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Antiochian Church Lay Leader Describes Syria Crisis Reality

Samar Laham speaks on the crisis in Syria before a large gathering, including Archbishop Demetrios and Metropolitan Joseph (center).
© Orthodox Observer

NEW YORK – Ridding the Middle East of Christians is the ultimate aim of Islamic terrorist and fundamentalist groups like ISIS and others. Such is the assessment of Samar Laham, a representative of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, based in Damascus, Syria, who spoke on “Syria in Crisis” Sept. 29 at the Museum of the City of New York.

The event was co-sponsored by the Order of St. Andrew-Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Order of St. Ignatius of the Patriarchate of Antioch, International Orthodox Christian Charities and the Archdiocese.

Mr. Laham’s presentation, which included three brief videos, focused on the humanitarian disaster confronting the Syrian people, including Christians and other minorities.

A civil engineer by profession and a Damascus resident, Mr. Laham has held several positions as a lay leader, youth movement president and ecumenical officer for the Church of Antioch. He established a patriarchal department, the Department, of Ecumenical Relations and Development to address humanitarian needs throughout the region, including Lebanon and southern Turkey. He has worked in partnership with the IOCC, which has benefited 2.5 million people.

Mr. Laham said that events in other Arab countries, among them the “Arab Spring” movement that began in 2010, precipitated the present crisis in Syria. “The sudden awakening which sought democracy and freedom lacked the concept of how to implement such principles,” he said of those who thought they were introducing democracy to the region.

While many Arab citizens longed for social justice and freedom, “those unfortunate citizens...who took to the streets... did not realize that overturning a regime would reflect negatively,” he said. The result was havoc that was “pre-planned and pre-meditated” on the part of the fundamentalists and fanatics who sought to promote their own agendas,” Mr. Laham explained.

Serious consequences

The result, thus far, has been the displacement of 10 million people in a country of 23 million, with at least 500,000 evacuating by sea – many of those first heading to Greece then on to the rest of Europe – countless thousands of others going to Lebanon and Jordan, neighbor- hoods demolished, and the “killing, torture and forced displacement of Syrians” so the fundamentalists and fanatics “can realize their devilish aims.”

An estimated 500,000 have been killed.

About 100,000 live in public parks, while others have been kidnapped, including the two Orthodox bishops, other clergy and monks, all of whose whereabouts are still unknown.

Churches, monasteries and schools have come under attack. Christians who refuse to leave face the possibility of beheading, slavery, forced conversion or to pay the jizya tax.

Syria has also suffered severe economic loss. Mr. Laham said official estimates indicate the country’s national income has declined by about $100 million a year and physical damage to property and infrastructure exceeds $2 billion.

While much of the Christian population has suffered and been demoralized, the attacks have also targeted Sunni Mus- lims, whom ISIS and rebel factions in Syria also oppose. “Sunni Muslims are targeted because they won’t adopt the beliefs of ISIS and other fanatic groups,” said Mr. Laham. These Muslims are also leaving their homes.

As for the total number of refugees, he stated, “We don’t know how many leave on a daily basis.”

Mr. Laham said the emigration of Christians “has had a negative impact on the total number in the country.” Christians have not looked upon themselves as a minority, having played historic roles in Syrian society, including women playing prominent roles and churches setting up hospitals, clinics and schools.

Mr. Laham said “the feeling of despair has increased and there is no solution in sight.” He is critical of Western countries that have opened their borders to the refugees, but have not looked into the reasons for the crisis.

“Christians should ask themselves ‘why is the international community silent?,’ he continued. “A solution will not be realized unless Syrians realize they can’t desert their country.” He concluded by urging audience members to be cautious about information from the media, which does not report on the entire situation. “Do not listen to just half the story, but to the whole story.”

In a brief question-and-answer session that followed, he responded to the following:

  • On the safety of the Patriarchate headquarters: The Patriarchate and most of the churches in Damascus are located in an area that experiences almost daily shelling.
  • The effect of Russian involvement: It is too early to determine, but Russian forces have been hitting rebel positions.
  • Relationship with the Syrian government: Contrary to the image fostered by the media about the government of President Bashar al-Assad as being repressive and violating human rights, Mr. Laham said the secular regime has protected the Christians. Christian groups in Syria are autonomous.
  • On the refugees’ status: In addition to those who have gone to Lebanon and Jordan, others have escaped to Iraq and a few to Turkey. Saudi Arabia does not permit immigration and has no open borders law.

Those attending the lecture included Archbishop Demetrios, Metropolitan Joseph, head of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, many Greek Orthodox and Antiochian Orthodox faithful of the New York area, and Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, including National Commander Dr. Anthony Limberakis.

Hierarchs’ responses

Both Metropolitan Joseph and Archbishop Demetrios offered responses following the Mr. Laham’s lecture.

Metropolitan Joseph, himself a native of Damascus who came to the United States in 1995, warned that news accounts of the situation in Syria contain misinformation. “Unfortunately, the media is biased and does not report the truth.”

He said that, before the crisis, Damas- cus was “multicultural ... standing on its feet, debt-free and not under mercy of any other country.” He continued, “Why are they crucifying Syria? ... There had never been persecution against any religion. It’s about Christians not being in the Middle East.”

The Metropolitan also said that President Obama told him that “he knows President Assad is defending Christians.”

Archbishop Demetrios called Mr. Laham’s presentation “realistic, painful and precise.” He called the attitude of the media and others in the West “the epitome of hypocrisy” in raising concerns about human rights there, but ignoring such abuses happening in other countries.

He gave the example of 1 million Philippines citizens who are Christians working in Saudi Arabia that are not permitted to worship either in public or privately in their residences.

“One of the highest heinous crimes there is,” said the Archbishop, “is depriving someone of their rights.”

Nurturing Christianity

His Eminence also recalled the role that Syria has played in the development of Christianity, from Saul of Tarsus’ transforming experience on the road to Damascus to Antioch being the first place where Christ’s followers were called “Christians,” and where, in Damascus, one of the earliest translations of Holy Scripture was accomplished in the Syriac language. Reinforcing Metropolitan Joseph’s opinion on biased media coverage on the situation in Syria, the Archbishop said that a major barrier to people learning the truth of what has been happening is “the fundamental lack of knowledge to write about the basic issues. Count on their illiteracy,” he said.

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