The Church of England’s only Syrian-born clergyman, Dr Nadim Nassar, is also Director of the London-based Awareness Foundation, a charity that provides peace-making education in Syria and Iraq and builds understanding between faiths in the UK. SAT-7 UK’s Press and Communications Officer, Lindsay Shaw, spoke to him just after he returned from Beirut where, among other things, he had filmed an interview for broadcast on SAT-7 over Christmas.
Warm and hospitable as he is, Dr Nassar is also blunt about what he sees as the failure of the Church – in East and West – to oppose the wars that have blighted his home region over the last six years.
Pointing to the crises in Syria, Libya and Yemen, he says, “The church did not speak loudly enough against killing by all sides. We have not been prophetic enough in society. We have the power to be prophetic because we do not follow any side – we follow the Lord. We were called to be prophetic and we failed.”
Of Syria, he says, “I have been critical of both sides. For me the red lines are not a person or an ideology, but the people, the country. We have lost a million people in Syria and half the population is on the move: the situation is dire”.
Dr Nassar stresses the “need for a Christian voice in the media to compete with its secular counterparts” – one reason he was glad to be interviewed by SAT-7 in Lebanon and impressed with the results. In a powerful message to the region’s Christians, he challenged them to “live the word of reconciliation, the word of peace, the word of love”.
Where SAT-7 uses mass media to bring hope in the Middle East, the Awareness Foundation works practically through face-to-face education. Its vision is “to empower Christians everywhere to be a counter force of love and peace to the intolerance and mistrust that now prevail in so many of our communities, and to build understanding between the faiths”.
In the Middle East it runs two programmes: Ambassadors for Peace (for young adults) and Little Heroes (for 5 to 8-year-olds). The second of these is almost a ground-level version of SAT-7’s children’s channel, SAT-7 KIDS, in that it brings colour, creativity and normality to young children, soaked in Christian values of love and acceptance.
The programme, begun in 2015 and run by Nadim’s sister, Huda Nassar, reached over 1,000 displaced Christian children last year in various parts of Syria. Typically, Little Heroes runs for six days and mixes storytelling through drama and sketches, art and handcrafts, music and singing, games and adventures, Bible study and prayer for the children’s families and communities. It always ends with celebration!
For many of the young participants, God’s name is associated with the cry “God is the greatest” used in acts of sectarian violence, leaving them fearful of God. So the week aims both to rebuild trust in God as a loving Father and seeds of hope, trust and respect for children of other faiths.
Many of the volunteer leaders for Little Heroes are some of the 450 beneficiaries of the other programme – Ambassadors for Peace – begun in 2014. Nadim described training these young 20-somethings as “one of the most powerful experiences of my life”.
He singled out a programme in his home city of Lattakia, Syria, last year, where 100 young people gathered, including many from other war-ravaged cities.
They carried out a ground-breaking “experiment” in citizenship in which the participants worked in groups to devise and promote different practical peace projects. The process involved choosing peace ambassadors and culminated in a vote for the best idea.
At each stage, Dr Nassar says, these young adults were being given a democratic choice they had never had before. “In the Middle East we are never offered the chance to choose freely,” he says. Instead, he explains, people are bound by loyalty to family, friends, their wider circle, their religious community, as well as their own self interests. “In all their lives, these young people will never have chosen freely the best person or project.”
This experience – together with sessions on citizenship, the identity of Christians in the Middle East, and what it really means to carry the cross – was a revelation to participants, Dr Nassar says. “Ultimately,” he told them, “we Christians are not the people of the cross, we are the people of the resurrection, the people of life, so don’t think Christianity is all about suffering – it’s about life.”
He remembers young people telling him their lives would never be the same again, including a young doctor who said, “Now I am a doctor plus”. “There is something that wasn’t there before”, Dr Nassar explains, “a mission in his life to serve the community; it isn’t only about following a career”.
The scars left by war and brutality are deep but the education programmes run by the Awareness Foundation are transformative. “When the children first arrive, they are in a cocoon of fear and uncertainty about everything,” Dr Nassar says. “They have lost trust in anything. Many of the young adults are angry but we let them voice their feelings”.
One wrote afterwards: “Before this, I saw everything in black and white: black was the life I lived and white was life in the USA. Now I am free to bring change and start with myself. It made me feel that hope is possible.”
Offering such a vision for change and the power – through Christ – to view yourself, your future, your country and your neighbours in a new light is the kind of education that Dr Nassar believes will counter the devastating forces currently wreaking havoc in countries like Syria and Iraq.
It also echoes the messages of peace and transformation that are woven throughout the programmes made by SAT-7. As someone deeply involved in peace education, Dr Nassar is excited by the role SAT-7 is playing in education and peace-building. He sees its My School education stream for displaced children and SAT-7’s planned education channel, SAT-7 Academy, as “very, very important”.
“No peace can be built in any society without education,” he says. “As I said when I was interviewed by SAT-7, peace is not a treaty we sign; peace is a culture we need to spread and we do that through education, through equipping young people and children to change. It’s not an easy process but education is vitally important and what SAT-7 is doing on that level is remarkable.”