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Local pastor calls for action in Syria after visit   07/07/2013

The pastor of Middlesex Presbyterian Church has returned from the Middle East with stories of shocking violence in the Syrian civil war and a plea for Americans not to stand by during what he said could be “the worst humanitarian disaster of our generation.”

Returning from the trip to Egypt and Lebanon in late May, the pastor, Neal Presa, who is moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, said he had a deeper understanding of the conflicts and an awareness of the kind of shocking violence that has become commonplace in this region.

During his trip, Presa met with Presbyterian Synod leaders, some of whom traveled dangerous roads from Syria.

Presa said that upon his return, he experienced discordant emotions. In stark contrast to the first-hand accounts of unthinkable violence in Syria, he was met with the concerns of some members in his community whose greatest fear is that their children may not be accepted into the local soccer or baseball team.

Lack of awareness

Presa, who holds the highest elected office in the Presbyterian Church USA, said he fully acknowledges that people are suffering in the United States and in other parts of the world and he doesn’t intend to minimize anyone’s suffering, but the kind of violence that has become commonplace in these countries — especially Syria, should not be tolerated by civilized and caring people anywhere. He said he is saddened by the lack of awareness and response from the American people.

Presa said it is the position of the church that unilateral military force on the part of the U.S. or the European Union is untenable. Rather, what is needed is a multilateral, international response that seeks an immediate cessation of hostilities, and a negotiated political settlement that involves all parties from all sectors of Syria.

“The situation in Syria has deteriorated to a grave point of exhibitionistic atrocities — government and foreign fighters ravaging the country for the sake of exhibition,” Presa said.

Presa visited Lebanon and Egypt as part of a four-member delegation sent by the PC(USA).

Presa said he agrees with former President Bill Clinton that the civil war in Syria and the resulting 1.6 million refugees could prove to be the worst humanitarian disaster of our generation.

Revolution in Egypt

While Presa visited Egypt a month before the country’s military ousted President Mohammed Morsi in a coup Wednesday, he said the growing dissatisfaction was palpable and he gained greater understanding into the reasons for the tension.

“When Morsi was running for office, he promised that he would appoint a woman and a Christian to be his vice presidents, but this never came to fruition,” Presa said.

Instead, Morsi took advantage of his position to enforce his fundamentalist Muslim beliefs on the entire country, with no tolerance for the beliefs of moderate Muslims, Presbyterians or Coptic Christians, according to Presa.

Presa said there were a string of events in which the Coptic Christians asked for help from the police and the government and they were met with a lukewarm response, which in some instances resulted in bloodshed and death.

“Earlier in May, in front of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, a small riot turned into a bloody massacre in which 100 people were killed,” he said. “It involved Coptic Christians and Muslim thugs. When the Coptic Christians asked for help, they were ignored.”

Now, as the blood rises in the streets of Egypt, Christians as well as moderate Muslims have joined against Morsi.

Presa said the Presbyterian Church was established in Egypt in the late 1800s. The Coptic (Egyptian) Christian Orthodox Church was established in Egypt between the years 42 and 62. According to Presa, there are 20 million Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt today.

“Typically, the Coptic Church remains neutral when it comes to politics, but not this time,” Presa said.

He said the Coptic pope closed the door of his palace to a representative of Morsi.

“This was a major move,” Presa said.

He said in Egypt when churches are to be built or any renovations are done to existing churches, they are required to obtain a license from the president. Under previously ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, virtually no licenses were granted. Presa said it has not changed under Morsi and churches are being built in secret.

“The Christian churches have gained the trust and respect of many moderate Muslims because they have been providing health care and child care, which are services that they cannot receive from their own government,” Presa said.

Should U.S. care?

While it seems that the conflict is far away in another land that has no direct relation to life in New Jersey, Presa said that at the root of this conflict in Syria is a religious, sectarian violence.

“In Syria, what began two years ago as a legitimate uprising of ordinary Syrian citizens — moderate Muslims and Christians — against an oppressive Assad regime quickly morphed into sectarian violence where radical, fundamentalist Muslims from outside of Syria saw an opportunity and sought to topple the Assad regime, while putting moderate Muslims and Christians in Syria in the crossfire,” Presa said.

In Egypt, Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party have sought to instill their brand of Islam upon the Egyptian people, and moderate Muslim clerics have joined in partnership with the Coptic Orthodox pope and leaders of the opposition movement calling for Morsi and his party to step down.

“For people here in New Jersey where many citizens are Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians, what is at stake in Syria and Egypt is the very survival of ancient Christianity and the durability of moderate Muslim voices,” Presa said. “According to the New Testament scriptures, the first community that was called Christian in the first century C.E. was in the city of Antioch. Antioch is a city in Syria.”

The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, likewise, is an ancient Christian community with connections to the ancient apostles of the first century, including St. Mark.

Political vs. religious conflict

Where do religion and politics begin and end in the Middle East? That appears to be the question on many people’s minds when trying to understand the conflicts throughout the region.

For Presa, religious differences are one aspect of what drives the political conflicts. Extreme positions, whether in politics or religion, do not allow others to think independently and breed an environment that is the antithesis of freedom. But not all Muslims are fundamentalists, just as not all Christians are fundamentalists.

What action should we take?

Presa said the solution to the conflict lies in a changing of the heart, mind and spirit. It also requires effort to educate oneself about the issues that appear to be complex.

“But we shouldn’t be operating from a position that we need to help out of pity, but rather out of an acknowledgement that we all need one another,” he said. “All of us as human beings are impoverished without the other. What is required is a transformation of the heart.”

He said we need to make a shift for concern, not just for our immediate families and household, but our human family and the household of the human race.

“What would it take for those of us in the United States and in New Jersey to care deeply about what is happening in Egypt and in Syria? Bottom line, it will require a transformation of the heart,” he said.

For Presa, the transformation requires an acknowledgment that we are all suffering in our own way, but at the same time, we should not become so enmeshed in our own suffering that we cannot even recognize the suffering of others.

source: The Central Jersey

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