Letter from the Road #23

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Syrian Pilgrimage


“In America, the idea of us Syrians is that we eat foreigners,” joked Mahat El-Khoury, a 71 year-old human rights worker and recent Damascus “Woman of the Year.”

“We Syrians feel misunderstood by the West. You don’t understand our religions, our family ways, our history, or our politics. You think we’re terrorists. We like American people but we feel poorly treated by your government and its policies.” Mahat’s feelings were echoed by the multitude of Syrians we spoke with during the past three weeks in Syria.

We were joined in our pilgrimage in Syria by 15 people from six western countries to bear witness to Muslim-Christian relations in this ancient land, to Arab-Western relations in general, and to the realities facing the Syrian people at this time of tension and distrust between the U.S. and Syria. Above all else, we came to make friends and to listen. These “Pilgrimages of Peace” are one of the ways we use to share with others the experiences of our own on-going pilgrimage of service and teaching.

In this “Letter from the Road” we give a brief glimpse of this Syrian pilgrimage, especially of the ripples we sense radiating from it. We do this not to boast – it represents, after all, only a modest gesture of peace and hope among the huge number of our fellow humans who are nursing old grudges. However, it is a gesture we have learned to trust for its authenticity and groundedness. Our hope is that others who hear of this mode of spiritual “citizen diplomacy” may emulate it in some way. Magnified a hundred fold, these encounters could heal a city, by a hundred thousand, a nation, by a few million, they could heal a world.

The first and perhaps greatest effect of building peace is the gift of experiencing a breakthrough in our fear of the “other.” Tension was high for the pilgrims who committed to this journey, and for their families. Many reported the long talks they had with their children or parents before leaving about the wisdom of coming here. One man told his mother he was only going to London (a far riskier place!) and another woman told us later that during the first day she was convinced we were going to be kidnapped or stoned. Nothing could have been farther from the welcome each one of us received throughout our time in Damascus. From the scores of men and women, young and old, Muslim and Christian, whom we talked with, the overall impression was one of kindness, generosity, hospitality, dignity, humor, and genuine interest in our purpose and appreciation of our intent.

On the second morning we asked our fellow pilgrims to wander in Damascus alone or in small groups of two and three to initiate conversations with ordinary Syrians, and to ask them ever deeper and more caring questions about their feelings and beliefs. The idea of this experience always causes much consternation when it is described, and afterwards it is spoken of as the watershed event that shifts one from experiencing the world as a tourist to experiencing it as a pilgrim. It’s a crash course in human trust, after which the pilgrimage comes alive.

Thereafter we met with all kinds of people: students from Damascus University, young architects, teachers, business people, Christian priests, Muslim sheikhs, social workers, etc. We visited churches, mosques, shrines, schools, offices, homes, and monasteries. As word of our presence spread, more and more invitations to meet and talk came to us. People were eager to have their stories heard. Though we did not always agree with what we were told, our task was not to persuade, but to try to understand. What have these people been taught? What are their fears? What are their dreams for their children?

In some cases the relationships we made in Syria resulted in deeper insight than the relationships we typically have in our own hometowns. Each of us experienced in someone we met the tender heart. This is not spiritual sentimentality, this is the reality of an interconnected world. The requisite step is to be open in the face of what presents itself in order for the heart to be revealed. Together we practiced, in the midst of the unknown, expanding the boundaries of our hearts.

On a practical level our presence occasioned a number of ever-widening ripples. Elias and Shabda Kahn, a guest teacher on the pilgrimage, were interviewed on Syria’s leading TV news commentary program. A participant on the pilgrimage who is a state representative for the international Sister Cities project met with Syrian officials in the Ministry of Urban Affairs and received assurances of cooperation in setting up American-Syrian Sister City partnerships. The Abu Nour Foundation, the largest Muslim NGO in Syria agreed to join the Nonviolent Peaceforce as a Member Organization.

