The Reverend Nadim Nassar, the first Syrian to be ordained an Anglican priest, is director and co-founder of the Awareness Foundation, dedicated to building understanding between East and West and sustaining Christians in the Middle East.
Radix: As a Christian growing up in Syria, did you feel that you were part of a minority group? Were you in a village where there were other Christians?
Nadim Nassar: I grew up in Lattakia, Syria’s principal port on the Mediterranean Sea. Lattakia is a diverse city, with many religions represented there. I grew up as a Christian in a Christian family. Although Christians are numerically a minority in Syria, we always lived in harmony with the Muslim majority and other minorities. There was no tension between the faiths, and we felt a part of the fabric of Syrian society.
Radix: Did you experience Christianity as something you chose, or as something you were born into?
Nassar: I was born in a Christian family, but we were in touch with other religions, especially Islam. Both Christianity and Islam are missionary faiths, so there always was an indirect invitation to become a Muslim. This means that I couldn't take my faith for granted; people of a minority faith are always conscious of their faith. It's different from living in the West, where being Christian in a supposedly Christian or a secular society can be the default position.
Radix: At what point did you feel called to the priesthood? My understanding is that you are the only Syrian Anglican priest in the world. How did you choose that tradition?
Nassar: I was part of a group of three close friends who grew up with great curiosity and enthusiasm about what we used to call the “truth” when we were teenagers. I remember reading the words of Jesus Christ in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” These words shocked me: the truth is a person rather than an abstract concept. I wanted to know more about how truth can be a person and found myself drawn to the person of Christ much more than to Christianity as a religion. Finally, I decided to go even deeper in my journey toward this fascinating person who was either totally mad to say that He was the truth, or totally honest that He is the truth--and there was no other way.
I wanted to study theology, but the only school nearby was in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, a two-hour drive from my Syrian home town. At that time, I was 17 and Lebanon was in the middle of a raging civil war. To go into a war zone to study theology was a life-changing decision that was very hard for my family to accept. But when they saw how passionate I was about this journey they supported me. I moved from a warm and loving family home in Lattakia to a harsh and violent situation in Beirut. During the seven years (1981-1988) I studied at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, I faced death many times and lost dear friends in the horrible war that raged throughout Lebanon. I endured all this because of my strong desire to know Christ as the truth, which has never left me.
I grew up in Syria with a Presbyterian father and an Orthodox mother, and, when I came to London in 1997, I continued studying Protestant theology and was ordained in the United Reformed Church. I was the URC's Senior Chaplain to the Universities and Colleges in London until 2003. In response to what I say as a growing need to study the Christian faith in the context of the 20th century world, we established The Awareness Foundation in an Anglican church in London, thanks to the support of Bishop Michael Marshall and his congregation. Over time, I felt more and more part of the Anglican tradition; this tradition was the only one I had ever encountered that bridged the Protestant and the Orthodox in me, so I chose to ask the Bishop of London to ordain me.
Radix: The political climate in the Middle East seems to have changed, to have become less tolerant of religious and political differences. Would you say there has been a major shift in your lifetime?
Nassar: Yes, there has been a huge shift in the dynamic between religions and a dramatic change within Islam. Political Islam has gained enormous power in the Middle East and political Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaida, and ISIS have greatly influenced the societies in the region. The most devastating result is the breaking of communities along religious lines and the rise of Islamic fanaticism which has spread from the Middle East to the whole world.
Radix: I know that persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt has increased in recent years. Is the same true of Syrian Christians?
Nassar: Until the Arab Spring, we did not experience persecution. There was some discrimination, but nothing remotely like persecution. The conflict in Syria has seen the torture, kidnapping, rape, murder, and beheading of Christians just because of their faith. Christian women are now sold as slaves--even sex slaves--in special markets in areas where fanatical groups like ISIS are in control. We must also acknowledge that other minorities in the Middle East are currently experiencing persecution and cruelty. Even Muslims may find themselves persecuted if they are of a different denomination from the fanatical groups, or if they do not show support for these groups; some have been forced to fight alongside them. This has been made much worse by the influx of Islamic fanatics from around the world, including from Europe and the United States.
Radix: I understand that, like Egypt, Syria has a long Christian history.
Nassar: Actually, Christianity started in Greater Syria--not in Egypt. Palestine at the time of Jesus Christ was a satellite of the Roman province of Syria. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the followers of Christ were first called Christians in Antioch, a major city in Syria, (Acts 11:26). Christianity existed in Syria since its very beginnings, and it was a Christian country for centuries before Islam even began. Don’t forget that St. Paul was in Syria, on the way to Damascus, the capital of Syria, when he was converted; his mission was to persecute the church in Syria – which was already strong and growing.
Radix: Have you had much dialogue with Muslims?
Nassar: I have spent my entire life in dialogue with Muslims, ever since I had Muslim friends as a child. Dialogue in my case has not been only theological or intellectual, but rather building bridges and relationships, which is what I do through the Awareness Foundation. Dialogue is an important, ongoing process to communicate with and understand those who are different from me.
Radix: How is ISIS different from what we've seen in the past and how great a threat does it pose?
Nassar: ISIS made itself distinct, especially from Al Qaida, by being more cruel and bloodthirsty; their mission is to kill and destroy everybody and everything in disagreement with their ideology and understanding of religion. ISIS is also unique because they are working to establish a caliphate, a religious Islamic state (in their terminology, "al khilafa") with no respect for cultural or national borders and identities; they consider Iraq and the Sham countries (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine--including Israel) as one state. ISIS stands for the “Islamic State of Iraq and Sham” and they won't stop at the borders of Syria.
