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Sarah Khalil

Nursing wounds: A joyless Christmas in Syria

Different Christian communities in the Middle East have suffered considerable afflictions [AFP]

Date of publication: 25 December, 2016

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Avid campaigner for peace in the Middle East, Reverend Nadim Nassar speaks to The New Arab about the fate of Christians in the region and the pitfalls that lie ahead.
As Christians across the world prepare to celebrate the holiest day in their calendar, many in the Middle East will once again mark the 25th of December by nursing wounds from the years past while uncertain about the future ahead.

Reverend Nadim Nassar, the only Syrian priest in the Church of England and an avid campaigner for peace in the Middle East, spoke to The New Arab to tell of his own views about Christians in the Middle East and the pitfalls facing the region.

"There is no joy this Christmas in Syria," Reverend Nassar tells The New Arab

"Any joyous expressions you see today shared through pictures on social media are only desperate attempts to express a cry for joy – a cry for hope."

Reverend Nassar was born and raised in the Syrian city of Lattakia and came to Europe to continue his theological studies and religious work. He frequently travels back and forth between the Middle East and the West.

Much of his public campaigns over the past few years have been concerned with bringing attention to both the fate of Christians in the Middle East and the perils of war affecting peoples from all different faiths both in the region and worldwide.

"We are all longing to see peace and understanding between different factions of society and political platforms in both Syria and Iraq," Reverend Nassar says.

"This is a desperate cry for something to happen worldwide," he says.

"What boggles my mind, is that the world is just watching the worst atrocities since the Second World War unfolding in front of our eyes – this is horrendous."

In his campaigns Reverend Nassar has been particularly vocal about the loss of the essential messages of peace intrinsic to different religious faiths.

"I say we have all fallen short to express God's love for us... The churches, Muslims, Jews – we have fallen short in solving our problems through peaceful means, the way God wants us to do in every religion. We boast about peaceful messages in our scriptures, but when it comes to doing it we fail." 

We have fallen short in solving our problems through peaceful means, the way God wants us to do in every religion. We boast about peaceful messages in our scriptures, but when it comes to doing it we fail

"To save lives in the Middle East, and to preserve the existence of minorities in the region, the wars must come to an end," Reverend Nassar tells The New Arab.

"We must look to Europe, the US, Iran, Russia, the Gulf, all those directly involved in Syria and Iraq, how much are they willing to find political solutions?"

Reverend Nassar also repeatedly calls for dialogue between different political factions, castigating both local and world powers for using war as the only method to solve differences. 

"With Syria, it is extremely important not to look at the crisis from one perspective or one side," he says, "It is not black or white – no side has the truth."

"All parties have blood on their hands and all sides are responsible for escalating the war," he stresses, "All factions must sit around a table for dialogue to find a way out."

"I feel dismay when one side attacks the other viciously – as if one side has the truth and the other is the ultimate evil. There is no ultimate evil, all sides are guilty in this war." 

"Nobody can say I am right and the other is wrong – we all need to come around a table and acknowledge that so we can find a way out of this cycle of war."

I feel dismay when one side attacks the other viciously – as if one side has the truth and the other is the ultimate evil. There is no ultimate evil, all sides are guilty in this war

Reverend Nassar urges citizens of the West to ask critical questions that go beyond the official party lines given by government officials.

"Don't listen to your politicians and believe them blindly, you must ask critical questions," he says, "Raise your voices and ask 'why?'. Why are we not finding peaceful solution to this crisis, not only in Middle East but worldwide?

"Why do we always revert to the weapons? Why is the solution always in the hands of the war lords rather than peaceful people? We need to wake up and see that exporting arms and making weapons to kill," he adds.

Different Christian communities in the Middle East, which include Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox rites, Maronites and Copts as well as other denominations, numbered between 12 and 19 million members in 2011.

The different communities have however suffered considerable afflictions in the past few years, especially in the war-ravaged regions of Syria and Iraq, as well as politically unstable Egypt, resulting in considerable migrations of Christians out of the Middle East and into Europe.

Reverend Nassar is an avid activist against the flow of Christian minorities from the region. He is the director of Awareness Foundation, an NGO that seeks to help communities remain in the Middle East, as well as build an understanding between faiths in those countries.

His campaign also works to provide information about the long history of Christianity in the region.

"Our foundation has several objectives but it primarily works to build bridges between the East and the West, because we believe there is a lot of misunderstanding and misconceptions that we need to correct," Reverend Nassar tells The New Arab.

"Many in the West still don't know that there are Christians in the Middle East – they always ask me when did I become a Christian," he says.

"Christians in the Middle East are part of the original fabric of society. If you look at Europe for example, the diversity there comes from immigrants," Reverend Nassar explains, "But in the Middle East, Christians and other ethnic minorities are one of the earliest founders of communities in the region."

"So it is important to educate and correct any misconceptions over Christian presence in the Middle East."

Christians in the Middle East are part of the original fabric of society. If you look at Europe for example, the diversity there comes from immigrants. But in the Middle East, Christians are one of the earliest founders of communities in the region

In October 2014, the foundation launched its "Ambassadors for Peace" project, working closely with Christian communities who have remained in their ravaged countries.

"We train young people to be agents of peace inside these communities," Reverend Nassar says.

"While the world is mostly focused on helping Iraqi and Syrian refugees based in camps outside their war-torn countries, we have the advantage of working with communities inside Syria and Iraq," he says.

"So we work directly with communities inside those countries, who I think have become almost invisible and forgotten.

"People need hope, a loving heart, a listening ear – not just a tent and a blanket," he says, "So we try to go beyond that."

A second project, "Little Heroes", works specifically with children who have been internally displaced.

"We started in Syria, where we helped more than 15,000 children," Reverend Nassar says, "The aim is to plant hope and joy in these areas and let children do what they should do – play and be happy."

The Awareness Foundation is currently operating in Damascus and areas along the coast in Syria.

In Iraq, most of their work is within the Kurdistan region, where many Iraqi Christians continue to be persecuted in a recent wave of land seizures condemned by rights groups.

"The clear majority of Christians there would leave if you give them a visa and a plane ticket - just to escape the hell there," Reverend Nassar says.

"I am not saying that their suffering is more important than that of others, but we are losing the demographic diversity in those areas.

"It is terrible to see this fabric breaking apart," Reverend Nassar says, "So we are desperately trying to save those components."

On the eve of Christmas, Reverend Nassar urges minorities - as well as majorities - in the Middle East to coexist.

"We have one destiny," he says, "We are all bound together with a past, a present and the future - no one can eliminate the other. The only way forward is unity in diversity, the unity that brings peace and acknowledgement in the other.

"We need unity and peace - without this we have no life in the Middle East and history has shown that to us."

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