“Islam cannot be studied like grammar, We have to see the real people and share with them. Muslims are sharing with you by living in your countries. Why do you ignore them?” said Patriarch Ignatius IV (Hazim) of the Greek Orthodox Church in Syria.
"Islam cannot be studied like grammar," Patriarch Ignatius IV (Hazim) of the Greek Orthodox Church in Syria, told a delegation led by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), who had come to Syria wishing to learn from the country’s long experience of Christians and Muslims living peacefully together. "We have to see the real people and share with them. Muslims are sharing with you by living in your countries. Why do you ignore them?" the patriarch asked particularly the delegation members from Europe and the United States at the outset of their 19 to 22 April visit.
Throughout the meetings the delegation had with Christian and Islamic leaders as well as with the Syrian president Dr Bashar al-Assad they heard the same message: Better understanding between religions can only be achieved if Christians and Muslims see each other as human beings rather than as representatives of one faith group.
The plight of Iraqi refugees and the observation that many Christians leave the Middle East region for Western countries were the other main themes of the visit. With 1.5 million refugees from Iraq in Syria, this nation of 20 million has done more than any other state to accommodate those who fled the violence tearing apart its eastern neighbour country. Syria has a history of opening its border to refugees. It has given shelter to half a million Palestinians and took in some 200,000 Lebanese during the 2006 war.
The refugees whom the representatives of WCC member churches from the Middle East, the United States, Pakistan, Germany, Australia and Sweden met in Damascus expressed their gratefulness to Syria and the churches there for welcoming them, but also their feeling of being let down by the international community. "Of course I want to go back to my country," said a young woman from Basra. "But can you guarantee that I will not be killed? My relatives went back and were killed in one night."
"We do not want Iraq to be emptied of Christians but if they are in danger there, how could we tell them to stay?" asked Patriarch Mor Ignatius Zakka I (Iwas) of the Syrian Orthodox Church, who was born in Iraq himself.
Samer Laham, director of ecumenical relations at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, explained: "The refugees cannot go back, because they would be killed, and they cannot stay, because finding a job is very difficult here and they are running out of money as the cost of living is rising."
Muslim institutions and churches in Syria work hand in hand caring for the refugees. "We said to Iraqi Christians [who were considering to seek asylum in Western countries]: Please do not go! Here you are part of our family, there you will be numbers," the Grand Mufti of the Republic of Syria Dr Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun told the WCC delegation.
"Peace in the Holy Land is the key to most problems in the region," affirmed the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III (Laham), following the service celebrating the third anniversary of pope Bendedict XVI. "With each crisis, there is a new wave of migration, also of Muslims, but especially of Christians. If you want to preserve the Christian presence in the Middle East, do your outmost to find peace for Palestine/Israel," H.B. Gregorios III called on the ecumenical visitors.
More signs of how Syria could be, in the words of WCC general secretary Kobia, "a good model of how people of different faiths can live together as a people created by One God", were given at the Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro Foundation, an Islamic centre particularly dedicated to education and interreligious studies. Girls from the foundation’s school and its orphanage greeted the ecumenical delegation with songs praising the "prophet Issa" (Jesus), the "caller for love and peace".
Syria was the last of three Middle Eastern countries visited by the WCC delegation. The trip had started on 14 April with a Public Hearing on Migration in Beirut and included a short stay in the United Arab Emirates.
If the delegation heard heart-wrenching stories from the Iraqi refugees, it also took home a message of hope. "I believe in acts of love," Patriarch Ignatius IV had told them. "Receiving people with love will not solve all problems immediately. But the next generation will harvest the fruits of loving."