Why sanction the First Lady of Syria?

my daughter, Imogen, hanging with the kids in the streets of Damascus

Phil Giraldi is spot on. It makes no sense to sanction Asma al-Assad. In truth though, none of the sanctions against Syria are justifiable. I remember when I was there last year, talking to a woman who worked with kids with cancer.  She said that most of her work involved just sitting with the children as the cancer slowly killed them. The only medications they could get were expired serums from third-world countries. Why? The sanctions.

Sanctions destroy lives. They stop people rebuilding their homes. They mean you can’t get fuel for your car and so can’t go to work. They kill children. The so-called ‘Caesar Sanctions’ were the latest in a long list, cynically referred to as a ‘Civilian Protection Act’. In truth, they are just another form of war fare against the civilian population of Syria. God, have mercy!

Father Dave

More War by Other Means: Sanctioning the Wife of Syria’s President Makes No Sense to Anyone

by Philip Giraldi

More sanctions, by all means. More grief and suffering and more people around the world wondering what exactly the United States is doing.

I am a recipient of regular, usual weekly, emails from the Department of the Treasury providing an “Update to OFAC’s list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) and Blocked Persons.” OFAC is the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is tasked with both identifying and managing the financial punishments meted out to those individuals and groups that have been sanctioned by the United States government. A recent update, on November 10th, included “Non-Proliferation Designations; Iran-related Designations.” There were ten items on the list, names of Chinese and Iranian individuals and companies. Those who are “Specially Designated” on the list are subject to having their assets blocked if located in the United States and are also not allowed to engage in any financial transactions that go through U.S. banking channels. As many international banks respect U.S. Treasury “designations” lest they themselves be subjected to secondary sanctions that often means in effect that the individual or group cannot move money in a large part of the global financial marketplace.

The complete SDN list is hundreds of pages long. The Treasury Department defines and justifies OFAC’s mission “As part of its enforcement efforts, OFAC publishes a list of individuals and companies owned or controlled by, or acting for or on behalf of, targeted countries. It also lists individuals, groups, and entities, such as terrorists and narcotics traffickers designated under programs that are not country-specific. Collectively, such individuals and companies are called ‘Specially Designated Nationals’ or ‘SDNs.’ Their assets are blocked and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from dealing with them.”

In reality, of course, OFAC’s sanctions are highly political. They are clearly a form of economic warfare, particularly when entire sectors of a nation’s economy are blocked or a part of a government itself is listed as has been the case with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Force. Wave after wave of “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran have made it difficult for the country to sell its only major marketable resource, oil, and it has been locked out of most normal financial networks, making it difficult or even impossible to buy food and medicines.

read the full article on the Strategic Culture Foundation website

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Boxers for Peace Syria 2019 video archive

One way we remember events that are important to us is through video. Below is an archive of a dozen videos from our June/July trip to Syria.

I have ordered the videos chronologically:

June 26, 2019 – an interview with Tom Duggan in Damascus
June 26, 2019 – training with the Syrian Olympic boxing team
June 27, 2019 – boxing with Dr Lou Lewis
June 28, 2019 – boxing Tom Duggan at the Syrian Sports Centre
June 28, 2019 – the post-fight debrief – Father Dave and Tom
June 29, 2019 – Boxers for Peace visit the village of Jodidi
June 30, 2019 – the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic
June 30, 2019 – catching up with Father Toufic in Maaloua
July 1, 2019 – a word from Dr Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria
July 1, 2019 – an interview with Vanessa Beeley
July 3, 2019 – with Father Alexi and Sarah of Gopa Derd
July 3, 2019 – with Sally and Hanny Al Assaly of Atta
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The end of the War on Syria!

Credit where it is due – Donald Trump has done the right thing. He’s withdrawing US troops from Syria, which effectively ends the war! Today I notice that the UAE is re-opening its Syrian embassy – a sign that things will now slowly return to normal.

Mind you, the response in the US has been howls of protest from both sides of government! Apparently, there’s no need for Congressional approval to start a war but it’s much harder to end one. Even so, Trump has been immovable. The question is ‘Why?’

Has Mr Trump suddenly developed a conscience? Has he suddenly become genuinely concerned for the welfare of the Syria people? Our friend, Chandra Muzaffar offers a far more plausible explanation. It has to do with power and money.

Father Dave

Father Dave and his son, Soren, at the home of Ananias – Straight Street, Damascus in 2017

TRUMP PULLING OUT by Dr Chandra Muzaffar

It is significant that US President Donald Trump has decided to withdraw his troops from Syria. The 14th December decision was followed immediately by another announcement by the President to pull out a sizeable number of soldiers from Afghanistan where the US has been involved in a war for the last 17 years — the longest war in its history.

