Human Rights

Saving Syria

The Middle East Conference last week at ABTS focused on the Christian and Islamic perspectives on human rights. It not only explored the theological and scriptural foundations of each, but also the implications for the universalization of rights within a region that is undergoing seismic shifts.

On the margins of the conference was another meeting of individuals and organizations that have been involved in responding to the Syrian crisis. Their concern was the survival of Christians in the midst of the bloodiest conflict being waged in the world today. All the discussions at the conference – such as protection of individuals and communities, the impact of Islamization of society on minority groups, and the very basic human right for food and shelter – were very relevant to what continues to unfold in Syria.

The Syrian Christians, who make up about 10% of the overall Syrian population, are a mixture of Greek and Armenian Orthodox (who are the majority within the 10%), Catholics, and various Protestant groups, including Presbyterians, Baptists, Nazarenes, Christian Missionary Alliance and others. Christianity has very deep historical roots in Syria with some of the oldest churches and monasteries in the world in Wadi Nasara (Valley of the Nazarenes). The Christians of Syria lately have enjoyed relative freedom under the present government, as have other minority groups in the country. But there have always been questions as to whether the Christians were aligned politically with regime, or were supporters because of the freedoms they enjoyed. The distinction is important.

As the crisis in Syria has evolved from a genuine desire for greater freedom into a civil war, the Syrian Christians find themselves in a very uncomfortable position. A few Christian groups have sided with some of the more moderate elements of the opposition, believing in change and revolution, while others have strengthened their support for the regime in power in order to ensure their ongoing protection. Their very real fear is that radical and extremist groups, who are now the strongest and best armed within the opposition, have an Islamic vision for Syria, with little tolerance for minority groups and their religions.

When the conflict started in March 2011, the Christians were perceived by some within Syria as being on the side of the regime. However, the resulting attacks on Christian villages and key leaders were interpreted in the West as being evidence of persecution. While there definitely were individual cases of religious persecution during that time, the attacks were based on political alignment rather than on a person’s faith.

This however has now changed with the growing influence of radical and extremist groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and their allies. There is documented evidence that churches have been desecrated and destroyed, that some clergy have been killed, two bishops have been kidnapped, and others have been intimidated. There is evidence of Christian villages having been destroyed, and of Christians having been forced to flee.

It would be very easy for the global Christian community to denounce these atrocities and demand that their politicians exert international pressure to stop the destruction of the Christian community in Syria, as happened after the US led invasion of Iraq.

Interestingly, Syrian Christian leaders, while very concerned about their own people, see the issues very differently.

  • They do not want the focus of the international community to be only on the minorities within Syria, especially the Christians. They see themselves as Syrians, and all Syrians have the right to demand that the international community do everything possible to end the bloodshed and protect all Syrian citizens. Focusing inadvertently only on the Christians in Syria, heightens the local perceptions that the West is only concerned about the Christians and not the rest of the civilians, especially if they are Muslim.
  • They reflect the feelings of the Christians who say that they want to stay in Syria. They fear the decimation of the Christian community in Syria. The Christians, just as other Syrians, have lost their jobs, their homes, and access to basic services such as health and education. Increasing numbers are refugees in the neighbouring countries or are displaced within Syria. However, many have said that they would stay in Syria, in their ancestral communities, if they could only get enough food and medical help. Unfortunately, the whole response to the Syrian crisis is under funded and every agency and NGO does not have sufficient funds to address the enormous scale of the needs.
  • They feel that Western governments do not understand the crisis and have reduced the conflict to a very simplistic fight of good versus evil. Both sides in the conflict are already being armed by foreign governments that are not interested in what is good for the people of Syria, but for their own geostrategic advantages. So the European and American decision to arm the opposition further only adds fuel to the fire, does not level the playing field, and will only prolong the conflict. There are no innocent parties in this conflict and everyone has blood on their hands.

The global Church has lost its moral voice in the Syrian conflict and has chosen to remain silent. However, silence implies complicity. While the conflict is military and the solutions political, the Church has a role:

1. The global Church needs to rally prayer for peace in Syria and Lebanon. Jesus asked us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…Deliver us from evil”. This is not just a promise for a future age but a prayer for now.

