The war in Syria: Building upon the sand?

Unfortunately, people adopt erroneous strategies today, more than in the past. There is a lot of work being done for the “macro peace,” which is the peace between nations, regions, etc. There is also work being done for peace between people, but the “micro” peace is the one that is being neglected, the one in the hearts of people. This way they are building upon the sand.


By Georgiana Constantin | October 17, 2013


Ancient Christian monastery village of Maaloula, Syria

Introduction

In Syria, the endemic conflict that lays siege to Christianity, where it once stood as a partner of Assad’s strategic minority rule, now consumes the region. At the advent of the Arab Spring, anti-government violence was ignited into a nationwide uprising that has not abated since 2011.

Historically, Syria served as an example of religious tolerance, where 87% of Syrians in 2009 (based on Gallup survey data) thought positively of Christians, in a majority (87% to 90%) Muslim country. In fact, in 2003, Syria gave refuge to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians.

With the looming threat of its own futility ever present, the war in Syria seems to be relentless in its savagery and injustice. The United States, Russia, Iran and their allies have been battling for a decisive outcome to the conflict…yet there seems to be no end in sight. What is it all for? Will it change anything? Or is it just another example of the old warning of “a foolish man who built his house on sand” being ignored, rather than the “wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

SFPPR News & Analysis examines the perspective of one of the great strongholds of traditional Christianity, and a place that has known religious peace for a very long time, Eastern Europe’s Romania. A secular nation, Romania’s religious majority is Christian, including 86.7% Eastern Orthodox and 4.7% Roman Catholic, according to the 2002 census.

In an exclusive interview, Orthodox priest Niculae Constantin and Catholic priest Ieronim Iacob share their views on Syria’s conflict. Fr. Constantin is Chief of the Military Chaplaincy and Fr. Iacob is with the Saint Anton Church of Constanta.

Interview

Question: The Arab Spring that began in 2011 with the self-immolation protest of Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, the humble 26 year old Tunisian fruit vendor whose wares were confiscated by government officials, has wrought even greater chaos in the already tumultuous Middle East. Would you comment on the persecution of Christians in the midst of the Syrian civil war?

Niculae Constantin: Contemporary democracy has a number of considerable values. Among the core values of democracy, free will and the right of people to confess, of whatever religion, constitutes the way in which states protect their people spiritually, allowing individuals to define themselves and have access to happiness. Any form of persecution carried out on one or more individuals becomes, from this perspective an inhuman and criminal act, especially from a Christian point of view, where Christ’s command to love our neighbor is fundamental.

Ieronim Iacob: What is happening in Syria is, for the most part, the result of an unsuccessful policy that the West has led in this region of the world. Too often religious identity has been (and still is, unfortunately) manipulated in favor of other interests.

If, for politicians, sociologists, historians etc., what is happening in Syria is just another religious persecution out of many against Christians, for me, as a Christian and a priest, this tragedy is a living wound in the body of Christ. While the politicians are looking for the “wine” to disinfect this wound, we believe in the healing power of ointment (as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan), that is to say, fasting and prayer, to which His Holiness Pope Francis has so insistently invited us.

Question: Nowadays, thanks to technological development, the media constitutes a remarkable force and authority of opinion on an international level. Do you think the international press has approached the subject of Christian persecution in Syria enough? Or do you feel it has not been given the attention that it should have?

Niculae Constantin: The fact that the media has made this dramatic conflict known to the world is a good thing. Just how much is known around the world about it, I cannot tell. I think that, if I, an insignificant person from a small state found out, then the media have done their job.

Ieronim Iacob: Unfortunately the press, here and elsewhere, is itself a victim of war. There is no such thing as an independent press; for economic, political, religious reasons etc. The press takes one side or another. Also, the tendency of presenting only “extreme” and “sensational” news has led to the news not always being objective and neutral. Even so, the press is highly necessary; without the journalists’ work, sometimes performed with the cost of their lives, the injustices of belligerents of all types would be kept secret, covered.

Question: In the ancient Christian village of Maaloula (Ma’loula), Syria (located in southwest Syria very near the Lebanese border), where the language of Christ is still spoken, civil war has engulfed the lives, homes and inhabitants’ places of worship. What should our attitude be, as Westerners and especially as Christians, to the unfortunate and tragic events taking place in Syria today?

Niculae Constantin: The pious ones should pray for the suffering and the murdered. The ones with power should work in their own sphere of responsibility according to their ability. The stream of opinions is an energy which grows and works for the cause of good. Peace is from God and we all need to work for it.

Ieronim Iacob: We cannot remain at the stage of helpless compassion. As citizens and Christians we ask our rulers to intervene, in peaceful ways, with the arms of dialogue, so as to have these tragedies stop immediately.

Question: André Malraux, France’s first Minister of Cultural Affairs, said, “The 21st century will either be a religious one or will not be at all.” Do you believe this might be a reference to a possible reconciliation of religions, as discussed and awaited by so many?

Niculae Constantin: It was a good thought that Andre Malraux had. I do not consider it a canonical prophecy. We are in the third millennium and, behold, we are talking about God, however, in a sad context. I am sure that Malraux did not have this type of belligerent religiosity in mind. May God give us the power and wisdom to reach peace and collective love. For this to happen, however, we need to always take care of one another. This is hard to do. It requires time, implication, self-sacrifice. But how wonderful it is to live like that, loving others.

Ieronim Iacob: I think that all the millennia which we have left until the “second coming” will be religious. The important thing is that ideologies not hinder this ageless thirst of man’s for God, or deceive man with surrogates that do nothing else but accentuate one’s existential anxiety.

If, by “fundamental peace” you would translate paradisiac peace, that will never exist. Man’s life, even after the ransom paid by Christ, is still under the sign of sin, individual and collective. Unfortunately, people (states, international organizations etc.) adopt erroneous strategies today, more than in the past. There is a lot of work being done for the “macro peace,” which is the peace between nations, regions, etc. There is also work being done for peace between people (state, federal and union laws), but the “micro” peace is the one that is being neglected, the one in the hearts of people. This way they are building upon the sand. Without an individual “mea culpa,” and not just a psychological one, but a sacramental one (while confessing one’s sins), collective pacifistic scenography will always have a sterile effect.

Conclusion

Christian churches have been destroyed throughout Syria by Islamists. The al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front attacked and laid siege to the ancient Christian monastery village of Maaloula, while the civil war has compounded the refugee problem throughout the region. In an open letter, the Archbishop of the Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America beseeched President Obama to refrain from conducting military action against the Syrian government, while the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning violence and the persecution of Christians. Notwithstanding, it is the wise man who will build his house upon the rock.

Editor’s Note:

The preceding interview was translated from Romanian to English by the author and was edited for length. We are grateful to Orthodox priest, Niculae Constantin, and Catholic priest, Ieronim Iacob, for their participation.


Georgiana Constantin is a Romanian law school graduate who has studied European, international and Romanian law. She recently completed her thesis on the UN and global governance at the Romanian-American University in Bucharest. Ms. Constantin, who is based in Romania, is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.