When I visited Lebanon and Syria in March 2014, I met an ecumenical youth group called Eid b Eid; they are based in Lattakia, my home town, and they work to support the many Christians in that region. They knew the work of the Foundation well, and they asked for our help to teach young Christians how to become leaders and reconcilers in their churches and in their communities. They believed that this would benefit everyone in Syria, whatever their religion. Over the course of several weeks, I met many Christian leaders in Syria and Lebanon, and they strongly supported Eid b Eid's request.
In addition, on this trip I visited one of the refugee camps in Lebanon. Afterwards, I could not leave this camp and just go back to my normal daily life. I had to find ways to help these, and other, refugees. Having spent a little time with them, I could see that among all their needs there was one thing that could make a tremendous difference to the lives of the refugees now and in the future: EDUCATION.
These two experiences, of the need for teaching young Christians to be ambassadors for peace and the need to help the children in the refugee camps, led me to formulate our Ambassadors for Peace Programme.
We set a date for the very first Ambassadors for Peace Programme - 2nd to 6th October 2014 - and we chose Lattakia as the venue for this ground-breaking event. Lattakia is on the Mediterranean coast and this region has been spared much of the conflict that has ravaged Syria, making it an ideal place to begin our new programme: a place of relative safety and a sanctuary for Syrians from across the country. I then worked with Eid b Eid and the churches around Lattakia over the following six months to ensure their support and to encourage the churches to propose candidates for the training. The Awareness Foundation, working with Eid b Eid (pictured below), received the proposals and selected participants to ensure that all denominations were represented.
Father Habib Daniel of the Maronite Church, (pictured below left), is one the local clergy who sent their young people to the training.
In August I returned to Lattakia to finalise the programme, complete all preparations with the venue and the speakers, and ensure the continuing support of churches of every denomination. All we needed now was the permission of the local government. H.E. Archbishop Nicholas Sawaf, the Melkite Archbishop of Lattakia and Tartous, acted as our referee; thanks to his support, we obtained official permission and the event could go ahead. At last everything was ready and the young participants had been selected.
The Revd Nadim Nassar, Director of the Awareness Foundation, and I flew into Lattakia on 2nd October, after a night's stopover in Beirut, Lebanon. We arrived in Lattakia at noon, and the training began later that same day.
We were astonished and delighted by the number of young Christians who had accepted the challenge to become ambassadors of peace for their communities. The participants mostly came from Lattakia, and a small number had bravely travelled from Aleppo and Damascus. There are many more Christians in Lattakia at present due to the conflict, and our participants, although currently staying in Lattakia, actually hailed from all across the country; one participant was even from Palestine! All denominations were represented, which is a big achievement for everyone, especially as fundamentalist Christians from the West have been actively recruiting in the Middle East, leaving the local Churches fearful of engaging with others.
When the participants arrived, they were asked to complete a questionnaire to measure their current involvement in community activities and how they view current relationships with other denominations and faiths. From the results, we learned that only 33% of the young people had previously taken part in inter faith activities in their communities. The most worrying result came in the questions about inter faith relations: just 24% reported that relations between Christians and Muslims were 'good' and only one person said the relations were 'very good'; the participants highlighted a lack of both understanding and respect between the faiths. As a Syrian, I know that this result would have been very different before the current conflict and the rise of fundamentalism in the region. Sadly, in the current situation even relations between the different Christian denominations are not as they should be. We shall be repeating this exercise in a few months to help us gauge how the 'Ambassadors for peace' have grown as a result of the training, and how relations between the faiths have benefitted from their activities.
The five day programme featured lectures on:
Essential skills of leadership
Handling conflict, hostility and disputes
Transforming and empowering communities
Building bridges with other faiths: learning to trust again
How to enter into dialogue with Muslim communities to promote peace and understanding.
We also had group discussions on:
What makes a good leader?
Finding solutions to local crises
Planning, preparing and running a conference or a day at a refugee camp
How to be a peacemaker
In addition, each day included prayers, singing, and sport. Our very popular activity and sports leader was Mr Samir Saddekni (Orthodox). Young people are usually full of energy, and starting the day with some exercises offered refreshment for some and a chance to expend excess energy before the teaching for the others! The participants needed more than just information and training; they needed spiritual nourishment to strengthen them for the journey ahead. After the warm-up routine, everyone gathered together for prayers and singing hymns to give them spiritual energy too. In the evenings, the singing was of a different nature - a chance to relax and to strengthen newly-formed bonds of friendship.
