Syria Seeking Justice: working for reconciliation

International Center for Religion & Diplomacy


by Brian Cox


Brian Cox, Bassam Ishak, Dr. Mohammed Habash and Tahir Aziz conducted a faith-based reconciliation dialogue at Sednaya, Syria November 13 – 15, 2006 under the auspices of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy based in Washington DC and the Islamic Studies Centre based in Damascus.

The mission of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy is to address problems of communal identity that exceed the grasp of traditional diplomacy (such as ethnic conflict, tribal warfare and religious hostilities) by effectively combining religious concerns with the practice of international politics.  As such, it is committed to faith-based diplomacy.  The mission of the Islamic Studies Centre is to promote revival in the Islamic world by sponsoring Islamic – Christian dialogue, contributing to Islamic – Islamic dialogue to foster alternatives to fanaticism, launching Islamic – Secular dialogue to establish common ground and uniting with other study centers in promoting civilizational dialogue.


Objectives of the Faith-Based Reconciliation Dialogue

There were three key objectives of this faith-based reconciliation dialogue:

•    To share and spread a vision of faith-based reconciliation as an alternative to religious extremism.

•    To contribute to the process of healing the broken family of Abraham in the Middle East as a faith-based approach to peacemaking.

•    To foster better relations between the Islamic world and the United States


The hope of ICRD officials was (1) that this initiative would result in a core of American Christians and Syrian Muslims and Christians committed to the vision of faith-based reconciliation and (2) that leadership core groups would be formed in both Syria and the United States to advance this initiative in a spirit of partnership.


Description of the Faith-Based Reconciliation Dialogue

The faith-based dialogue was guided by a team from ICRD and the Islamic Studies Centre, utilizing a faith-based reconciliation format.  There were 30 participants consisting of 17 Muslims from the Middle East, 9 Christians from the United States and 4 Christians from the Middle East.

The faith-based reconciliation dialogue represents a bold fusion of two faith-based intervention models.  The first model is the Reconciliation Basic Seminar which utilizes a series of presentations and small group exercises, culminating in a Service of Reconciliation, to explain the core values of faith-based reconciliation, empower participants in reconciliation/peacebuilding skills, and provide a climate that will change hearts as well as minds.  

The presentations included the following topics:

•    Introduction: The Journey of Reconciliation

•    Reconciliation As A Moral Vision

•    Building Bridges: The Principle of Pluralism

•    Demolishing Walls of Hostility: The Principle of Inclusion

•    Conflict Resolution: The Principle of Peacemaking

•    Seeking The Common Good: The Principle of Social Justice

•    Healing Relationships: The Principle of Forgiveness

•    Facing the Truth About History: The Principle of Healing Collective Wounds

•    Submission to God: The Principle of Sovereignty

•    Becoming An Instrument of Reconciliation

The small group dialogues facilitate the building of relationships and trust.  They include:  sharing one’s life journey, identifying core values, exploring collective identity, describing the problems to be solved from different perspectives, analyzing personal hostility toward others, developing a problem-solving approach to the conflict, analyzing the distribution of group privilege, analyzing broken relationships, exploring the nature of the offense(s) experienced by each group, conducting an honest conversation about the history of the region, developing strategies for healing and examining each participant’s sphere of influence for extending the spirit of reconciliation.  The Service of Reconciliation at the end provides an opportunity for participants to focus on broken individual relationships as well as collective expressions of acknowledgement, apology and forgiveness.

The second intervention model is the Learning Conversation model which seeks to create an enlightened dialogue in the context of an intractable identity-based conflict or problem.  This model involves five steps:

•    Sharing life journeys and building common ground

•    Sharing perceptions of the conflict or problem

•    Engaging in a problem-solving approach, utilizing a faith-based reconciliation paradigm to address the particular conflict or problem

•    Sharing where each has experienced and/or caused offense to the other 

•    Exploring each community’s narrative of history and perception of historical wounds


Presenters and Participants

Presentations for the faith-based reconciliation dialogue were made by Canon Professor Brian Cox (USA), Bassam Ishak (Syria) and Tahir Aziz (Pakistan).  In addition there were reflections offered by Dr. Mohammed Habash, Professor Ismail Yasin, Dr. Abdul Nabi Istaiff, Dr. Georges Jabbour, Adnan Abouchaar, Dr. Douglas Johnston and Sr. Agnes Mariam.

Participants from the United States included: Dr. Douglas Johnston (President and Founder of ICRD, Washington DC), The Reverend Canon Brian Cox (Senior Vice President of ICRD, Santa Barbara, California), The Very Reverend Spenser Simrill (Dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral, Minneapolis, Minnesota), The Honorable Joanne O’Donnell (Superior Court Judge, Los Angeles, California), Michael Witmer (Deputy Attorney General, State of California), The Reverend James Warnock (Rector of Gethsemane Church, Marion, Indiana), Cynthia Drennan (Business Consultant, Newport Beach, California), The Reverend Dr. Gwynne Guibord (Ecumenical Officer, Diocese of Los Angeles and Deputy for Ecumenical Relations for the national Episcopal Church), Stephen Bunting (Financial Services, Santa Barbara, California).

