Syria’s Grand Mufti Sheik Badr al-Din Hassoun and Rick Warren

WASHINGTON – Megachurch Pastor Rick Warren is adamantly denying he praised Syria on his recent trip, which he describes as a favor to his Muslim next-door neighbor.

Warren, author of the best-selling “The Purpose-Driven Life,” visited Syria this week and was quoted by official Syrian news agencies as saying the U.S. should have been holding dialogues with Damascus, that Syrian Muslims and Christians co-exist peacefully and the Syrian leadership is responsible for the nation’s tolerance and stability.

In an e-mail to WND Editor Joseph Farah, who blasted Warren today in his daily column, Warren writes: “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.”

In fact, Saddleback Church declined repeated requests to respond to WND’s questions yesterday.

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 today, 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 postion is to not allow any extremism of any kind,” Warren says.

The reports from the official Syrian news agency included statements that:

  • “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 comments attributed to Warren contradict documentation by the International Counter Terrorism organization and U.S. State Department of Syria’s extensive use of terrorism for its political goals.

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.”

“The main Lebanese leaders killed by Syrian proxies were: Bashir Gemayel (who was accused by Syrian propaganda of being a ‘Zionist proxy’); and Kamal Jumblatt (accused of being a ‘traitor’ and an ‘American agent.’),” the ICT said.

Saddleback Church, with 30,000 members, was begun by Rick and Kay Warren 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 the 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.

In a letter to his congregation, Warren explained in more detail why he went to Syria, referring to his international “PEACE plan” ministry.

“Our team is on a three nation PEACE plan tour,” he wrote. “After leading a PEACE plan briefing for 44 major Christian missions organizations that we’d gathered in Atlanta, our team traveled to Germany where we taught the PD Preaching seminar to pastors and shared the PEACE plan with about 5,000 church leaders. Right now we’re in Rwanda teaching the PD Preaching seminar and the PEACE plan to the leaders of denominations. In between Germany and Rwanda, we visited Syria. Since our trip to Syria has already been misunderstood and attacked, I wanted you to know the real story, because you can’t believe everything you read on the internet.”

He continued: “Why Syria? The simple truth is that I was invited by my neighbor! We were talking over his backyard fence a couple months ago when my Muslim neighbor, Yassar, said, “Rick, you visit so many countries, I want to show you mine.” I was touched by this invitation from my friend and promised, “The next time I’m traveling that direction, I’ll visit your home with you.” It was a favor for a friend, not a political statement.

“When we got to Syria, our first event was a home cooked meal with 20 of Yassar’s family,” he wrote. “Then he showed us many of the sacred Christian sites in Syria: the road to Damascus where St Paul was converted, Straight street where the Holy Spirit led Paul, the house where Ananias prayed for his healing, (2,000 years old!), the wall where Paul was let down in a basket to escape the Romans, the tomb of John the Baptist, and the oldest Christian church building in existence (AD 315).”

Warren went on to explain that every Christian he met expressed gratitude to the government for protecting their right to worship.

“Next, my neighbor arranged for me to meet many of the key Christian leaders of Syria, including the Presbyterian pastor who leads the coalition of Evangelical Churches of Syria, the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Catholic Church, the patriarch of the Catholic Church, and the pastor of the oldest church in the world,” he continued. “You may be surprised to know that Christianity is legal in Syria, that the government provides free electricity and water to all churches, allows pastors to buy a car tax-free (a tax break not given to Imams), appoints pastors as Christian judges to handle Christian cases, and allowed Christians to create their own civil law instead of having to follow the laws for Muslims. One city we visited, Malula, is two-thirds Christian. Every Christian I met with expressed gratitude to the government for protecting their right to worship. Honestly, that shocked me.”

Warren explained how his meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came about.

“Then my neighbor invited me to meet the president since I often meet presidents of countries we visit,” he explained. “I had talked to Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse who has had years of experience with Lebanon and Syria and asked him what to say. Franklin told me, ‘Thank the Syrian president for protecting the freedom of Christians and Jews to worship there.’ After what I had seen in the churches I’d visited, I did just that.”

Warren said no press covered that meeting but, nonetheless, the Syrian news agency issued a report “that sounded like I was some politician negotiating the Iraq war and praising everything in Syria. Of course, that’s ridiculous, but it created a stir among bloggers who typically editorialize before verifying the truth. It’s ironic that people who distrust Syria trust their press releases!”

“By the way, even though this was just a private trip, we notified our friends at the U.S. State Department in advance of our meeting with President Bashar (sic) and sought advice,” he wrote. “They told us that Syria would likely offer press releases after the meeting – which they did.”

Warren concluded: “Regrettably, because I praised Syria’s welcoming of Christian refugees from Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon into their country, some bloggers concluded that I approved of everything Syria does. That’s nonsense! Syria needs many reforms, but in terms of religious freedom, they are ahead of places like Burma, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, and many others.”

Warren made no apologies for putting himself in a position to be used by the police state. But he did say: “I also know that anyone who speaks publicly all the time, is bound to say something dumb every now and then. So I ask for your patience and forgiveness in advance because I’m sure it will happen! Every day I’m amazed that God uses someone as flawed as I am. You should be too. Just don’t believe everything you read by bloggers or hear in the media.”

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