The threat of ISIS has been colossal for the Middle East because it's spreading its poison throughout the entire region, threatening the existence of all indigenous minorities. They also threaten cultural and civil values that have bonded people of different religions and denominations for millennia.
Radix: Is there any way to stop the violence, other than military intervention? Is peacemaking possible?
Nassar: I do not believe military intervention has ever stopped violence; it only adds to the destruction and death toll. I experienced that in my years in Beirut, when different armies invaded Lebanon to try to establish peace, including the U.S. Army. All they did was increase the level of violence.
Peace is always possible because God gives us the ability to live in peace if we listen to Him, free from the political manipulation and corruption of His message. The most important tool of peacemaking in our possession is dialogue. In Christianity, when God wanted to make peace with humanity, He sent a message--which was nothing less than Himself, to teach us how to live in peace. Unfortunately, when our vision is clouded by political power, we make dialogue the last resort, rather than the first and obvious one.
Peace is possible wherever there is conflict when we listen to the voice of reason and open channels of communication; dialogue is not only for friends--it is especially for enemies and those in conflict. Having said that, we need to acknowledge that since dialogue would not be fruitful with a violent terrorist organization like ISIS, the way to defeat it is to cut its resources, preventing the flow of personnel, money, and weapons to it. As long as many strong world economies are partly dependent on the manufacture and exportation of weapons, conflicts will spread and support for organizations like ISIS will continue. Fighting over resources such as oil and gas hinders peacemaking too.
Radix: How has the situation in Syria affected you and your family?
Nassar: The conflict in Syria has affected every Syrian, whether inside or outside the country. Most Syrians have close connections to their homeland. Syrian families are usually large and very close. I have hundreds of relatives in Syria. Although I live in London, I used to go to Syria several times a year to see my family or for work. As director of the Awareness Foundation, I was involved with activities in the Middle East to build bridges between East and West and raise awareness about the importance of supporting the Christian presence in the Middle East. Now, I still go to Syria because I feel that we have responsibility as a Foundation to support the Church there, and to help Christians face the huge challenges of the conflict. Sadly, the actual existence of Christianity in Syria and Iraq is under threat, and the number of Christians is dwindling day by day due to the displacement of families by the war.
My family come from Lattakia, in the area that is home to the Alawites, an Islamic sect to which the President of Syria belongs. This area is fairly safe, but like any other area in the country it suffers from extensive power outages and astronomical inflation due to the scarcity of imported and even manufactured goods; this is exacerbated by the internal displacement within Syria that has resulted in a tripling of the population of Lattakia.
Radix: What would you like Westerners to understand about the Middle East?
Nassar: Unfortunately there are many Western misconceptions about the Middle East. When the West looks at the Middle East, it mostly sees darkness, violence, and Islam. People in the West should understand that not everyone in the Middle East is a Muslim, and that most Muslims have nothing to do with fanaticism or terrorism. The Middle East is a place of great religious and cultural diversity, with tremendous historical roots that give the region the epithet “The Cradle of Civilization.”
Damascus is the oldest capital in the world, and Lattakia gave the world the first alphabet (Ugaritic) in approximately 1400 BC. The Middle East is also perceived as a big desert where people live in tents and ride camels. I remember when I first visited America in the mid-80s, my American hosts introduced me to a car, a street, and a building; they genuinely thought I had left my tent and ridden on a camel to get to the airport! Much of the region is exceptionally fertile and blessed with rich resources; before the current conflict, Syria was an exporter of cotton, fruit, vegetables, and many minerals.
One final thing that Westerners should understand is the enormous influence wielded in the Middle East by international and world powers. Because of the geographical location of the Middle East and its massive resources, the region has been, since the dawn of history, the chosen field of conflict among the world powers. After millennia of invasions and occupations, the countries of the Middle East at last gained some form of independence after the Second World War. Since then, the region has become the favorite location for proxy wars between the West and the two great powers of the East, Russia and China. These proxy wars also take place between regional and international powers including Turkey, Iran, Israel, and the Gulf States.
So we must understand that what is happening today is not just the product of the peoples of the Middle East "not getting on." Peace in the Middle East will be possible only when there is international will to bring the conflict to an end; peace can be established when all parties to the conflict come together and when all of those parties fully implement agreements reached through dialogue.
Radix: Do you see any signs of hope?
Nassar: Christianity is a faith of hope, and without hope we cannot exist and our faith becomes in vain. I love what St. Peter said: “but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3.15, NRSV). My hope is that there are enough people who believe that faith, whatever the religion, demands peace with God and with each other, so that we put our hands together to build peace in Syria and the Middle East.
The Awareness Foundation and I work tirelessly encouraging people to be ambassadors for hope and peace. This vision is implemented in the Foundation’s work; we recently led a Leadership Training Project inside Syria for 90 young men and women who committed themselves to peacemaking in their communities.
We're determined to put our effort, combined with all that other faithful and sincere organizations are doing, to promote the solution of conflict through dialogue and other peaceful means. I hope and pray that politicians the world over, not just in the Middle East, will see that bullets and bombs only escalate and deepen the conflict. There is hope for the Middle East as long as there are people who believe that religion is there to serve people, not to destroy them, and that God is the creator of all, and that His will is that we live together in rich diversity, peace, and love.