Both the decisions, especially the one on Syria, have been condemned by a lot of US Senators and Members of the House of Representatives. They feel that the decisions undermine the US’s role as a global power. US allies such as Britain and France have also criticised the pull-outs. By getting out of Syria in particular, the US has made it easier for certain powers from within and without the region to exert even more influence over the politics of that country and that of its neighbours to the detriment of the West. Most of the international media argue that US success in fighting the terrorists in Syria which Trump cited as the reason for the withdrawal will be rendered meaningless in no time since terrorist cells are still alive and capable of striking at civilians. In the case of Afghanistan, the US cut-back, the media contends, will expedite the Taliban’s goal of gaining total control over the country.

Conventional wisdom suggests that whether or not the US is around the Taliban will emerge victorious sooner than later. If anything, the US military presence — a foreign power on Afghan soil — has enhanced the Taliban’s reputation as a resistance force among the ordinary people. The eventual total withdrawal of the 16,000 US soldiers will allow the Afghan people themselves to determine their future which will be influenced to some extent at least by Afghanistan’s important neighbours, Pakistan, Iran, China, India and Russia.

If we now turn to the situation in Syria, we would realise that the US role in combating terrorism was limited. The Syrian Army, with the backing of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iranian militias and the Russian military were primarily responsible for the defeat of the multitude of terrorist outfits in the country between 2012 and 2017. Indeed, there is more than enough evidence to show that some of the more prominent terrorist outfits were in different times and in different circumstances aided and abetted by institutions and organisations associated with the US, Britain and France and countries in the region such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. They provided financial assistance, military training and critical intelligence, apart from establishing regional and global networks to buttress the activities of the terrorists.

Viewed against this backdrop, the end of the US military operation in Syria may well accelerate efforts within the country to bring about much needed constitutional and political reforms which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had tried to initiate in 2001. In formulating these reforms, he will have to work closely with his allies, Iran and Russia. But at the end of the day it is the Syrian people themselves who will determine the destiny of their historically and culturally rich nation.

Suppressing the independence and sovereignty of the Syrian nation — and not combatting terrorism – was the real reason behind the active intervention and involvement of numerous actors from within and without the region in the 7 year Syrian conflict. Simply put, the aim was to oust Bashar, the protector of Syrian sovereignty, to achieve regime change in pursuit of the US-Israeli agenda of perpetuating their hegemony. Trump realised even before he became President that he would not be able to achieve this. Hence, his troop withdrawal.

This should not give us the impression that Trump is in any way opposed to US-Israeli hegemony. His staunchly pro-Israel policy; his intimate relationship with the Saudi elite; his military support for the Saudi-led war on the people of Yemen; his aggressive stance against Venezuela and his lukewarm attitude towards Cuba; his perpetuation of sanctions against Russia stemming from US policy on Crimea and the Ukraine; and his trade war against China aimed at curbing its economic dynamism all seem to indicate that he believes in flexing US power on the global stage. Besides, under Trump US military expenditure has remained high at 610 billion dollars in 2017.

What are the real reasons then that persuaded Trump to act the way he did on Syria and Afghanistan? In both countries the prospect of imminent defeat was a factor that influenced Trump’s decision. More than that was the financial cost of war in the two countries. It is estimated that the Syrian war would cost the US 15.3 billion dollars in 2019. The figures are even more staggering for Afghanistan. With 16,000 troops in the country, the war costs the US taxpayer 45 billion dollars a year. Between 2010 and 2012 when the US had 100,000 troops on the ground, the Afghan war cost a 100 billion a year.

Will some future analyst conclude that in withdrawing US troops from Syria and Afghanistan, Donald Trump acted on his well-honed business instincts?

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is the President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).

Malaysia, 24 December 2018.

Father Dave & Dr Chandra Muzaffar
Posted in Article, syria now | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gassing Game in Syria: Regime Change and Beyond

This excellent analysis of the latest crisis in Syria is penned by my friend, Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, President of the International Movement for a Just World. Father Dave

The Gassing Game in Syria


By Chandra Muzaffar

The use of chemical weapons in Sheikhun, in the Idlib province of Syria on 4th April 2017 was a heinous act. The world has rightly condemned it.

Because it was so cruel and callous, it is vital that the truth about the attack is established as soon as possible. The United States of America and a number of its allies are certain that the attack was planned and executed by the Syrian government. 86 people, including 27 children, were killed in the carnage. The US Ambassador to the UN has shown some heart-rending images of some of the children who died from the chemical gas attack.

The Syrian authorities have denied categorically that they were responsible for the tragedy. They claim that a warehouse containing toxic materials may have been hit in the course of the Syrian army’s operations in the area thus releasing lethal gas and causing so many deaths.

