Two days of arduous traveling from war-torn Syria to peaceful Harrisonburg, Virginia. Four days in a class called “PeaceTalk: English Language Skills for Peacebuilders.” Then suddenly rushing back to Syria, again navigating many difficulties to arrive at his freshly gutted church in Homs, Syria.
This was the experience of Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh, a prominent Syriac Orthodox (Catholic) archbishop, who arrived at the 2014 Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) on May 2. He was one of 180 people from 36 countries registered for courses, including six others from Syria. After his seven-day intensive English language class, he was scheduled to take a seven-day class on trauma healing. His stay, however, was cut short by his need to minister to the people in his church.
Midway through his first week at Eastern Mennonite University, Selwanos learned that his home city of Homs – which had been occupied by rebel forces and subjected to a starvation-level siege by government forces – was now fully in government hands.
For civilians, including Selwanos’ church members, this meant that it might be sufficiently safe to return to their homes in this ancient city, dig out from the rubble, and begin to rebuild. It also meant, as Selwanos learned to his sorrow, that their historic Belt of St. Mary church would need to be rebuilt – it was burned as the last of the rebels departed in early May under a ceasefire agreement.
Rebuilding on site dating to 50 AD
By May 11, the Sunday morning immediately after Selwanos’ departure from EMU, the archbishop had joined with other church leaders to pray in front of the shell of Belt of St. Mary, built a couple of centuries ago above an underground church dating back to 50 AD. The church housed a venerated relic that was believed to be a section of the belt of Mary, mother of Jesus.
“In my 14 years here, the story of Archbishop Selwanos ranks as one of the most memorable,” said William Goldberg, SPI director. “When he was asked which side he was on, he repeatedly said that he was on the side of peace for all the people of Syria.”
Selwanos’ home city had been one of the first to protest the authoritarian rule of President Bashar al-Assad, with demonstrations beginning in March 2011, according to an Associated Press report published by The Guardian on June 11, 2014. The city became a battleground as government forces cracked down and opponents took up arms.
“Government forces clamped a seal over the opposition-held districts in early 2012. Most of the tens of thousands of residents had already fled. With the siege dragging on, rebels began deserting as hunger spread, and morale collapsed in late 2013,” said AP. “Finally, the last few dozen fighters were evacuated in May to areas further north under a ceasefire, and government forces took full control of the city.”
Selwanos told EMU News Service that more than 1,000 Christians died as a result of the conflict in Homs. He himself led 150,000 to 200,000 people out of the besieged city in January 2012 after conditions grew desperate in what is known as the Old City section of Homs. Water and electricity were cut off. The handful of people who remained behind in their homes – usually in an attempt to protect them – were reduced to scavenging for anything that might be edible.
Archbishop Selwanos bravely speaks up
Selwanos did not stay quiet, even though speaking out put him in greater danger. When two priests and two bishops were kidnapped, and three priests were killed in April 2013, he publicly appealed for an end to the targeting of nonviolent church leaders. He did the same when 13 Greek Orthodox nuns were kidnapped in November 2013 from their monastery near the border with Lebanon and held for three months.
“If we sit with others and have dialogues, we can find some solutions to [arrive at] peace,” Selwanos said at EMU, often speaking with the interpretative help of another Syrian at SPI. “If we want to develop and live with freedom and democracy, there are other [non-violent] ways of reaching this. Nowadays, all the people of Syria are losing due to the war. Violence does not bring peace.”
Selwanos believes in interfaith cooperation, as demonstrated by a May 20, 2014, posting of a photo on his Facebook page that showed a church ceremony in Homs graciously attended by The Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr. Ahmad Hassoun, who was credited for “working seriously for a correct interpretation to Islam.”
Before leaving EMU, Selwanos visited a thrift store that raises funds for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), which sponsored the seven Syrians to come to SPI. “He was interested in seeing Gift & Thrift because he knew that these stores provide major support for MCC’s international work, including humanitarian help in Syria,” said J. Daryl Byler, executive director of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. When Selwanos spoke with some of the volunteers who staff the store, he told them that his main focus was on the well-being of his flock rather than the Belt of St. Mary building itself, since “the church is the people, not the building.”
SPI as a “safe space”
The Summer Peacebuilding Institute, now in its 19th year at Eastern Mennonite University, consisted of four seven-day sessions, each with several course options. The institute brought together people as diverse as Christians such as Selwanos with Muslims from the same region, along with Christians and Muslims and people of other faiths (and no faiths) from dozens of other countries. By the end of this SPI on June 13, participants over the years totaled more than 2,900 people from 120 countries.
“We try to create a safe space where people from various sides of a conflict can sit together and talk outside of the conflict zone,” said director Goldberg, who has worked at SPI since 1999.