HARRISONBURG, Va. — Four days after traveling from war-torn Syria to peaceful Harrisonburg, a Summer Peacebuilding Institute student had to return to his gutted church.
Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh, a prominent Syriac Orthodox (Catholic) archbishop, arrived at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute on May 2. He was one of 180 people, including six others from Syria, from 36 countries registered for courses. After his intensive English language class, he was scheduled to take a seven-day class on trauma healing. His stay, however, was cut short by his need to minister to the people in his church.
Midway through his first week at Eastern Mennonite University, Selwanos learned that his home city of Homs — which had been occupied by rebel forces and subjected to a starvation-level siege by government forces — was now fully in government hands.
For civilians, including Selwanos’ church members, this meant it might be safe to return to their homes in this ancient city, dig out from the rubble and begin to rebuild. It also meant, as Selwanos learned to his sorrow, that their historic Belt of St. Mary church would need to be rebuilt. It was burned as the last of the rebels departed in early May under a cease-fire agreement.
By May 11, the archbishop had joined with other church leaders to pray in front of the shell of his church, built a couple of centuries ago above an underground church dating back to 50 A.D. The church housed a venerated relic believed to be a section of the belt of Mary, mother of Jesus.
“In my 14 years here, the story of Archbishop Selwanos ranks as one of the most memorable,” said SPI director William Goldberg. “When he was asked which side he was on, he repeatedly said that he was on the side of peace for all the people of Syria.”
Selwanos’ home city had been one of the first to protest the authoritarian rule of President Bashar al-Assad, with demonstrations beginning in 2011. The city became a battleground. Government forces cracked down, and opponents took up arms.
Selwanos said more than 1,000 Christians died as a result of the conflict in Homs. He led 150,000 to 200,000 people out of the besieged city in January 2012 after conditions grew desperate in its Old City. Water and electricity were cut off. The handful of people remaining in their homes — usually in an attempt to protect them — were reduced to scavenging for anything that might be edible.
Archbishop speaks up
Selwanos did not stay quiet, though speaking out put him in greater danger. When two priests and two bishops were kidnapped and three priests were killed in April 2013, he appealed for an end to the targeting of nonviolent church leaders. He did the same when 13 Greek Orthodox nuns were kidnapped in November and held for three months.
“If we sit with others and have dialogues, we can find some solutions to [arrive at] peace,” Selwanos said at EMU. “If we want to develop and live with freedom and democracy, there are other [nonviolent] ways of reaching this. Nowadays, all the people of Syria are losing due to the war. Violence does not bring peace.”
Selwanos believes in interfaith cooperation, as demonstrated by a photo on his Facebook page that showed a church ceremony in Homs attended by the Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Hassoun, who was credited for “working seriously for a correct interpretation to Islam.”