Given these conflicting accounts, an independent international inquiry should be conducted to determine what really happened on the 4th of April. The members of the panel should comprise credible experts who are not citizens of any of the five permanent member states of the UN Security Council. The UN Secretary-General should appoint the panel.

It is only after the panel’s findings are made public that action should be taken under the provisions of the UN Charter. By firing a barrage of cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase on the 7th of April, the US has not only violated international law but has also committed aggression against a sovereign state. The US’s unilateral action has worsened the conflict in Syria.

Establishing the truth about the chemical gas episode is far more important than flexing one’s military muscle. To start with, how could the Syrian army have deployed chemical weapons when a UN affiliated body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed in June 2014 that Syria had complied with a Security Council resolution to destroy its entire stockpile of chemical weapons ?

Besides, it defies logic that the Syrian government that has regained control over almost all the major cities in the country and is clearly winning the war against the militants who are being backed by regional and Western actors should deliberately choose to gas innocent children — an action which it knows would provoke the wrath of the whole world.

A brief survey of gas attacks in Syria in the last five years would convince us that it just does not make sense for the government to consciously plan the 4th April episode. Take the infamous Ghouta sarin gas attack of August 2013. The centres of power in the West and in WANA opposed to Bashar al-Assad through their media channels immediately labelled the Syrian authorities as the culprit and crucified them. But the highly respected American investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, through meticulous analysis revealed that the attack was actually the work of a militant group carried out with the connivance of elements in the Turkish power structure.

The Houla massacre of 25 May 2012 was another example of a gas attack that finger-pointed the Bashar government. A picture of a large number of dead children “ wrapped in white shrouds with a child jumping over one of them “ was offered as proof of Bashar’s brutality. The picture was actually from the war in Iraq in 2003. The photographer himself, Marco Di Lauro, came out in the open to expose the fabrication. In fact according to the German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the massacre was “committed by anti-Assad Sunni militants, and the bulk of the victims were members of the Alawi and Shia minorities, which have been largely supportive of Assad.” There was also the case of militants gathering Christian and Alawi hostages in a building in the Khalidya neighbourhood in Homs, blowing it up with dynamite and then putting the blame upon the Syrian army. Numerous other instances of militants committing terrible atrocities but giving the impression that the Syrian army or its allies — Iran
ian revolutionary guards or Hezbollah fighters or Russian soldiers — were responsible have been documented by journalists and commentators.

Of all the lies and deceptions of this sort in recent memory the most outrageous would the Anglo-American allegation about Saddam Hussein’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction” which was the fig-leaf used to camouflage their invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. The Bolivian Ambassador to the UN, Sacha Llorenti, reminded the Security Council of this monstrous lie at its meeting on the 7th of April and warned the world that “After this (Iraqi) invasion there were 1 million deaths and it launched a series of atrocities in that region. Could we talk about ISIS if that invasion had not taken place? Could we be talking about the series of horrendous attacks in various parts of the world had that invasion, this illegal invasion not taken place?”

Lies, manipulation of facts and false-flag operations all serve an overriding goal which is to protect and perpetuate US hegemonic power and the interests of its allies. In Iraq and Syria it is only too obvious that the aim is to secure hegemony through regime-change. Indeed, the US elite, at the behest of Israel, have been seeking to oust Bashar al-Assad for the good part of the last 15 years. For different reasons, the rulers of London and Paris, and those at the helm in Riyadh, Doha and Ankara also want to get rid of Bashar. A convergence of motives explains why these elites have been funding, training, arming and channelling intelligence to militants in Syria from various parts of the world who have sometimes resorted to the most barbaric methods in pursuit of their zealous drive to seize power.

There is perhaps yet another reason — apart from regime change — why some vested interests in Washington have decided to exploit the 4th April gas attack. These interests in the military, the intelligence community, the media, think-tanks, within lobbies and among legislators, are opposed to any rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Perpetuating an adversarial relationship between the two is integral to their agenda of ensuring that the US remains the world’s sole dominant power. They sense that the new US President, Donald Trump, may try to build a bridge to Russia’a Vladimir Putin which is why they are manipulating the issue of the latter’s alleged attempt to influence the recent US Presidential Election. The suspicion and distrust engendered by this issue has now been aggravated by the US missile attack

US-Russia ties are not the only issue adversely impacted by the US’s 7th April bombardment. If the US escalates its military involvement, it will have far-reaching consequences for the on-going conflict in Syria, politics in WANA and global peace in general.

