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Syria’s Grand Mufti Sheik Badr al-Din Hassoun and Rick Warren
U.S. government sources and religious freedom organizations are disputing assertions by California megapastor Rick Warren that Syria is a model of religious freedom in the Middle East.
Warren, author of “The Purpose-Driven Life,” says when he visited Syria recently he saw Christians and Jews in a near-routine existence, enjoying some privileges even Muslims don’t receive within a governmental structure that formally allows for faith in Christ and adherence to the Torah.
However, a U.S. State Department report on religious persecution worldwide notes that while Christianity and Judaism are legal, the Syrian government monitors sermons and fundraising and discourages public proselytizing.
Jews are banned from government employment and are singled out as the only religious minority whose passports and identity cards identify their religion. They also must obtain permission of security services before traveling abroad and must submit a list of possessions to ensure they return.
Other groups cite Syrian as a “restricted” nation for Christians and one posts Syria in the top four dozen worst violators of religious freedoms worldwide.
“The constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government imposes restrictions on this right,” the 2006 report from the U.S. State Department said. “Foreign missionary groups were present but operated discreetly.”
Warren, who had visited with religious and political leaders in Syria, was quoted by the state-run news agency SANA as praising Syria for its leadership. He said in a statement “many Americans don’t realize that both Christianity and Judaism are legal in Syria. In addition, the government provides free electricity and water to all churches; allows pastors to purchase a car tax-free (a tax break not given to Muslim imams); appoints pastors as Christian judges to handle Christian cases; and allows Christians to create their own civil law instead of having to follow Muslim law.”
The State Department clarified that a little. The utilities and water are free, and there is “de facto” separation of religion and the state. But during the current reporting period, the government “sometimes encouraged negative – even violent – expressions of Islamic religious sentiment.”
“The clearest example of this occurred on Feb. 4, 2006, when the Government allowed Muslim groups to demonstrate publicly against the publication of the (Prophet Muhammad) cartoons, and later failed to control a mob of several thousand Muslim protesters that attacked and set fire to the building housing the Danish, Swedish, and Chilean embassies, and later set fire to the Norwegian Embassy,” the State Department said.
The government-owned newspaper also launched a section focusing on Islamic views and fatwas (Islamic religious judgments), and the president signed a decree setting up a sharia law faculty at Aleppo University.
Government agencies also have clamped down on two outside groups that separately distributed a book challenging the practice of Muslim women wearing a headscarf and wanted to do research on the use of Islamic religious law.
In the past, the government also has banned Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Security services were constantly alert for any possible political threat to the State, and all groups, religious and nonreligious, were subject to surveillance and monitoring by government security services,” the report said.
All citizens, Muslim, Christian or otherwise, are subject to the “sharia-based personal status laws regulating child custody, inheritance, and adoption.” And the government regulates the religious instruction classes which are required for all students in schools.
Incidents of torture reported by the State Department were against alleged Islamists in detention, the report said. Missionaries who are “posing a threat to the relations among religious groups” are subject to charges that carry prison sentences from five years to life.
The report did note that David Duke, former national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, took part in a mass solidarity protest in Damascus, and his speech was aired on Syrian national television praising President Bashar al-Assad.
While Warren was visiting Syria, he was quoted by the SANA state news agency:
“Pastor Warren hailed the religious coexistence, tolerance and stability that the Syrian society is enjoying due to the wise leadership of President al-Assad, asserting that he will convey the true image about Syria to the American people.”
“Syria wants peace, and Muslims and Christians live in this country jointly and peacefully since more than a thousand years, and this is not new for Syria.”
Warren told Syria’s Islamic grand mufti there could be no peace in the region without Syria, and 80 percent of Americans reject the U.S. administration’s policies and actions in Iraq.
The ICT said “frequent use of the ‘terror weapon’ has been made by Syria against Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians” in an attempt “to impose Syrian hegemony over them and bring them into line with Syrian policy.”
SANA’s statements about Warren’s visit were reported by WND after several unsuccessful attempts to reach Warren, or anyone with his church organization, for a comment. He later did contact WND and disavowed the comments.