Nadim and I were blessed to have a number of guest speakers to assist us in the training, including Fr Amer Kassar (Syrian Catholic) from Katana, and Fr Rami Elias (Jesuit) from Damascus. Both were very inspirational speakers who captured the imagination of the young participants and enthused them to tackle the tough challenge of peacemaking over the course of the training. Fr Amer had been terribly wounded in a bomb attack in Damascus, and his story of how he became able through his faith to forgive the bombers and to be a witness of God's work, changed the participants' lives. Leading Syrian artist Nizar Sabour and musician Kameel Mistrih enriched the young people's thinking by sharing with them how faith played a major role in their creativity. All of the young people had their own experiences of the terrible conflict in Syria, and I realised that they all needed healing. I am delighted to tell you that the event proved to be transformational for every one of them. As they worked together on projects, they began to overcome their anger; they responded with enthusiasm to the guest speakers who challenged them to understand the true meaning of being peacemakers; and they learned how to be the bridge between communities, between denominations, between faiths. The participants gained new hope and they made many new friends: friends who will be helping them in the months to come.
(Our Speakers (l to r): Fr Amer Kassar, Fr Rami Elias, Mr Samir Saddekni, Huda Nassar, The Revd Nadim Nassar)
On Sunday 5th October, Fr Amer Kassar led Holy Communion for everyone (see photos below). Young people of each denomination participated in the service through reading the Epistle, leading the prayers, and leading the music. It was amazing to see people of every denomination receiving Communion from a Syrian Catholic priest. I can honestly say that this was the best Communion of my life!
When the Ambassadors for Peace training event concluded, the change in the participants was clear to everyone. The old barriers of denomination had fallen. They had new energy and new hope, new friendships, new plans and a wholly new journey ahead of them. One of the young people told us that “Before this event I was dead. Now I am alive again.” Another described the training as “the most wonderful days in my life.”
It was hard to say goodbye to all of them at the end of our time together as we had got to know them so well. Of course, it was not really goodbye, as they will be staying in touch and supporting each other in the months to come, and my role to support them means that I will be able to keep track of their progress.
Now, the young Christians are working in their communities with the full support and encouragement of their Church leaders. They are the founder members of an ecumenical network of young ambassadors for peace, but they remain firmly a part of their own faith tradition, forming committees and action groups to equip the congregations of their own churches to be peacemakers too. Eid b Eid and the Awareness Foundation will be supporting them in their work, encouraging and advising them as they undertake their own strategies for healing their communities.
My work was not done yet. After the training, I spent three weeks in Lattakia to meet the Christian leaders (see photos left) who had backed the Ambassadors for Peace project, to tell them the good news regarding our wonderful event, and to encourage them to play an active role in supporting the young leaders both spiritually and practically. I was too slow however - they already knew all about it, having been told everything by their excited and enthusiastic young parishioners as soon as they got home! Amongst the many clergy I met, I should mention H.E. Archbishop Nicholas Sawaf (the Melkite Archbishop of Lattakia and Tartous) [far left], and Father Atef Falah of the Latin Church [lower left]; in each photo, they are pictured with members of their own church who are part of Eid b Eid.
The following week, I gave a talk for young people at my own church, the National Evangelical Church in Lattakia, on "The Gifts The Holy Spirit Gives Us". I was delighted and honoured to discover that, in addition to the youth of my own church, many of the Ambassadors for Peace group had come to attend too. The training in Lattakia has not only affected those who attended. The atmosphere in the city has changed. The young leaders have already talked with their friends and neighbours, both Christian and Muslim, and their message of peacemaking and rebuilding trust has begun to spread throughout the entire community. Our vision is becoming a reality.
This is not the end, however. I am now working on a six-month programme of activities, “Together in Syria”, for these young people to help them build bridges between their own communities and the children of the refugee camps; this programme will work with the children through music, storytelling, play and education to help them to move on with their lives and to rediscover their future for themselves.
In the photograph to the right, you can see me with the group that now meets
regularly in Lattakia to oversee the "Together in Syria" programme and to offer additional support both to our young leaders and to the refugee children.
This will, by the Grace of God, be the first of many Ambassadors for Peace projects across the Middle East.
I should like to finish this report by thanking everyone who has helped and supported us so far, including the many volunteers in Lattakia and London, and the generous donors who provided us with the resources to make our dream a reality. Thank you also to SMYT, a young Christian multimedia group who took most of the pictures.