Father Dave with Dr Chandra Muzaffar in Kuala Lumper, 2013

Posted in syria news, syrian rebels | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

the Syriac Orthodox Church – a light shining in the darkness!

The Australian Anglican Syria delegation with Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch

The Australian Anglican Syria delegation with Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch

January, 2017 – our Australian delegation had a wonderful time visiting the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus.

While there, I had the privilege of interviewing his grace, Ignatius Aphrem II – the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. Three minutes into the interview all the lights went out and we sat in complete darkness. The Patriarch continued with his dialogue uninterrupted. These people are so used to power outages that they don’t allow them to interfere with their routine.

The other highlight for me was meeting Father Jack, who was so concise and articulate in his wisdom that I had to ask him to say a few words to the camera.

Posted in Article, syria news | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Regime changers declare war on Congresswoman

Peace … kids whose families escaped terror in eastern Aleppo (Pic courtesy Abraham Williams)

RISING US political star Tulsi Gabbard has been linked to Nazis and labelled a “dictator’s stooge” after daring to promote a peace agenda for war-ravaged Syria.

The Hawaiian Congresswoman set off a firestorm when she advocated a break with the regime change doctrine at the heart of modern US foreign policy, after an eight-day trip to Lebanon and Syria.

US media, mainstream and new, liberal and conservative, joined forces to heap vitriol on Gabbard and question her motives.

The positions advocated by the first Samoan-born member of Congress should have come as little surprise.

Gabbard, a Democrat and an Iraq veteran with two tours of duty under her belt, the second as a platoon commander, is a long-time critic of regime change – in Syria and elsewhere.

As far back as 2012, Gabbard said she had opposed the war in Iraq – “we should never have gone there in the first place” – and urged President Obama to get US troops out of Afghanistan “as quickly and safely as possible”.

She opposed the bill that gave Obama the green light to pour  $1.15b worth of arms into Saudi Arabia and publicly accused the US ally of bank-rolling Islamic terror around the world.

In 2013, she was one of only three members of Congress to vote against a bill that sought to condemn the Syrian Government for crimes against humanity. The veteran lashed the proposed legislation as a “War Bill – a thinly-veiled attempt to use humanitarianism as a justification for overthrowing the Syrian Government”.

Last year, in turning her back on a senior role in the Democratic Party national organisation to endorse Bernie Sanders’ bid for the White House, Gabbard cited the Vermont Senator’s “more prudent approach to military involvement abroad”.

And, in December, Gabbard introduced her own Stop Arming Terrorists Act to, “prohibit US Government funds from being used to directly or indirectly support terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS or those working with them”.

However, it was Gabbard’s decision to walk the anti-war walk during eight days in Syria where she met a range of locals, from President Bashar al-Assad to refugees and protest leaders, that tipped US media over the edge.

The Daily Beast set the tone with a frenzied 2000 word attack under the headline Tulsi Gabbard’s fascist escort to Syria.

Alex Rowell, Tim Mak and Michael Weiss started off gently enough, introducing Gabbard as a “self-styled progressive” but, by the end of a rambling opening paragraph she was undertaking “a disgraceful reputation-laundering tour of a bloody dictatorship”.

By the third paragraph, in the absence of any hard evidence, they had her consorting with Nazis, anti-Semites and terrorists.

To be fair, that story was basically a beat-up of the Washington Post original that set the Gabbard witch hunt alight.

Without resorting to Nazi colour, columnist Josh Rogin had a crack at the Congresswoman and her integrity under the banner How Tulsi Gabbard became Assad’s mouthpiece in Washington.

He lashed her trip as a “propaganda tour” and, basically, argued that, knowingly or otherwise, she had become a dupe for a murderer’s propaganda campaign.

“The actual source of the funding for the trip is murky, too,” he wrote. “But there’s no doubt the Assad regime facilitated it.”

The whole thing sat on his contention that, on the kindest interpretation, Gabbard had misled about who paid for the delegation she had travelled with.

Rogin made this clear in a Twitter link he posted to his story on January 29 – Exclusive: The Group Rep Tulsi Gabbard Said Paid For Her Syria Trip Hasn’t Existed in Years

Trouble was the columnist had made a massive cock-up. Instead of checking on the bona fides of AACCESS, the Arab American group behind the visit, he had beavered through the paperwork of ACCESS.

Nearly a week after the storm broke, the Washington Post published a correction conceding it had “misspelled” the name of the group “and incorrectly stated that the organisation no longer exists”.

By then, a version of the story written, it seemed, more in sorrow than anger had appeared in the Hawaiian Maui Times under the comparatively restrained headline What was Rep. Tulsi Gabbard thinking when she went to Syria?

