As civil war threatens to tear Syria apart, and a steady stream of disturbing images shows bloodshed and widespread destruction, a pastor from Damascus, that country’s capital, told parishioners at the Westhampton Presbyterian Church on Sunday that violence has not always been the norm in his home country.The Reverend Boutros Zaour shared a slideshow of photographs with about 50 members of the church during a luncheon following Sunday’s worship service. He shared pictures of Syrian cityscapes and places of worship both before and after the conflict began in 2011, as well as photos showing Muslims and Christians of various denominations working together despite their religious differences.
“This is something very unusual in our country, because we used to live together in peace,” he said of the ongoing turmoil that has thus far claimed the lives of an estimated 115,000 people, including many civilians and children.
Rev. Zaour is on a peacemaking tour of the United States sponsored by the national Presbyterian Church’s Committee on Peacemaking and International Issues, during which he will be presenting to various groups throughout the country.
While on Long Island, Rev. Zaour stayed with Quogue resident Linni Deihl, a member of the Westhampton Presbyterian Church who hosted the reverend and his wife, Waffa, from Friday through Monday. Ms. Deihl said she brought the pastor to the church on Meeting House Road on Quiogue as part of its International Peacemaker/World Communion Sunday, a national event that encourages Presbyterians to donate money to address international issues.
“It’s a day when we take an offering to help all the disadvantaged people in the world, to help those people affected by the tumult in our world,” she said. “This year, all the money we raise will go to help those in Syria.”
Careful to avoid taking a political stance on the ongoing civil war, even when pressed with questions from audience members, Rev. Zaour said Presbyterians and other Christian denominations in Syria simply want to find a peaceful resolution to the problems in their country.
Syria is made up of approximately 74 percent Sunni Muslims, 16 percent other Muslim sects—predominantly Alawites—and about 10 percent Christians of various denominations. There are also small pockets of Jews in the cities of Damascus, Al Qamishli and Aleppo, according to data on the Central Intelligence Agency’s website.
Rev. Zaour said the conflict between the nation’s government and rebel forces looking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad has largely been funded by outside countries and organizations, including those with ties to terrorist groups. The conflict drew additional international attention in August following a chemical weapons attack that some say President al-Assad ordered against his own citizens; the attack killed more than a thousand people, including hundreds of children, and nearly resulted in an American air strike before Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to negotiate a plan in which the Syrian government hands over its chemical weapons.
If outside countries and terrorist groups stopped fueling the conflict in his home country, Syrians could end the war, according to Rev. Zaour.
“We are against war, we are against violence,” he said of the Presbyterian Church in Syria. “We need to solve our problems ourselves, without any violence and without any weapons.”
The Reverend Dr. Charles Cary of Westhampton Presbyterian Church noted that Rev. Zaour—who also addressed the church’s youth group on Friday, its adult group on Sunday, and spoke at the Presbytery of Long Island in Commack on Saturday—shared insight into the conflict that couldn’t be gleaned from the U.S. media’s coverage of the war. “For me, he informed me that it’s not as simple as we would like to make it out to be,” Rev. Cary said of the Syrian civil war. “He’s giving us a perspective that few of us are able to attain.”
Stuart Wood, a Westhampton resident and member of the Westhampton Presbyterian Church, attended three of Rev. Zaour’s presentations and said he now has a better understanding of that country and the ongoing conflict.
“What surprised me was how well all the different religious groups got along together before this conflict started,” Mr. Wood said of the pastor’s account of pre-war Syria. “I have a good feeling now for how much the Syrian people are like us.”