2. The global Church needs to lobby their governments to advocate for protection of all Syrian civilians, regardless of religion. The warring parties and all their supporting foreign governments have ceased to abide by the Geneva Conventions and the rules of war that limit violence and protect civilians.

3. The global Church needs to lobby their governments to provide more humanitarian aid to the organizations responding to the crisis, while encouraging their own members to give generously.

Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy. Deus Misereatur – May God have mercy on us.

Humanitarian Aid as a Weapon of War in Syria

The two-year-old conflict in Syria is now being played out in three different but interconnected arenas. There is the military conflict, which at the moment, from all indications is deadlocked. There is the media battle, which the opposition seems to be winning because of the considerable support of the US Government’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) to the Office of Syrian Opposition Support in Istanbul. The newest arena is humanitarian aid, where the battle to win loyalty is just beginning. The humanitarian dimensions have now emerged as a critical political issue as the regime and the opposition groups maneuver to provide basic services and humanitarian aid, which is at the core of the battle to win the loyalty of the local populations. All western militaries have this dimension, whether it is in the concept of the Three-Block War or other similar strategies, where a military unit is involved simultaneously in combat, providing humanitarian aid, and ensuring peace. While military logistics capacity is valuable in responding to natural disasters, when used in the context of war, it is highly manipulative and violates basic human rights. What is new is the emergence of this concept in a civil war, and the use of humanitarian aid by rebel groups and militias to win loyalty. Humanitarian aid is now a weapon of war in Syria. This is in gross violation of all international principles dealing with providing humanitarian assistance.

Syria Current areas of control and strategic economic and military infrastructure as of 27 Feb 2013The recent Joint Rapid Assessment of Northern Syria indicates a downward spiral for all major indicators such as food, livelihood, shelter, heath, water and sanitation indicating a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

For example, in the northern governates at least 43% of the population in need received no food assistance, at least 55% received no health support, at least 76% received no shelter assistance and at least 88% received no assistance to access safe water.

A number of factors are affecting the delivery of aid into these areas. The first and most significant is increasing violence and criminality, often by militias of the various warring parties. Local agencies report that atleast a third of their supplies are lost in transit. Yet, the more disturbing reports are that both sides in the conflict are now using humanitarian aid as a weapon of war. There are reports that opposition militias often do not let the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) operate in many areas as they see the SARC as being a quasi government agency and thus perceived as pro-regime. Opposition groups also claim that the government is intentionally not allowing aid into opposition held areas.

The local relief providers who are trying to fill the aid gap, are small local communities that have organized themselves, elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and extremist groups such as the Jabhat al Nusra and its allies. Though the FSA has established an Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), there is no transparency or accountability of the funds that are provided through this mechanism.

The targeting of aid by the FSA, the Jabhat al Nusra (which has strong links with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)) and other actors is based on ideology, ethnicity and religion. The local armed groups are blatantly biased with regards to whom they assist and whom they don’t. This is no different than the regime making it difficult for the UN and other INGOs to cross battle lines and provide assistance in opposition held areas. Their rationale is that war weary civilians will move to where aid is available.

Assisting the vulnerable and those in need is a fundamental Biblical value that is stated repeatedly throughout Scripture. Deuteronomy 10:19 states, “And you are to love those who are foreigners [the alien, the refugee, the migrant], for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”  And Galatians 2:10, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor…” The assistance was to be unconditional and there was to be no manipulation for any religious or political purpose. The community of faith responding unconditionally to those who are weak and in need demonstrates the reality of a compassionate God who knows physical pain and abandonment. Good Friday last week reminded us of this reality. Aid and assistance were never indeed to be weapons of war.

The Red Cross Code of Conduct clearly articulates the principles for humanitarian aid. 1) The humanitarian imperative comes first. 
2) Aid is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind. Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone. 3) Aid agency shall endeavor not to act as instruments of government…policy. All parties in a conflict are under international legal obligation to allow the provision of humanitarian aid by a neutral and impartial third party.[1]

Yet none of the actors, whether they are the regime, the various opposition militias, or their international supporters are abiding by these principles and the international community remains silent as the civilian population continues to endure the horrific consequences of the struggle for power.