News Ltd’s Weekly Standard didn’t hold back in its assessment of her character, while a headline in the allegedly left-leaning, Daily Kos announced Rep Tulsi Gabbard has turned into a stooge for Syria’s dictator. The website then urged Democrats to challenge her nomination.

Noah Rothman, writing for Comment magazine, decided to go right off the deep end. He kicked off  Tulsi Gabbard’s Disaster in Damascus with a salute to the methods of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

“The simplest way to identify Russian sympathisers is to probe them on the matter of military interventionism,” he wrote. “They may appear principled in their suspicion toward American force projection but are nowhere near as apprehensive about Russian muscle-flexing – even in the same theatre of operations. That describes the foreign policy views of Hawaii Congresswoman and favourite of the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, Tulsi Gabbard.”

Obviously, Noah doesn’t do nuance or objectivity, but still … her ‘feting of the land-hungry Russian autocrat’ … ‘useful idiocy’, and, ‘craven prostration before Russia’s vassals’ probably had some readers wondering what this woman had really been up to or, for that matter, whether, maybe, she had got off at the wrong airport.

It was almost a relief when Rothman had her back in Damascus for “a propagandistic sojourn to the lair of a genocidal dictator” even if was just over-wrought repitition of his earlier claim about her “ill-conceived visit to the Syrian capital to meet with the blood-soaked dictator Bashar al-Assad.”

Gabbard did meet Bashar al-Assad in Syria. She also met figures from the original protest movement, displaced families, religious leaders, a 14-year-old girl who had been beaten and raped and a boy who had been tortured by “rebels” .

But none of that mattered to her media foes. What did, it seems, is that she came away adamant that America was on the wrong track, that there are, in fact, no differences between “moderate rebels”, al Qaeda and ISIS – they are all the same.

More first hand information on the Congresswoman’s trip is available here

Posted in Article, Media coverage, syria news, syrian rebels, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tulsi goes to Damascus … and the world waits

Anti-war veteran … Tulsi Gabbard (Pic – WikiCommons)

RISING Democratic Party star Tulsi Gabbard has lobbed a pigeon among the cats of the US foreign policy establishment with a secret “fact-finding” trip to Syria.

The claws came out after the Hawaiian Congresswoman’s office conceded she had met  several Syrian Government officials before flying out of Damascus on January 18.

Independently, news agency AFP reported the delegation she was on had also visited parts of Aleppo held captive by Islamic extremists until late last month.

The Atlantic magazine immediately branded her “the GOP’s favourite Democrat” and suggested the visit might have breached the Logan Act, which, apparently, makes it unlawful for “unauthorised” Americans to visit countries in dispute with the US.

Gabbard’s office cited security concerns for refusing to comment on whether or not she had met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during her visit, according to the  US magazine Foreign Policy which broke the story.

“She felt it was important to meet with a number of individuals and groups, including religious leaders, humanitarian workers, refugees, government and community leaders,” Foreign Policy quoted a Gabbard spokesperson as saying.

The ‘neither confirm nor deny’ stance is being widely interpreted as confirmation the Congresswoman did, in fact, take the opportunity to meet with the Syrian leader.

This could be a significant development as Gabbard was one of the first politicians Donald Trump sounded out, from either party, after winning the US presidential college vote, sparking suggestions she could be in line for a senior cabinet post.

There is now speculation that her “private” Syrian visit might have been made, formally or informally, on behalf of the new administration

Gabbard’s November meeting with Trump followed years of campaigning against US involvement in what she calls “interventionist, regime change warfare”.

Gabbard has also been a consistent and outspoken critic of Salafist Islam.

American commentators suggest those positions were strongly influenced by her experiences on two tours of duty in Iraq with US armed forces.

“I don’t think Assad should be removed,” Gabbard tells CNN in this November, 2015, interview

“If Assad is removed and overthrown, ISIS, al Qaeda, al Nusra – these Islamic extremist groups will go straight in and take over all of Syria.”

In December, she introduced the Stop Arming Terrorist Act into Congress, which would make it unlawful for the US to continue arming and funding Sunni terrorist groups trying to overthrow the government in Damascus.

Gabbard’s uncompromising positions on Syria and the Middle East have attracted harsh criticism from supporters of the traditional Republican-Democratic order. Middle East expert and professional think tanker, Charles Lister, has dismissed her an “Assad apologist”.

But the surfing congresswoman has spent the past 12 months making political waves.

Her tete a tete with Trump was not the only spanner she  biffed into the works of the Democratic Party establishment, last year. In February, she sensationally quit her role as deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee so she could champion Bernie Sanders’ tilt at the presidency.

She was one of three people who formally nominated Sanders as her party’s candidate at it’s national convention in July.

Who the heck is Tulsi?

