WCC delegation met with Syria’s Assad

WCC delegation met with Syria’s Assad

The diminishing religious diversity in the Middle East was discussed as a threat to the stability of the region on Monday 21 April meeting between a WCC delegation and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

The diminishing religious diversity in the Middle East was discussed as a threat to the stability of the region on Monday 21 April meeting between a WCC delegation and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

The risk was the region may end up with “many small single-coloured countries fighting each other,” said Assad, adding: “The trend is still reversible. We have not reached the point of no return. And the concern is how to help other countries to have the same multi-coloured face as Syria”

During the meeting Assad also talked about recent contact with Israel through Turkey’s mediation concerning the Golan Heights region which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 War and has been a contentious and volatile issue between the two countries since.

News of high level contact between Syria and Israel started emerging on Sunday when Assad told Syria’s governing Baath party that the contact opened the possibility of further talks.

“We are happy to hear from you about this,” said Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) who led the WCC delegation.

Assad said that a comprehensive solution would have to be found, including for the Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon – almost half a million of them are living in each of the two countries. “We are not looking for a peace treaty, we are looking for a comprehensive and just peace,” he added.

With regard to relations between Christians and Muslims, Assad said in Syria the two groups ” have been living together for thousands of years, not just in coexistence but in symbiosis.” He invited the delegation to expose themselves more to the Muslim public especially through youth encounters and “not just be in dialogue with institutions.” He also urged them to make their voice heard with Christian political leaders in the West.

Kobia recognized the efforts of the Syrian government and Assad to provide a safe haven for refugees from Iraq. He particularly appreciated the Syrian government’s decision to open Syrian public schools to Iraqi children, a step that also confers long-term residence status to the families of schoolchildren.

It was expensive for Syria to provide schooling for the displaced Iraqis, the president said, but the price which the state and the families would have to pay if children received no education would be even higher: “The price would be ignorance, closed-mindedness and extremism,” he said. According to a September 2007 UNESCO report, “the number of children enrolled has doubled in [Syrian public] schools where there are Iraqi refugees. The number of pupils per class is between 40 and 50.”

Assad explained that Syria could not receive more Iraqis since last autumn as the 1.5 Iraqi refugees in the country put its economy under considerable strain.

The WCC delegation included representatives of WCC member churches in the United States, Lebanon, Pakistan, Germany, and Syria, as well as the general secretaries of the WCC and the Middle East Council of Churches (see list below). The meeting with Assad was part of a 4-day visit to Syria, preceded by visits to Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.

More information on the WCC delegation’s visit to Syria
WCC member churches in Syria

Members of the WCC delegation to Syria:

  • Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, WCC general secretary
  • Mr Guirguis Saleh, Middle East Council of Churches, general secretary
  • Ms Clare Chapman, National Council of Churches USA, deputy general secretary
  • Bishop Samuel Azariah, WCC executive committee member; Church of Pakistan
  • Bishop Nareg Alemezian, WCC central committee member; Armenian Apostolic Church of Cilicia, Lebanon
  • Rev. Dr Volker Faigle, Evangelical Church in Germany, representative to the Federal Republic of Germany and to the European Union
  • Mr James D. Thomson, Global Ecumenical Forum on Migration; National Council of Churches Australia, Christian World Service, director of policy and advocacy
  • Ms Kristina Hellqvist, Global Ecumenical Forum on Migration; Church of Sweden, consultant on immigration and refugees
  • Ms Carla Khijoyan, WCC Middle East desk
  • Ms Rima Barsoum, WCC programme executive for Christian-Muslim relations