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 184 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 [nonviolent] ways of reaching this. Nowadays, all the people of Syria are losing due to the war. Violence does not bring peace.”
— Bonnie Price Lofton