Tulsi Gabbard might be an American career politician but she is not your standard model – oh no. Here are 10 things that make her stand out from that crowd.

She is, amongst other things …

—     a 35-year-old female
—     a vegetarian
—     a surfer
    the first Samoan-born member of the US Congress
    the first Hindu elected to the US Congress
—     a veteran of two tours of duty to Iraq with the US military and a serving Major in the
Hawaiian National Guard

Pic credit – The Veteran

     a former opponent of same sex marriage who became a co-sponsor of the US
Respect for Marriage Act
    an environmentalist whose congressional campaign was endorsed by the
Sierra Club
—     a leading campaigner against the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which, she said,                would have boosted Wall St at the expense of workers and the environment

Sources for this article included Reuters, AFP, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Vogue and, of course, Wikipedia

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beyond tolerance – Syria as a model for religious integration and harmony

Father Dave and the team with the Grand Mufti of Syria – January 2017

Father Dave has just returned from a moving visit to war-ravaged Syria. One of the hard lessons he learned is that, in the face of aggressive, ‘takfiri’ Islam, Australians might need to rethink their attitudes to religious tolerance.

DIVINE Service in a Greek Orthodox church is always a special experience, but this year’s New Year’s Day service in the Mariamite cathedral in Damascus was unlike anything I had experienced.

It wasn’t the singing, the liturgy and the colour that was so unique. It was the appearance of the Grand Mufti of Syria, who joined the celebration about half way through the service!

There are no parallels to this in the ecclesiastical universe in which I live. It’s not that we don’t, from time to time, have guests from other religious traditions attending our worship services, though this is rare enough. It was the way the Mufti entered the church unannounced, half way through the service, and made himself at home!

He didn’t partake of the Eucharist, of course, but in every other way the Mufti just blended into the congregation. He seemed very much at home in the church, and the congregation seemed to be very comfortable with him and his entourage of Sheikhs (distinctive in their flowing gowns and turbans).

The Mufti and the Archbishop took turns addressing the congregation at the end of the service. Both spoke of the importance of their religious communities working together in the rebuilding of Syria, and of our common belief in a God of love. At the end of their speeches, the two embraced warmly, and then got on with their days!

As I say, the Syrian model of religious cooperation is without parallel in the Australian context. Meetings between different faith groups, in my experience, are generally nervous affairs. Participants do their best to conceal their suspicions of the ‘other’, with Christians regularly over-compensating by pretending that we have favourite verses in the Qur’an that we then try to recite and invariably get wrong!

Christians and Muslims in Syria have had thousands of years to get used to one another, and it shows! In the old city of Damascus, you regularly find ancient mosques and churches that were built side by side, and in some cases, such as with the grand Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, you find a mosque that used to be a church, still enshrining specifically Christian relics within its walls, where Christians are welcome to come and pray.

None of this is to suggest that Christianity and Islam have been blended together in Syria, as if the two religions had lost their distinctive identities and dogmas. Far from it! This was something that the clerics I spoke to (both Christian and Muslim) were very insistent on.

“In my country, we normally try to foster religious harmony by downplaying our differences”, I said. “No, No!”, said Father Toufic of Maaloula. “This is not the way!”

“Love is the only way”, he said. “Where there is no love, we fear difference. When we have love, I can love you despite the fact that you are different, and I can help you to love me, despite the fact that I am different!”

Toufic‘s words were simple and yet profound, and particularly so given the painful history his parish had experienced.

In September 2013, Jabhat Al Nusra had overrun the little Christian village of Maaloula. They had murdered the three men at the entrance gate who had refused to convert to Islam. They shot and killed and kidnapped, and committed all kinds of atrocities against the people of Maaloula until the town was eventually retaken by the Syrian Arab Army some months later.

Of course, the people of Maaloula did not blame Islam as such for their misery. They knew that the Islam of Jabhat Al-Nusra was in no way representative of the broader religion of the country. The problem in Maaloula’s case though was that it had been one of the handful of Muslim families in the village that had betrayed them and helped Jabhat Al-Nusra launch their initial attack!

It was with this in mind that I had asked Father Toufic how his parish had managed to go on living in harmony alongside these Muslim families, despite their history. Toufic answered, as I’ve outlined above, in terms of love, but he went further.

“We must live with them and, more than this, we must live for them! This is our mission as the church! If we cannot do this, then who are we? We are not the church!”

What I saw in Father Toufic and in his beautiful community was something of an archetype for the rest of the globe. Here was a community that had experienced the most terrible kinds of inter-religious violence and yet they were moving forward together in harmony, not by overlooking differences or by denying the past but by holding fast to their fundamental religious values!

