedy is now in the sixth year.
Syria used to be the only Arab country that was considered a secular state, with a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups, all of which practiced their traditions without any restrictions. What the Syrian Spring has brought to the community in Syria is death, destruction, suffering, and pain for millions. Syria has 23 million population. Syria has 32 entities of ethnic and religious groups, and all have lived side by side as neighbors — we go to school together, we work together, we go to university together, — and religion is not talked about in that sense. We say that religion belongs to God and the country belongs to all.
The Syrian Spring is the longest spring we have known. Every time we see an end to this tragedy that was brought by the Spring maybe coming to an end, something happens and kills that little hope we have that it may end soon.
In fact, we don’t call it Arab Spring anymore. It has turned into a stormy, deadly winter …
Human tragedy in Syria has many faces … It’s estimated that 5.5 million children in Syria have been affected in a variety of ways, beginning with mental trauma, being denied normal schooling, living without parents, crossing the borders on their own and getting lost in other countries, recruited by rebels even as young as the age of seven … They recruit children and use them for different tasks and eventually train them to carry arms and become fighters.
You can imagine what the people are suffering so when we speak about refugees, they have not become refugees out of luxury, they ran for their lives. A Syrian woman in Europe was asked, “What do you hope for the future?” She said, “We left our hope in Syria. We don’t know how to hope anymore.”
No Syrian wants to become a refugee. Because despite all the need for change and reform — Syrian never claimed to be a perfect democracy, no, we all knew we needed lots of reform and change -- but people lived with total security doing what they wanted as long as they didn't mingle with politics so they had relative freedom but perfect security, and now they have lost it all. And when you see the refugees in Lebanon you can not but cry.
There are groups that fight in Syria from 93 countries, 93 different countries. Mostly in the name of religion, brainwashed; some are paid money, you can rightly call them mercenaries, yet they fight in the name of religion … But what they do has nothing to do with any religion in the world.
The other side of the tragedy Syria is facing is the enormous destruction. Syria is a country with thousands of years of civilization. Damascus is the oldest city in the world of continuous inhabitance. Every historical power in the world passed through Syria and left sites. So archaeology in Syria is humanity’s heritage. Those groups who come to fight — they don’t know freedom, don’t care about history or culture or heritage, they broke everything. They went to churches and broke crosses and icons. But not only churches and cathedrals have been attacked, but also mosques. In Aleppo, there is a library with 60,000 manuscripts not found in the world except there, of Islamic history. They have been looted — we don’t know if they are burnt, looted, destroyed.
What does the church do? The church has a ministry, has a witness, is commissioned to spread the good news. What can the church do in such a situation? … All the churches (in Syria and Lebanon) are deeply concerned and all the churches have gotten themselves involved in the relief work. In the beginning, because so many churches andcathedrals were destroyed, each church tried to take care of its own people but then we had to open up our relief work and said we want to be a church for all, so our relief work in Syria began among all, and 25% of the people we have helped are not Christians, but that is not the point at all. Our relief work is open to anybody who is in need.
If the church does not rush to help the needy, then the church is not the church.