The World Council of Churches has a Naïve Attitude on Syria

Michael Curtis
In its statement on May 29, 2013 following an international and ecumenical conference in Beirut, the World Council of Churches (WCC) did not deal in any specific way with the violence in Syria but simply made a perfunctory reference to the "dire humanitarian situation in Syria."  It was more potent in criticizing the State of Israel. The statement held that Israel was responsible for "the dispossession of Palestinian people ...from their land by Israel occupation."  It asserted that Jerusalem was "an occupied city which a government which has adopted discriminatory policies against Christians and Muslims alike."

In an earlier statement of September 4, 2012 which called for an end to the violence in Syria in all forms, without reference to any particular source of the violence, the WCC spoke of the situation of Christians in Syria. It expressed confidence that "the churches in Syria, which are deeply rooted in the land, and have developed a long historic experience of engagement in the life of the society will have an important role in national dialogue especially in this critical and difficult moment."

That confidence has been shaken with information about events in June in Syria. The WCC became aware of the brutal murder on June 24, 2013 of Father Francois Mourad, a 49 year old Syrian monk, in the village of Ghassaniyah, a Christian village near the Turkish border. He had sought refuge in the Franciscan monastery of St, Anthony of Padua , where ironically he felt safe after being forced to leave his home in Aleppo, and was murdered there by jihadists. The general secretary of the WCC, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, was "profoundly shocked and deeply concerned over the brutal murder." The nature of the murder is still not clear because of alternative versions. Some suggest Mourad was beheaded; others that he was shot eight times in the monastery which was also looted.

His sentiments can be appreciated but what is surprising are two things:  the lateness of the discovery by him and the WCC of the reality of the violence in Syria, as compared with the alacrity of finding alleged Israeli misdeeds; and the relative tameness of the response.  The WCC suddenly realized that religious communities were being targeted by acts of violence. But it believed  that these acts were aimed at dividing and manipulating Syria, and therefore it stressed the need to reject any attempt to use religion  as an instrument of psychological warfare, political strategy or intimidation.

The WCC was not unaware of previous brutality in Syria. It had expressed "deep pain" over the massacre of innocent people and especially children in the village of Taldou, in the area of Houla in Syria on May 25, 2012 when 108 people were killed, many of whom were executed. However, it was not clear which group it held responsible for the massacre and other atrocities and who should be brought to justice for the inhumane and morally and ethically unacceptable act.

 The WCC now found that it had become apparent that foreign radical and terrorists elements are making use of the conflict in Syria and are deliberately targeting Christians, not sparing clergy and religious institutions and shrines. Those elements are attempting to sow interreligious tension. Churches were being looted and destroyed. The WCC held that Islam should not be misused as a justification for aggression against neighbors, and especially against civilians. The WCC realized that it was now looking at a completely different and tragic picture than in March 2011 when it thought that the uprising in Syria seemed to be a sign of hope for the Syrian people.

The good will of the WCC cannot be doubted in its aspiration for peace and reconciliation conditioned by justice. But its judgment on political and social matters is more open to question. It is one thing to call in an abstract way for all parties to engage in dialogue as the only solution to safeguard the unity and pluralistic nature of historic Syria. It is another to omit any proposals for specific action that the WCC and all well intentioned people might make to end the slaughter of Syrians, now estimated at 100,000.

In its statement on May 29, 2013 following an international and ecumenical conference in Beirut, the World Council of Churches (WCC) did not deal in any specific way with the violence in Syria but simply made a perfunctory reference to the "dire humanitarian situation in Syria."  It was more potent in criticizing the State of Israel. The statement held that Israel was responsible for "the dispossession of Palestinian people ...from their land by Israel occupation."  It asserted that Jerusalem was "an occupied city which a government which has adopted discriminatory policies against Christians and Muslims alike."

In an earlier statement of September 4, 2012 which called for an end to the violence in Syria in all forms, without reference to any particular source of the violence, the WCC spoke of the situation of Christians in Syria. It expressed confidence that "the churches in Syria, which are deeply rooted in the land, and have developed a long historic experience of engagement in the life of the society will have an important role in national dialogue especially in this critical and difficult moment."

That confidence has been shaken with information about events in June in Syria. The WCC became aware of the brutal murder on June 24, 2013 of Father Francois Mourad, a 49 year old Syrian monk, in the village of Ghassaniyah, a Christian village near the Turkish border. He had sought refuge in the Franciscan monastery of St, Anthony of Padua , where ironically he felt safe after being forced to leave his home in Aleppo, and was murdered there by jihadists. The general secretary of the WCC, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, was "profoundly shocked and deeply concerned over the brutal murder." The nature of the murder is still not clear because of alternative versions. Some suggest Mourad was beheaded; others that he was shot eight times in the monastery which was also looted.

His sentiments can be appreciated but what is surprising are two things:  the lateness of the discovery by him and the WCC of the reality of the violence in Syria, as compared with the alacrity of finding alleged Israeli misdeeds; and the relative tameness of the response.  The WCC suddenly realized that religious communities were being targeted by acts of violence. But it believed  that these acts were aimed at dividing and manipulating Syria, and therefore it stressed the need to reject any attempt to use religion  as an instrument of psychological warfare, political strategy or intimidation.

The WCC was not unaware of previous brutality in Syria. It had expressed "deep pain" over the massacre of innocent people and especially children in the village of Taldou, in the area of Houla in Syria on May 25, 2012 when 108 people were killed, many of whom were executed. However, it was not clear which group it held responsible for the massacre and other atrocities and who should be brought to justice for the inhumane and morally and ethically unacceptable act.

 The WCC now found that it had become apparent that foreign radical and terrorists elements are making use of the conflict in Syria and are deliberately targeting Christians, not sparing clergy and religious institutions and shrines. Those elements are attempting to sow interreligious tension. Churches were being looted and destroyed. The WCC held that Islam should not be misused as a justification for aggression against neighbors, and especially against civilians. The WCC realized that it was now looking at a completely different and tragic picture than in March 2011 when it thought that the uprising in Syria seemed to be a sign of hope for the Syrian people.

The good will of the WCC cannot be doubted in its aspiration for peace and reconciliation conditioned by justice. But its judgment on political and social matters is more open to question. It is one thing to call in an abstract way for all parties to engage in dialogue as the only solution to safeguard the unity and pluralistic nature of historic Syria. It is another to omit any proposals for specific action that the WCC and all well intentioned people might make to end the slaughter of Syrians, now estimated at 100,000.