While many churches insides Syria are struggling against huge odds and acting on the Biblical mandate to provide assistance with no conditionality, much of the global Church seem disengaged and silent with regards to Syria and has lost its prophetic voice for compassion and justice in the midst of this conflict.


On Killing Civilians

On Nov. 18th, just as another round of bloodletting between the Israeli’s and Palestinians got underway, twelve members of the Dalu family (seven of them children) in the Al Nasser neighborhood of Gaza City were killed by an Israeli artillery strike. While the Israeli military initially insisted that it was a targeted strike against a Hamas leader, investigations by the military themselves showed that it was not, and Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces admitted that it was an accident. Other officials speaking anonymously told the press that there was a “targeting error” and technical problems related to the strike. The next day Israeli Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz admonished division commanders to “pay attention not to just take random houses and fire at them unnecessarily”.

The horror of this incident was not that Mohammed Dalu, his wife and their four children, four other members of his family and two neighbors were caught in a crossfire, but were casually killed because of unnecessary firing on random houses.

I find it very disturbing that we have a hypocritical double standard when it comes to the rightness or wrongness of actions during war. Other than a brief mention in some press, the story disappeared. This is the reality of war and such deaths are referred to as collateral damage when inflicted by western militaries and their allies. I cannot imagine if the reverse had happened, if an Arab, African or Asian army or militia had equally casually killed twelve western civilians. It would have been deemed a war crime as per the articles of the Geneva Convention. There would have been global outrage at such a barbaric act. Yet thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistani, Libyan and Syrian civilians have died as collateral damage and our silence is deafening.

This reality is described by Chris Hedges, a writer on conflict and security issues, who uses the term total war when describing both the ancient and modern ways of battle. There is absolutely nothing sacred or noble about war, especially what we Christians refer to as just wars. The reasons for war are far more complex than merely seeking justice. Hedges writes, “The myth of war is essential to justify the horrible sacrifices required in war, the destruction and death of innocents.” So we are forced to create noble causes and narratives to hide the absolute brutality of war.

So is there a difference between a targeting error and a war crime. According to military doctrine and international law, the difference is one of intentionality. Was there an intention to kill the civilians? While there are legal methods to determine intentionality, the cold reality is that civilians are indiscriminately killed. In a murder trial where intentions are weighed, a distinction is made between homicide (intentional killing) and manslaughter (unintentional death). Regardless of which it is, there are penalties. Would not a targeting error then be considered manslaughter?

There will be no penalties for collateral damage and targeting errors. The reason the killing of innocent civilians by powerful armies is not considered evil is because we demonize all civilians and combatants on the other side as evil. This then justifies total war and it becomes easy to kill them without remorse or guilt because we are ridding the world of evil. Theologian N.T Wright reflecting on Sept 11th and the subsequent events writes, “The thousands of innocent victims whose death we mourned met, of course, a tragic, horrible and totally undeserved death. The terrorist actions of Al-Qaeda were and are unmitigatedly evil. But the astonishing naivety which decreed that the USA as a whole was a pure, innocent victim, so that the world could be neatly divided up into evil people (particularly Arabs) and good people (particularly Americans and Israelis), and that the latter had a responsibility now to punish the former…”

Therein lies the problem. We consider ourselves as being innocent, pure and having the moral high ground. This then allows us to be god and seek vengeance and through it, justice. We would be wise to pay heed to the prophetic voice of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”

I’ve Got a Name…Too

On March 2nd 2012 The Guardian Newspaper reported that two French journalists who had been wounded in Homs, Syria had been safely evacuated to Beirut. The article stated in detail their activities in the line of fire and the harrowing escape, but tucked away towards the end of the article was a one-line statement that said that 13 Syrians (activists) had been killed in the rescue attempt. None of them were named.