Our presence provided an opportunity for Sheikh Nabil Hilbawi, one of Syria’s most respected Shi’ite clerics, to meet with Christian leaders and discuss projects of mutual concern. We were also the occasion for a special interfaith concert in our honor performed at the new Damascus Opera House, which combined a Mevlevi Sufi choir and whirling dervishes with a 75 member Christian choir. The two groups performed separately, and then in the finale, joined their two choruses to sing anthems of peace.

In a particularly stirring moment, we were all sitting as guests at Friday prayers in the largest mosque in Damascus, the seat of the Grand Mufti, Syria’s leading Islamic cleric. The men of our group were seated in the front of the mosque beside the raised dais of the Mufti, with the women above looking down from the balcony. There were several thousand people present. When the Mufti’s sermon was finished, Elias was asked to speak. He spoke of the humiliation that so many Muslims feel in our times, both as a result of Western policies and as a result of self-betrayal.

He held up a different mirror than the one they usually look into, one which reflects our respect for their long and sophisticated culture, their religious integrity and commitment to family life, for their spontaneous kindness and expressions of generosity. He thanked them for welcoming us so warmly and apologized for the lack of fairness and understanding in America’s recent policies toward Syria.

He concluded with these words: “The policies and politicians of the world are failing us. To protect our children, we all must do everything we can to break through the masks that are being painted on our faces. When we truly meet each other we will have peace. Let nothing stop our getting to know each other.”

The mosque was quiet, and when we all stood to leave we were swarmed by men below and women above with tears in their eyes who wanted to thank us, to wish us well, to invite us to their homes.

The talk at the mosque, along with the entire service, was broadcast on TV and radio throughout the country. Did we overstep our bounds? Ours is not a political delegation. Elias simply spoke from his heart and from our experience. He spoke for all of us. An Orthodox priest congratulated us that evening: “You give us hope, you feel with us, you show there are Americans who care.” Another seed of understanding was planted in this rocky soil.

But all was not love and light. If you listen and question long enough the Syrians’ anger and suspicion emerges. For millennia empires have come to rule this land and these people. With an American occupation of Iraq on their eastern border and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to their southwest, it may be understandable if most Syrians fear that American-Israeli interests have expansionist goals into their land. Many Syrians quoted to us an inscription written over Israel’s Knesset to the effect that the true land of Zion extends from the Euphrates to the Nile. This proves, they said, that Israel wants to conquer Syria.

Part of our witness was to hear this anger, this distrust, and among some Syrians’ a desire for justice that borders on vengeance. We realized that more will be needed than ending the violence which surrounds this country. That essential step simply creates the space for the acts of reconciliation, forgiveness, and trust building that must weave the long-term peace. Here is where religion can play so important a part and why pilgrimages grounded in the unity of religious ideals facilitate this healing.

Sheikh Salah Kuftaro, head of the largest Muslim social service organization in Syria and a liberal proponent for a just peace in the Middle East summed up our thinking when he stated, “There will not be peace in our world until there is peace among the religions. And there will not be peace among the religions until the adherents come to understand one another. Muslims, Christians, and Jews all want peace and harmony. But we have been taught different things. It is important to listen to one another. There is a great future for this part of the world if the religious traditions learn to cooperate to achieve these expressed goals. But this process is not an easy one. It may be easy to dream about or talk about, but what we need today is people who are prepared to commit themselves in very practical ways to achieving this goal.”

Citizens reaching across borders in acts of spiritual diplomacy are part of these “practical ways.” Our own pilgrimage is not just about the intention and the journey of the two of us. We are the visible aspect of a much larger community of people, many of whom have never met each other but who share a commitment to changing how the story of our time is being told, and who contribute to making these things happen.

We have a dream of communities of people coming together to send pilgrims or emissaries like us to places of conflict to extend friendship, humility, and open-hearted listening. Once that intent is set, doors open, opportunities appear, and networks of friends emerge. We have been on the road for over four years now in different parts of the world and have not been disappointed yet in the intention of people everywhere to make friends.

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