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Q&A with Bishop Jean Kawak

During a tour Tuesday of the Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pa., Bishop Jean Kawak of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Damascus listens to manager James Wheeler explain how school kits are collected and assembled. (MCC Photo/Silas Crews)


Bishop Jean Kawak is a bishop in the Syrian Orthodox Church, a Mennonite Central Committee partner. He serves as the Patriarchal Office director and the spiritual director for the youth group and Sunday school of the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese in Damascus. He is also president of the St. Ephrem Patriarchal Development Committee, a group established to assist with the needs of displaced people in the Damascus area as a result of the current conflict.

He visited MCC U.S. offices in Akron on July 8 and gave us the opportunity to ask him some questions. Here is an excerpt from our conversation, with minimal editing:

What is happening in Syria right now?
There are always two different stories from the government and from the opposition. Both blame the other for starting the crisis. I don’t care who started it. I care that now we have violence. We have a lot of dead people and a lot of destruction. No one knows when this crisis will end. 

You don’t know when you will receive a mortar bomb or a car explosion or a sniper. In Damascus itself, we don’t have snipers, but going a little bit far away from the city center, you will find all kind of fighters and all kind of arms. Our freeway is not safe. To go to the airport is not safe. We don’t have a stable life now, not only in Damascus, but all Syria. 

To buy one bag of bread, it used to be 15-20 Syrian pounds, now it is 250 Syrian pounds. This is essential to live. Propane used to be 350 Syrian pounds on the official market. Now it is 1,000 Syrian pounds on the official market, but you can’t find it on the official market. You have to buy from the black market, and the black market fluctuates. In Aleppo, it sometimes reached 5,000 Syrian pounds. I bought it with 3,000.

What has the Syrian Orthodox Church in Damascus been doing to help?
We have 1,000 families who are getting help from our church, thanks to your contribution. MCC is helping us a lot. A lot of other congregations are trying to help us also. We are thankful to all of you.

In Damascus, we receive a lot of displaced people from Homs, Aleppo and northeast Syria. We are trying to help them with monthly salaries (stipends and cash distributions) by giving them, last month and the one before, 8,000 Syrian pounds. (Exchange rates fluctuate, but 8,000 Syrian pounds in mid-July equaled about $76.) 

We are trying to help them with medicine and surgeries. We are trying to help them with some money to release kidnapped people. We also are trying to help those who want to continue their studies. We are trying to help the handicapped. We are trying to do everything.

How are the children?
We are scared for the future of our children. They have a lot of psychological problems. Today, if you ask a child, ‘What kind of game to you want to play?’ they will tell you immediately – thief and police. They understand that the language of violence prevails over the language of peace. This is really a problem. We need to teach them to be peaceful, to have collaboration with everyone. We need to teach them to accept everyone.

How are Muslim-Christian relationships being affected by the crisis?
Before March 15, 2011, I don’t think we had any problem. Syria used to be a mosaic of multiethnic groups, multireligious groups and multisectarian groups. If this crisis should continue for another year or a long time, I think we will have a very tough sectarian problem between all our religious groups.

Have you been able to encourage nonviolence among the people of Damascus, Muslim and Christian alike?
I’m trying to spread the word, at least among my faithful in Damascus. I have to let everyone know that the biblical background of our Christianity helps us to be nonviolent. Our biblical background allows me to say that everyone is equal to me and lets me know that I have to accept everybody. That is very important.

I’m telling you from the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve were created by God, they were created in his image. All of us have the same image. For this reason we have to respect the image of God that exists in others. 

Maybe people will learn something from me and my community because we are trying to help everybody … in a nonviolent way and trying to take care of everybody. It will give them an idea about our mission and about how we have to be, not only as Christians, but as human beings.

What happens when the helpers are in danger or are targeted?
You know, now we are facing a very difficult problem. Two of the archbishops of Aleppo have been kidnapped since April 22. We tried to contact everybody around the world. Until now, we know nothing. We had also three priests killed since then. We do not know who did it. 

How do you pray for them?
Always the same prayer, we tell our God to do his will. We cannot say anything else. 

How do you personally deal with the danger of carrying out your work?
When the crisis began two years ago, we decided, myself and the other bishop, to do our best to help everybody, regardless of the danger. Yes, we have to be a little careful. We don’t have to go in places where there is no safety. At the same time, we have to do everything to help those who are in need. This is our mission. 

Our mission is not to pray in the church and practice the sacrament. No. We need to help our faithful, and not only our faithful. We need to help the human beings with all their needs, regardless of safety. If we end up killed it is not our decision. We have to continue to try.

What can we do to help?
We don’t need, all the time, money. We tell everybody here in America that we need your voice. We heard about the U.S. government arming the rebels or the opposition. I don’t think we can resolve one problem with having another problem. Already we have a problem of having a lot of arms in Syria. We’ll have a lot of destruction. Already we have it, but we’ll have more than that.

MCC and … churches in America are trying to send letters to the U.S. government and the U.S. president and asking him to not arm. We have to keep trying. We don’t need only your money, we need your prayers, and we need you to raise your voice, asking your government and the international community to put pressure on all parts to sit down and start talking. Without dialogue we cannot resolve the problem. I heard once the sentence -- providing arms will help us reach the peace. I don’t know how. We need to stop sending arms to anyone in Syria. The most important thing is to stop the killing.

How is MCC's financial support helpful?
MCC  helps a lot, not only with money, but you are helping us also with your prayers, your thoughts and your care of us. The money you are giving to us in Syria or outside Syria, it is not a small amount. If we go to the gospel, we know that the two pennies of the widow they were a lot, because when you give from your heart it means a lot for those you are helping. And you are giving more than two pennies