Participants from Syria included:  Dr. Mohammed Habash (Executive Director of the Islamic Studies Centre and member of Syrian Parliament), Ismail Yasin (Professor of English Literature, Damascus University), Basem Attar (Businessman, Damascus), Sr. Agnes Mariam (Superior of Monastery of St. Jacob, Qara), Ali Shibli (Graduate Student, Damascus University), Dr. Georges Jabbour (Professor of Political Science, Aleppo University and Member of Syrian Parliament), Dr. Abdul Kader Al-Kitani (Professor of Islamic Studies, Damascus University and Chairman of the Board, Islamic Studies Centre), Bassam Ishak (Publisher and Book Store Owner, Damascus), Khaled Mahjoub (Syrian Industrialist), Ibraheem Shehabi (Professor of English Literature, Damascus University), Ayman Abdel Nour (Publisher of Syrian On Line Newsletter, Sheik Bassam Estwani (Chairman of Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center), Dr. Mouffak Alhabashi (Member of Syrian Parliament), Dr. Samir Altaqi (Executive Director, Centre For Orient Studies, Damascus), Malaz Keddah, Ghada Kizawi, Rufaida Habash, Samer Saad, Yusuf Khalaf, Dr. Abdul Nabi Istaiff (Professor, Damascus University), Adnan Abouchaar (Syrian Businessman).


Observations From The Faith-Based Reconciliation Dialogue


The following observations are based on the results of the three day gathering at the Sheraton Hotel in Sednaya:

•    The title, “Seeking Justice: Working For Reconciliation in the Middle East” was proposed by officials of the Islamic Studies Centre which reflected sensitivities in the Middle East concerning the suffering of Palestinians, the war in Iraq, the recent war in Lebanon and the other policies of the current Administration.

•    The negotiations between ICRD and Islamic Studies Centre officials that culminated in this faith-based reconciliation dialogue were complex and challenging for both sides, reflecting the present climate of mistrust and hostility between the United States and Arab world.

•    The faith-based reconciliation dialogue began in a climate of mistrust and hostility but ended in a transformed climate of reconciliation, friendships, growing trust and a commitment to partnership in moving forward with this initiative.

•    The format of the faith-based reconciliation dialogue represented a radical departure from traditional Christian/Muslim dialogues in Syria, but was well received as an approach that facilitates heart-to-heart connections.

•    The presentations were well received by the participants and challenged them to deepen their understanding of the Abrahamic tradition and faith-based reconciliation.

•    The small group dialogues created a powerful synergy that enabled participants to share at a level which is unusual in Syrian/Arab culture.

•    The points of tension in this faith-based reconciliation dialogue included: current U.S. foreign policy (support of authoritarian Arab regimes, blind support of Israeli policies and activities which create suffering for Palestinians and the U.S. occupation of Iraq), American Christian demonization of Muslims, Arab involvement in/silence toward 9/11 and inequitable treatment of Christians in Arab/Muslim countries.

•    The Service of Reconciliation was extremely powerful as it flowed out of honest conversations about the Middle East conflict, offenses given and received as well as historical wounds of the region.  It included emotional expressions of acknowledgement, apology and forgiveness from both sides and culminated in a prophetic action of Syrians and Americans forming two lines across from each other and moving toward each other, culminating in an embrace, a symbol of healing in the broken family of Abraham.

•    This first initiative, modified as it was to accommodate present sensitivities between the Middle East and the United States, proved the hypothesis that a supported, structured faith-based conversation can bridge even the bottomless chasm of the conflict in the Middle East.  What remains as a challenge for the next stage is to test the hypothesis that a complete faith-based reconciliation process spread over four or five days can create the potential for healing actions and addressing long standing issues.

•    The prayer & fasting team, an important feature of ICRD’s practice of faith-based diplomacy, included members from the USA, Syria and Jordan under the leadership of Storm Harvey.  The team worked well together and was appreciated by the participants.


Follow Up

Based on the results of this faith-based reconciliation dialogue the following initiatives were suggested as follow-up by ICRD and Islamic Studies Centre officials:

1.    Translate the Faith-Based Reconciliation Manual (Abrahamic Edition) into Arabic as soon as possible.

2.    Establish leadership core groups in both Syria and the United States consisting of those participants who are committed to moving this initiative forward.

3.    Resources permitting, conduct the next faith-based reconciliation dialogue in Washington DC in Mid-May 2007 utilizing a joint Syrian/American team and including an expanded group of American and Middle East participants.