Day 7. The Travel Challenge. Syria./ By Reverend Andrew Ashdown

Photo Credit: Reverend Andrew Ashdown

Day 7. The Travel Challenge. Syria. (Note: I am going to add one more day to this challenge before passing on the baton as there is one more region after this post that deserves special mention). It is not an exaggeration to say that Syria has changed my life and touched my soul. The country is often referred to as a crossroads of civilisations and faith and its’ numerous historic sites reflect the influences of multiple civilisations and cultures. Syria’s religious, cultural and communal diversity and plurality have been sadly under-recognised in international discourse and profoundly threatened by the tragic conflict, and by the multiple extremist terror groups that the western nations have supported.
The resilience of the people of Syria in the face of so much suffering and violence has been remarkable, but the tragedy suffered by the country has been nothing less than catastrophic. Yet the lives, experience, context and reality on the ground for the vast majority of the population in most of Syria has been ignored by the world’s media whose narrative has been more biased, one-sided and misrepresentative of reality than almost any other context in history.
I first visited Syria in 2003 and immediately fell in love with the country and its people. I was fascinated by the rich history and the coexistence of Christian and Muslim heritage. In subsequent years I led a few groups on tours of the country, visiting the historic sites and meeting with communities from Damascus to Aleppo and from the coastlands to the north-east. In 2010 when I took my family to Syria on holiday, the country was full of hope. Tourist infrastructure was being developed. National infrastructure was being improved and updated and residents spoke of Syria emerging as a ‘beacon of the Middle East’.
Confused and devastated by events at the beginning of the war, I read as much as I could about the country, and was pleased to receive the opportunity to join a Peace delegation to Syria in 2014. What I saw and heard from the Syrians themselves during that visit in Damascus and Homs, when shells were falling randomly every hour, and car bombs were going off daily, completely challenged the narrative we were being fed in the mainstream media. And everything I have seen and heard since has done likewise. Since then I have visited Syria 10 times as a guest of faith leaders. It was the ancient Eastern Christian presence and the level of Christian-Muslim co-existence and the historic and contemporary importance of that dynamic in the midst of conflict that inspired me to undertake Doctoral research into the subject for which I was awarded a PhD in 2019, and which I am delighted to say is regarded as an important and original contribution to knowledge in the subject, which has been under-studied and under-represented in academic discourse.
The visits have been life-transforming. Travelling at the height of the conflict, and often at great risk to towns, cities and villages across the country, including Damascus, Deraa, Homs, Maaloula, Homs, Aleppo, Lattakia, Tartous, Kessab, Deir Ezzor, Palmyra, and villages bordering Idleb Province, it has been a privilege to meet Syrians from all communities, and many internally displaced as well. But it has been heart-breaking too to see the scale of destruction and to hear first-hand the stories of extreme violence and brutality that thousands have suffered at the hands of the ‘rebels,’ and as a result of the conflict – stories never told in the mainstream media. And never will I forget the privilege but heartrending and emotionally-searing experience of being in Aleppo in December 2016 and being one of the first foreigners to enter East Aleppo after its liberation by the Syrian Army; meeting with and listening to East Aleppo residents as they emerged from the hell that they had experienced; and witnessing the celebrations of the 1.5 million residents of Aleppo on the liberation of East Aleppo from multiple terrorist groups. (The world’s media were absent and silent in those days).
Nor do the media ever mention that it is estimated that over 120,000 of those who have died in the war are members of the Syrian Army: Sunni, Shi’a, Alawi, Christian, Kurd, sons and daughters of Syria defending their country and its secular, plural Constitution from the declared Islamist intention of the ‘rebel’ groups, tens of thousands of whom are externally funded extremist foreign fighters from over 80 countries.
Meanwhile, thousands of Syrians in towns and cities across the country, including the Church communities, are doing remarkable work to serve their wider communities and the most vulnerable, and to be instruments of reconciliation. Their work and stories are never told. Syria is not a perfect country. No country is, and there have been and are many challenges to address. And tragically in war, innocents die on all sides. But the hypocrisy of the international community in their actions, alliances (including with terrorists and States whose human rights records are some of the worst on the planet), and policies with regards to Syria (including sanctions) beggars belief; have helped destroy (yet another) nation, and have helped prolong the war.
In all my visits to Syria I have sought to listen to the voices of ordinary people, to engage and understand, and to stand alongside our Christian brothers and sisters and fellow human beings of other faiths who are suffering. The fact that western Christian leaders have accepted uncritically what the media tells them and at the same time have refused to listen to, visit or engage with Syrian faith communities and leaders even in pastoral concern for fellow humanity, is in my view a shocking abrogation of Christian duty and responsibility.
My journeys in Syria have been profoundly costly, professionally and personally. I have been slated in the media, insulted, slandered, misrepresented and held at arms-length by Church leadership and Institutions, who have deemed media lies as worthy of more note than my life’s work and ministry. I find it hard not to find such an attitude petty, uncharitable, narrow and lacking in courage and grace. Even former ‘friends’ and colleagues maintain a distance, presumably to prevent being ‘tainted’ by association. But my life’s experience has taught me that you can never truly understand a context from a distance or from books, and certainly not from the media. Of course no one can ever truly know the whole truth about anything, especially in such a profoundly multi-layered context involving complex histories and cultures, and I certainly do not claim to ‘know’ or understand it all. But we can try and understand first hand as much as possible by dialogue, listening, coming alongside and witnessing. As a Christian, as a priest, as a human being, that is part of my/our vocation.
I am profoundly grateful to the many people in Syria who have welcomed me so generously, hosted me, opened their homes and their hearts, and shared their stories. I make no apology to anyone for anything I have said or done as regards my engagement with Syria, except to my wife and family for the anxiety they have suffered both during my visits and as a result of their consequences. Everything has been done in a spirit of love and compassion, with a desire to listen, engage, and build bridges rather than walls and barriers; to discern paths of peace rather than war; and reconciliation rather than conflict. I am humbled and inspired by most whom I have met in Syria, and am affected forever by briefly sharing their journey. My visits to Syria and advocacy will continue. But whatever personal scars will remain for me are as nothing compared with what ordinary Syrians have had to endure for too long.
There are many truths – and falsehoods – in conflict. And the different voices must be heard. But for too long, the world has silenced the voices of most Syrians inside Syria. Their truth must be heard if peace and reconciliation are to succeed. Syria will take years to heal and it will be a difficult and demanding process, but Syrians, despite the pain they have suffered, have the capacity to embark on that journey. The world should be helping and encouraging them on that journey, not preventing it by imposing sanctions, supporting violent sectarianism, and dictating terms. For ultimately it is Syrians who must be allowed to determine their future. No-one else. Outside interventions and imposition of external agendas in situations across the globe have for too long been nothing less than catastrophic for millions of innocent people . I hope these few pictures from many hundreds taken in the past years, offer a small glimpse into the beauty, the tragedy, the life, and the hope of this remarkable country and its people.