Maaloula is, of course, about as extreme an example of a relationship breakdown between religious communities as you can get. Most Syrians have never experienced these sorts of difficulties (despite all media narratives to the contrary). There are some very visible Islamic militants, of course, but these ‘takfiri’ (as they are popularly termed there) are very much on the periphery of Syrian society. They are not considered to be real Muslims at all by most Syrian members of the mosque community, and the government is very clear in its denunciation of all forms of militant Islam.

This again is where Syria stands in sharp contrast to Australia and to all Western/European countries. Syria has an official ‘Ministry of Religious Affairs’ that encourages the development of various religious groups within the country. However, the Ministry has very clearly defined boundaries as to what is an acceptable form of religion and what is not, and the Islam of the takfiri (associated normally with the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia) is completely and explicitly excluded.

I spent some time in dialogue with the head of the Ministry of Religious Affairs – himself a Sheikh with a doctorate in theology behind him. I said to him “our government generally tries to minimise the influence of religious groups in Australian society, but where religion is given a voice, we try to give every group an equal say.”

“This is a big mistake”, the Minister said. “We have been dealing with religious extremism for a lot longer than you and we have learnt that freedom of religion can only be exercised within clearly defined boundaries”. He then added rather ominously, “your time is yet to come”.

I came away from that meeting with a series of official publications produced by the Ministry, including a weighty hardback book, written by the Minister himself, entitled “The Intellectual and Ideological Basics of Combating the Extremism and Takfiri Terrorism of so-called Political Islam”  The other thing I took away from that meeting was a realisation that we in Australia need to learn from the Syrian experience if we are going to weather the storm ahead!

The only politically enshrined religious ideal we have in our country is ‘tolerance’, which plays out as a sort of insipid recognition of the validity of all religious traditions. This seems to have worked for us thus far, when the worst religious violence we’ve experienced was a long-distance battle between Catholics and Protestants over the occupation of Ireland. With the birth of Islamic State and other takfiri groups though, the stakes have been raised significantly higher. It’s time we rethought our approach.

The Syrian model offers us a different way forward altogether – one of encouraging religion and religious diversity, but within clearly defined boundaries, and those boundaries exclude all forms of Wahhabi Islam.

For the reality is that Wahhabism has never been more popular in Australia than it is right now! Money has been pouring in from Saudi Arabia for some years now and the effects are starting to take hold. My fear is that the premonition of the Syrian Minister of Religious Affairs – that ‘our time is yet to come’ is entirely correct, and that we will be in no way prepared to meet the challenge when our time comes.

I long for the day when the Grand Mufti of Australia will walk comfortably into one of our Cathedrals on New Years’ Day and embrace the Bishop, and I do believe that this could one day happen. Even so, I expect that a lot of hard thinking and hard work on the part of our political and religious leaders will need to take place first.

Posted in Article, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New year blighted by old problems

New Year … worship and fellowship with sisters and brothers from the Orthodox Church in Damascus

As the latest ceasefire settled across Syria’s killing fields, Father Dave and several other Australians of goodwill, were in the air. He put these thoughts together as a new Damascus year struggled to kick clear of the shadows of dark years past.

AT FIRST glance, Damascus doesn’t appear all that different from any other major city. The girls are as pretty as ever and the streets are full of cars, noise and teeming life. Kids are everywhere.

The guy I share the elevator with smiles and greets me. We could be anywhere, though the semi-automatic weapon across his shoulder is a clue that all is not well in this part of our world.

In truth, the Syrian people continue to push forward with life, but six years of bloody violence has taken a toll. It has wearied the body and soul of the nation. Jobs are scarce and wages are ridiculously low, and now this damned water shortage is making people ill as well as frustrated.

From what I’ve heard, it was the US-supported ‘moderate’ rebels who poisoned Damascus’ water supply – mixing diesel in with the drinking water.

‘Don’t buy food from the street stalls, my friend warns me. He is recovering from what he says is the worst case of food poisoning he has ever experienced. Without clean water, food is no longer being prepared hygienically.

Of course, I’m privileged. I have choice of being able to eat at nice restaurants and there are some very nice restaurants still doing business in this city. And, I can restrict my drinking to bottled water.

The only inconvenience I experience is drinking my coffee from disposable cups because there is no longer enough clean water to wash the crockery.

Most people in my own country wouldn’t know these problems existed. Understandably, we have been conditioned to only think of the tragedy of this war in terms of battlefield casualties.

A war like this, however, a war that continues to get dragged out as the US and its allies maintain a flow of weapons to an ever-shrinking group of ‘rebels’ – well, a war like this damages everybody, eventually.

“We just want the fighting to stop and for life to return to normal,” that’s what I hear Syrian people saying, over and over again.

