This week in Rome, His Holiness Pope Francis renewed his call for a peaceful end to the ongoing violence in Syria as he met with Catholic humanitarian groups, including CRS and our worldwide Caritas partners. While CRS President Dr. Carolyn Woo and COO Sean Callahan attended those meetings, CRS Board Chairman Bishop Gerald Kicanas traveled with a CRS delegation to Lebanon, a small country coping with a staggering influx of refugees. The hope is that these two trips will help CRS better understand the needs of the Syrian refugees who have had to leave everything behind for their own safety and that of their families. Below, Bishop Kicanas shares his thoughts on the first day of his trip.
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By Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas
The situation in Syria troubles us all with the escalating violence, the tragedy of so many senseless deaths, the large number of families displaced both within Syria and in neighboring countries, the fear that the tensions in Syria might erupt throughout the region.
My itinerary for this trip on behalf of CRS brought me from Tucson through Chicago to Amman, Jordan and then to Beirut, Lebanon on Royal Jordanian Airlines. Arriving in Amman one realizes a step into a different culture has occurred. The Amman airport is brand new and teeming with activity. Large families from different Arab countries many dressed in traditional clothing were moving in every direction. Women mostly wearing headscarves are seen walking together, children in hand or being carried. The men dressed most often in secular clothes moved also in groups leading the way for their families. Arabic is the common language you hear passing through the airport. I recognize an occasional word or phrase from what I heard my mom saying as I was growing up. She spoke Arabic. I wish I had learned.
It is humbling entering a different culture. One has to watch and listen in order to understand and not prejudge. One needs to become a learner seeking understanding not critiquing. As Americans we can be led to believe everyone thinks, acts, and feels like an American or should. But that is so wrong. I think it is hard for us as Americans to try and enter into another culture and come to see and to respect its values and ways of acting and relating.
The predominant religion in the region is of course Islam, which is apparent in the call for prayer that can be heard even at the airport. Clearly the Muslim families walking through the airport are not terrorists but ordinary people living their lives, trying to make a living, carrying and protecting their children as anyone would. Islam is seriously misunderstood by many who generalize what some Muslims do in Mohammad’s name and the violence and divisions that are portrayed in the media. While terrorism is real, we need to be careful not to paint Islam with one brush.
There was a Muslim family on the plane with six children between the ages of two and 15. It was beautiful to see the parents kissing, hugging, caressing their children, watching over them and concerned for them. There is a great need to learn not only about different cultures but different religions. The fervor of faith among Muslim families is impressive as I could see the father of the family on the plane taking time to say his prayers during the flight.
Religious freedom remains a challenge for all faiths. How can we live our faith while respecting the right of every person to embrace the faith of his or her choice? The sectarian violence that is currently gripping the Middle East calls for greater tolerance and respect for the other’s faith.
The delegation’s first day was spent visiting key leaders in Beirut including Cardinal Bechara Al Rai, Maronite Patriarch of Antiochia and the Whole East and General Michel Sleiman, president of Lebanon.
Cardinal Rai expressed deep concern about the more than one million Syrian refugees that have come into Lebanon. He has encouraged the Lebanese people to receive the refugees and to make them feel at home, having had to abandon everything in their flight.
He asserted the need for nations to stop arming both sides in the Syrian crisis. The international community must step in to help and alleviate the suffering that is taking place.
There is a great concern for the Christians and the vulnerability they feel in Syria and in the region. They can be forgotten in the midst of the growing tensions between Sunni and Shia Arabs. Christians have always added a moderating voice in the region and that voice remains critical.
Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman welcomed us at the Presidential Palace. He, too, shared with us the struggle Lebanon is having responding to the huge influx of Syrian Refugees while continuing to manage the presence of a number of Palestinian refugees (500,000) who have been in Lebanon for a long time because of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Lebanon is receiving 5,000 Syrian refugees a day. This is taxing the public systems including health and education. The educational system in Syria and Lebanon is very different and major adjustments are needed to receive the Syrian children. Some of the Lebanese people feel threatened because of this large number of Syrian refugees. The country is trying to do its best to respond in a humanitarian way. Lebanon does not have camps for Syrians crossing its border as in Turkey and Jordan. The refugees intermingle in the cities and towns, which has been very taxing for these communities.
The President expressed a need for international help in addressing this pressing humanitarian crisis that only seems to be deepening. He felt it would be helpful if there were safe areas in Syria where displaced people could migrate while staying in their own country. He also hoped that a political settlement will happen soon. Elections in Syria are to be held in 2014 so now is the time to negotiate a way out of the crisis, he told us. Recently Germany has expressed a willingness to accept 5,000 Syrian refugees but the fear we heard from some is that many will be Christian and this will result in more Christians leaving the area.
President Sleiman hopes that there will be an international conference to explore what alternatives are possible. He hopes that the Geneva summit, which is imminent, might lead to a resolution.
Our delegation also had a chance to meet with several dedicated Caritas staff coordinating the efforts of the various Caritas organizations, including CRS, assisting Syrian refugees. The staff expressed appreciation for the work of CRS in capacity building, helping staff from various Caritas organizations do their job better. This effort has made it possible for Caritas staff to be more accountable and more effective in their work.
CRS and all members of the Caritas federation work for all people, strive to protect all people. It is what we are about as disciples of Christ, the One who concerned Himself with the concerns of all.