In an e-mail to WND Editor Joseph Farah, who criticized Warren’s decision to travel to Syria and mingle with its leaders in a daily column, Warren wrote: “Joseph, why didn’t you contact me first and discover the fact I said nothing of the sort? The trip was a favor to my next-door neighbor, had nothing to do with policy, and was done with the State Department’s knowledge.”
Warren added that the State Department had warned him “to expect exactly what Syria did – a PT blast. I don’t pretend to be a diplomat. I’m a pastor who just gets invited places.”
However, in a video posted on YouTube but removed when the WND story was released, titled “Building Bridges,” Warren is shown walking down a Damascus street commenting on political and social life in Syria, saying Christians and Muslims get along with each other.
“It’s a moderate country, and the official government role and position is to not allow any extremism of any kind,” Warren says.
Now Warren has wrapped up his trip, and has sent a message to his Saddleback Church congregation about his return, including a news release generated by the controversy over the SANA quotes.
“Contrary to reports by the official state-controlled Syrian news agency, Dr. Warren was in Syria to meet with and encourage the country’s key Christian leaders; dialogue with top Muslim leaders; and promote religious freedom,” the statement said.
“In hindsight, I wish we’d been better prepared for our visit to Syria,” he said. “We would have a handled some meetings differently, watched our words more close, and been more aware of the agenda of their state press.”
While Syria is not listed among the 10 or even 20 nations that violate religious rights worldwide, it is listed at No. 47 on the Open Doors World Watch list, published by Open Doors USA, the ministry to the persecuted Christian church launched by Brother Andrew, who smuggled Bibles behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
And the Voice of the Martyrs noted all religious groups must register with the Syrian government, are monitored by the government and must obtain a special permit to meet for anything other than a regular worship service.
VOM spokesman Todd Nettleton said Syria is considered a “restricted” nation because although there are some freedoms, there is virtually no freedom for a Muslim to convert to Christianity.
“There is persecution, primarily from within the family, when a Muslim chooses to convert,” he told WND.
One such case, as reported by WORLD magazine, involved Samer, a Jordanian man who converted from Islam to Christianity and was arrested Aug. 22 by Syrian police on no defined charges.
He wasn’t released from prison until Oct. 10, and he immediately fled to the U.S.
“Many countries of the Middle East have a good image here in the U.S., but their rules are not what Americans think. … When [Islamic countries] talk about human rights and freedom, it’s not true – unless you remain in Islam,” he told the magazine.
“The Syrian government has long had a bad reputation in America, but if one considers a positive action like welcoming in thousands of Christian refugees from Iraq, or the protection of freedom to worship for Christians and Jews in Syria, it should not be ignored,” Warren said from Rwanda.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a report that Christians in some parts of Syria report that the government has “confiscated their property … without compensation and … Assyrian Christians also alleged that the Kurdish Democratic Party-dominated judiciary routinely discriminated against non-Muslims.”
Warren told his congregation he went to Syria at the invitation of his neighbor, and because of arrangements his neighbor, Yassar, made, met some key Christian and Muslim leaders as well as government leaders.
“As we left, the official state-controlled Syrian news agency issued some press releases that sounded like I was a politician negotiating the Iraq war by praising the Syrian President and everything else in Syria! Of course, that’s ridiculous, but it created a stir among bloggers who tend to editorialize before verifying the truth.
“Does it seem ironic to you that people who distrust Syria now believe Syrian press releases?” he asked.
“Friends, I am aware that inaccuracies, misquotes, and misperceived motivations get reported about me in the press daily. Most of the time, I just ignore them. Jesus said, ‘If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.’ (John 15:18 – NCV)” Warren wrote.
“Just don’t believe everything you read on the Internet or hear in the media,” he said.
Saddleback Church, with 30,000 members, was begun by Warren and his wife in 1979 and now has more than 200 ministries in the Orange County area.
His popular book, which has sold about 12 million copies, focuses on worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism. It tells readers life is “not about you” and shows how God can enable each one to live for His purposes.
Warren is scheduled to preach in North Korea next year.