exploratory mission to syria

International Center for Religion & Diplomacy

Trip Report by Brian Cox

Introduction

Brian Cox and Bassam Ishak conducted an exploratory mission to Syria from December 29, 2004 to January 8, 2005 as the first step in developing an Abrahamic Reconciliation Initiative for the Middle East and Arab world.  This exploratory mission was conducted under the auspices of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy in Washington D.C.

The mission of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy is to serve as a bridge between politics and religion in support of peacemaking and reconciliation.  As such, it is committed to faith-based diplomacy.

 

Trip Objectives and Results

1.    To explore the possibility of Damascus serving as a base for an Abrahamic Reconciliation Initiative in the Middle East and the larger Arab world.

Fifteen years ago Bassam Ishak and I traveled to Syria together and at that time I felt that Damascus might one day serve as an appropriate host for a faith-based reconciliation initiative.  In October 2004 Bassam (who lives in Damascus) invited me to come to Syria on behalf of ICRD to explore the possibility of developing an Abrahamic Reconciliation Initiative for the Middle East and Arab world.  Based on his assessment of the prevailing spiritual and political dynamics, he judged the timing to be right for such an initiative in Syria, the Middle East and the wider Arab world.  With regard to Syria, his assessment could not have been more accurate.  

Over the course of the visit, it became clear that Damascus was an ideal base for an ICRD - sponsored Abrahamic Initiative.  First, we encountered unusual openness on the part of government officials, political and religious leaders, academics and professionals.  Second, most of these officials “caught” the vision for an Abrahamic Initiative.  Third, we were given high-level assurance of full cooperation by the Syrian government.  Fourth, we identified, developed relationships, and explored possible cooperation with three significant institutions in Syria; the Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro Islamic Foundation, the Islamic Studies Centre and the Data and Strategic Studies Centre of Damascus University.  Fifth, officials from each of these institutions expressed a strong desire to work cooperatively with ICRD.  Finally, I was invited to preach at two key mosques in Damascus and deliver a message about the Abrahamic vision of faith-based reconciliation.

The purpose of the Abrahamic Initiative is two fold.  First, it seeks to address the ideological motivation for terrorism by promoting faith-based reconciliation and its ability to transform hearts and minds as an alternative paradigm to religious extremism and militancy in the Middle East and the Arab world.  Second, it seeks to address the growing estrangement between the United States and the Islamic world.  

 

2.    To meet with political and religious leaders to explore their openness to the Abrahamic vision of faith-based reconciliation as an alternative to religious militancy and as a paradigm for addressing the estrangement between the United States and the Islamic world.

Bassam and I met with the following people during this trip:  Patriarch Zakka (Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church), Dr. Georges Jabbour (Member of Parliament), Sr. Agnes and members of the Monastery of St. Jacob in Qara, General Bahjet Sulyman (Director General of the Interior Secret Service), Dr. Imad Shueibi (Chief of the Data and Strategic Studies Centre of Damascus University, Dr. Akram Al Ahmar (Physician), Father Elias Zahlaoui (Roman Catholic Priest serving at Church of Our Lady of Damascus), Dr. Asad Ali (Alawite Sheik), Dr. Salah Kuftaro (General Director of the Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro Islamic Foundation and son of the late Grand Mufti), Dr. Mahmood Kuftaro (Islamic Studies Centre and son of the late Grand Mufti), Dr. Mohammad Al Habash (Director of Islamic Studies Centre and Member of Parliament), Ayman Abdel Nour (Advisor to President Assad), Dr. Muhammed Wabi Sulayman (Professor of Islamic Jurisprudence at Damascus University), Dr. Ali Sheuibi (Expert on Wahabism, Religious Fundamentalism and Militancy), Patriarch Hazeem (Patriarch of the Roman Orthodox Church).

We also met with numerous senior officials from the Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro Islamic Foundation and the Islamic Studies Centre.  Finally, we also met a group of Nation of Islam students from the USA studying Arabic and Islamic studies at the Kuftaro Islamic Foundation.

Based on these meetings, we have received assurances of government cooperation and developed potential partnerships with three highly respected academic or religious organizations in Syria.

 

3.    To explore the next steps for developing an ICRD-sponsored Abrahamic Reconciliation Initiative based in Damascus.

The first step will be to conduct an initial faith-based reconciliation seminar in Damascus in the fall or winter of 2005 as a collaborative project of the International Center For Religion and Diplomacy, the Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro Foundation, the Islamic Studies Centre and the Data and Strategic Studies Centre of Damascus University.

Such a seminar would be conducted by a team from ICRD utilizing the materials of the ICRD Reconciliation Seminar (Abrahamic Edition).  Participants from the United States would be identified and recruited by ICRD.  Participants from Syria, the Middle East and the larger Arab world would be recruited by the partnering Syrian institutions.  There will be 60 participants in addition to ICRD team members.  Among the 60 participants it is planned that there will be 20 Christian and Jewish leaders from the U.S., 20 Islamic leaders from Syria and 20 Islamic leaders from other Arab countries.

The seminar will be conducted at a suitable venue in or near Damascus.  Manuals and presentation packets will be provided by ICRD.  There will be a need to provide translation between English and Arabic.

 

The results of the above seminar will help determine the next steps of this initiative.  However, some of these steps might include:

•    Establishment of a Center For Strategic and Faith-Based Studies in Damascus as a vehicle for developing this work.

•    Visits by a team of key officials from the partnering organizations to other parts of the Middle East and the Arab world for purposes of networking and spreading the vision.

•    Developing the Abrahamic Initiative as a movement among young adults and youth who can become “Abrahamic messengers”.