Two weeks ago as the US Ambassador in Libya and three other American colleagues were killed in tragic circumstances, the media was filled with praise and eulogies for Ambassador Stevens, much of it well deserved for a man who loved the Arab world.[2]Lost in the entire flurry was a statement by the Libyan Government that ten Libyan security personnel were either killed or injured in the first part of the attack while defending the consulate. Also mentioned in passing was the fact that it was Libyans, who recovered the Ambassador from the charred ruins of the building and carried him to a hospital hoping to save his life. None of them were named.

A few days ago, eight Afghan women were mistakenly killed by an airstrike. The major international media barely covered the story, and those who did, focused on President Karzai’s anger. The Coalition forces after having been in the country for 11 years, claimed that they did not know that local women went to the forest in the mornings to collect firewood in order to cook breakfast. None of the women were identified or named.

I have found myself deeply troubled by the fact that we value the lives of Syrians, Afghans and Libyans so cheaply, and those who sacrifice their lives to save foreigners in their midst are ignored and dismissed so crassly. They remain an anonymous byline to the heroic exploits of others. By their radical acts of generosity and compassion, some are in their own ways trying to counter what they feel is wrong with their society. But no one is listening – definitely not the international or Arab media, and neither are we.

Why is it that in our desperate need for heroes that we are unable to acknowledge the contribution of others? In our own huge need for affirmation to believe that we are doing the right thing in a broken world, we seem to ignore the efforts that others are making. At a time when the western media paints the Islamic world with the broad brushstrokes of rage (, we seem to have bought into their caricature of Arabs and Islam. Why is it that we are unable to acknowledge that there are Muslims who care about human life in the midst of the violence and confusion that is engulfing their own lives?

A century ago, at the height of another empire, the British author and poet Rudyard Kipling, who has sometimes been referred to as the “interpreter of how empire was experienced”, wrote about an Indian water bearer in the British army who continually faced physical and racial verbal abuse but always responded without a word to the urgent demands for water from the troops in the sweltering Indian heat, often at the middle of a battle. One day his British officer was severely wounded, and the water bearer carried him to safety and saved his life. In a tragic turn of events, the water bearer at that very moment was shot and killed. Kipling ends his narrative poem with, “Though I have belted you and flayed you, by the livin’ [God] that made you, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

Whether this was fiction or reality, Kipling at least acknowledged that this humble water bearer had a name – the uneducated local, the uncivilized native, the lowly national is now honored and immortalized in his poetry.

God speaking to His people says, “I have called you by name; you are mine” (Isa. 43:1 NIV). Later He adds, “I have written your name in the palm of my hands” (Isa. 49:16 NLV). Jesus speaking to His followers says, “rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20 NIV). His relationship with us is not defined by “Hey you humans” or“Yo! Created being”. Rather His use of our names is an acknowledgement of our uniqueness and incredible value in His eyes. When God called people, he used their names – Abram, Abraham, Samuel, Paul, Joseph son of David, Peter, Mary, Martha, and Zacchaeus.

As a believer in and a follower of Christ, is there an alternative perspective to the one that is fed to us by the media? Is there another way of relating to those who are different than me – who, because of their difference, seem threatening? The Libyans, Syrians and Afghans have names. Their names have stories that go with them. Some are heroic; others seem mundane, as they are caring mothers and hard working fathers; others are children confused and terrified by the violence around them; most are concerned about work, family and their dreams. I wonder how radical it would be if we could acknowledge them by name. If by doing so we affirm their individuality and treat them as human beings, we would have taken the first step in demonstrating that there is a God who loves them and sees them as unique and of incredible value.

[1] In due acknowledgement to songwriter and balladeer Jim Croce and his song I’ve got a name. (I’m now betraying my age)

[2] The three Americans killed, Sean Smith, Gen Doherty and Tyrone S. Woods, though named by a few media, were barely mentioned in passing.

Human Rights versus Obligations: Conversation with a Muslim Sheikh

A couple of months ago, during an extended conversation with our friend the Chief Judge of the Sunni Court in Saida about a rights-based approach to addressing poverty, he said, “Islam does not believe in human rights”. After a long pause, during which my mind conjured up all the worst prejudices about Islam that I had ever heard, he went on to say, “Instead we believe we have an obligation to the poor”; he used the word ‘duty’.

