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NCC Delegation Meets with
President Bashar Al Assad,
By Jim Wetekam*
April 22, 2002, DAMASCUS, Syria In a wide-ranging meeting lasting over an hour and a half, a delegation of American church leaders today openly exchanged convictions and questions with President Bashar Al Assad of Syria at his Presidential palace.
The conversation covered religious issues of Muslims and Christians, as well as political issues, including the current situation in Palestine and Israel, Syria's place in the peace process, U.S.-Syria relations, the activities of Hezbollah, and the protection of holy sites like the Church of the Nativity. In addition, the President offered a philosophical discussion and context for the conditions that can create peace.
The American delegation is composed of fourteen leaders invited to participate as part of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCC). The NCC undertook the April 16-27 mission to Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel at the request of Rev. Riad Jarjour, the General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches, who is traveling with the group.
While in Syria (April 21-22), the group also spent extensive time in conversation with His Holiness Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, head of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and all the East. The group met, too, with His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East. In addition, the Minister of Religious Affairs hosted a lunch that included many Muslim and Christian leaders from Damascus.
In his time with the delegation, President Assad asserted the need for the U.S. to recapture a strong leadership role in bringing peace in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a point he had made to Secretary of State Powell during Mr. Powell's brief trip to Damascus last week. Citing an emphasis, as have other Arab leaders, that the 35-year-old Israeli occupation of territories seized remains the crux of the problem, the President observed, "All these [past] wars did not create as much hatred and resentment as people have today. Through all these years and wars and massacres, the Arabs generally, and the Palestinians particularly, were searching for hope. ...[Now] the only hope [Palestinians] can have is that the United States will impose a solution consistent with the U.N. resolutions."
Yet, President Assad expressed his own continued frustration with U.S. actions. Speaking of U.S.-Syria relations, he declared, "The American Administration comes to us when there's a problem in Israel; otherwise, they don't come." President Assad said that he had delivered this same message to Secretary Powell. Praised as a world leader who immediately condemned the September 11 attack on the U.S., President Assad stated that he was nevertheless disappointed that the attack had shifted U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East from a political emphasis to a terrorist issue.
A member of the American delegation reflected upon the group's meeting with the President: Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim, Patriarchal Vicar of the Archdiocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church for the Eastern United States and a native of Syria, commented, "He showed that he has really related to the daily life of the people - that he's not just sitting in the palace, that he's not ignorant of what's going on." Archbishop Karim continued, "He should at least be heard in the West, not snubbed. The U.S. media often refer to him as young or immature, but we saw instead a well-informed, mature, polished head of state."
A few weeks ago President Assad was widely hailed for a strong presentation at the Arab Summit in Beirut. The American delegation was struck, too, by the clarity of his thought and his willingness to discuss issues not only in a political context but also in theological and philosophical terms.
President Assad reminded the delegation of its role in the Middle East conflict: "The concept of peace is not very mature in the minds of people and it's here that persons of religion...should step in." The NCC delegation moves to Jordan (April 22-23) and then steps next into the West Bank and Israel (April 23-26, departing April 27).
*Jim Wetekam, Media Program Director for Churches for Middle East Peace, is a member of the NCC delegation.
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