The conversation of course did not end there. But I have since thought much about his observations. His comments reflect the Islamic perspective on the obligations that the individual, the community, its leadership (government), and God have to each other.

The responsibility for the welfare of the individual is very different in the West versus in more traditional societies. In the West the individual has rights and has to fight for them because society may or may not recognize these rights to the basics of life and ensure access to them, even though these rights are enshrined in international legal frameworks.

In the more traditional societies, the community recognizes the reality of the poor and vulnerable in society and knows it has an obligation to them. This is a moral obligation that is often rooted in the tenets of one’s faith or worldview. So if poverty exists it is because the community has failed in its obligations. The Islamic perspective of obligation and duty is rooted in its origins among the Bedouin tribes of the desert. Ibn Khaldun the 14th century North African historian wrote, “Only tribes held together by group feelings can live in the desert…” since the group ensured the survival and well-being of the individual. Yet this obligation was always limited to the immediate group, family or clan and very rarely beyond it.

So was the Sheikh from Saida wrong in saying that Islam does not believe in human rights? Interestingly, Abdulaziz Sachedina writes that during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there had been extensive consultation to ensure that the proposed rights and their underlying morality reflected universal values – including those of the major religions. However the representatives from participating Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Syria were secular educated Muslims who had almost no training in the key Islamic texts and thinking with regards to human rights in order to be able to articulate the “universal impulse of Islamic doctrines”.[i] In fact, Jamil Baroody, the Saudi representative on the drafting committee was a Lebanese Christian. There was no effort to engage traditional Islamic scholars on the universality of the status of the individual and of some of the obligations under Islamic law. As a result most traditional Islamic jurists never accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as valid or relevant. However, the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights in 1981 and the Cairo Declaration adopted by the Organization of Islamic States in 1990 rectify this by showing that human rights were always a part of Shari’a. The challenge within Islam has been to broaden the application of human rights beyond the Muslim community and to have an appreciation of the value and worth of the individual.

So do the two concepts of human rights and obligations ever converge? Interestingly, the Hebrew word in the Old Testament and the Arabic word in Islam for charity are the same, tzedakah or sedaquah and sadaqa. While in Islam sadaqa is a term for charitable and voluntary gifts, in Judaism “the most frequent word used by the rabbis to express charity, sedaquah, meaning ‘righteousness’ or justice, reveals a basic attitude, namely that of the donor’s obligation and the poor’s right”.[ii]

Human rights and obligations are inherently connected and neither can have an impact without the other. Interestingly, societies that focus only on obligations never see beyond their own community and are only concerned about the well being of their own. Maybe this has something to do with our fallen nature. Human rights are a reminder of the fact that we are all created beings and have needs pertaining to life and dignity. Human rights force us to look beyond our immediate family and community.

The comments of our friend from Saida forced me to find balance in my thinking with regards to the poor. I am amazed how often I see the poor as an irritation, an embarrassment, or as someone who is a leech on society preying on the goodness of people. Of course they may have a right to the basics of life, but they need to work for it. “There are no free lunches in life”. There are genuine concerns about creating dependency. Yet Scripture is clear that we are responsible for and have an obligation to the most vulnerable in society.

Paul writing about the first theological controversy that almost split the early Church concludes in Galatians (2:8-9) that Peter was to be the apostle to the Jews while he (Paul) and Barnabas were to be the apostles to the Gentiles. The thought process in chapter 2 should have ended there. However Paul recounts a strange request, which seems completely out of place in the theological discussion that had just taken place. He writes, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along” (vs.10).[iii] The obligation to the poor was so important that everyone needed to be reminded of it even in the midst of a theological argument.

Does our vision for our community and the world beyond bear the hallmarks of compassion or do we believe in a Darwinian survival of the fittest? As followers of Christ how seriously do we take our obligation to the poor, or do they have to fight for and earn their right to be able to live life with dignity?

[i] Sachedina, Abdulaziz, Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

[ii] Hamel, Gildas, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine: First Three Centuries CE, Near Eastern Studies 23, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990, p. 216

[iii] For a more in-depth discussion of Gal. 2:10 and who the “poor” referred to could have been, read Bruce Longenecker, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.