In fact, that’s all I’ve heard from the Syrians I know for the last five years. It seems it is only us foreigners who want to keep the fire burning because, apparently, we haven’t achieved our goals in Syria yet.

Perhaps it’s time that we put our goals to one side and gave the Syrian people a break!


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Fathers – don’t let your daughters grow up to be women

Subtle as a sledge hammer … you could be reading Britain’s Sun or an ABC news digest but this is Middle East Monitor‘s breaking news for December 19, 2016. And, to be fair, there are subtle cultural variations

FATHERS in Eastern Aleppo are asking religious scholars if it is cool to kill their daughters before they are “captured and raped by Assad, Hezbollah, and Iranian militias”, Middle East Monitors reports.

The publication, sometimes accused of links with the Muslim Brotherhood, selects and republishes material from across the region. The tasty titbit above came from publications in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

It is crude war propaganda that appeals to the cultural and religious views, some would say prejudices, of its readers.

It is different from the war propaganda being hammered out by mainstream western news sources but only very superficially.

This story was repackaged for western audiences where, generally speaking, most readers no longer agree that religious scholars should have the right to decide whether women live or die.

It ran, just like the Middle East Monitor version, as an “our enemy is a beast story”, devoid of facts or any obvious checking. And, as a general editorial rule, the more heinous or extreme the accusation, the more rigorous fact-checking should be.

“Scores of Aleppo women commit suicide to avoid being brutally raped by Assad’s troops,” the headline in Britain’s always dubious Express newspaper announced.

The Mirror and News Corp publications, including the notorious Sun, followed suit. Even Marie Claire gave it a run though not quite as breathlessly.

American newspapers and websites absolutely loved it. The New York Times, Vice, Daily Beast and something called the Christian Post were all over it like a rash.

Note the subtle cultural differences, though. In the enlightened west, brave independent women were given agency over their own deaths. Empowering stuff, no doubt.

But it was essentially the same story, published on the same day with the same lack of ethical standards for the same obvious reasons.

The other big difference between Islamist-oriented publications and their western allies, other than not much, is the international tastes they satisfy.

In the west, courtesy of 99 years of cold war demagoguery, it is Russia and Vladimir Putin, who are the undisputed targets of most associated vitriol.

In the Arabian Gulf, however, Vlad barely gets a mention. Instead, it is region’s non-Arab power, Iran, and its leadership who cop endless sprays of venom.

On December 17, 2016, Middle East Monitors top five news stories, in order, were these…

—  Daughters ask fathers to kill them before being raped by Assad forces

—  Iran threatens Bahrain, Yemen with ‘Islamic conquest’

—  Britain’s largest student union endorses BDS

—  Last messages from Aleppo as Syria regime massacres women and children

—  Tell the truth about Iran’s bloodletting in Syria

Amongst a herd of similar beasts roaming Middle East Monitor’s well stocked opinion pages, lurked some close relations … Time to make Syria ungovernable for the terrorist AssadAs death rains down on Aleppo, why are western countries so reluctant to act?The ‘let them bleed’ doctrine in Syria … Iran’s attempted genocide of the Sunni Arabs … Violence is everywhere and Iran must take the blame


On the same day, the sometimes liberal, British Independent newspaper was quoting former Foreign Secretary and Labour Party luminary, David Miliband as announcing, from a comfortable spot in the UK no doubt, “house-to-house murder” was being carried out in Aleppo.

Miliband was speaking on behalf of a US “aid agency” that has added him to the payroll.

It is no wonder that two of the Independent’s best journalists, and most respected foreign correspondents, Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, were moved to again warn colleagues about their coverage of Syria.

Irish-born Cockburn was the Financial Times’ Middle East and Moscow correspondent before joining the Independent in 1990. He specialises in Iraqi and Syrian issues and was one of the first westerners to forecast the rise of DAESH.

For what it is worth, Beirut-based Arab speaker Fisk has been voted British International Journalist of the Year seven times and has been honoured by Amnesty International for his work. For half a century he has interviewed trouble makers and history makers across the Middle East, including Osama bin Laden and Hafez al-Assad.

Neither Fisk nor Cockburn can be described as even moderately pro-Bashar al-Assad, far from it. But they know the region and its history. More importantly, they know their trade and its ethics.

Both are worried by the endless stream of bullshit being flushed out of Syria.

Our political masters are in league with the Syrian rebels, and for the same reason as the rebels kidnap their victims – money, Fisk says

Cockburn goes further, arguing the media’s willingness to uncritically adopt partisan Syrian activists as preferred news sources is a grevious mistake. It will, he warns, lead to independent journalists being kidnapped and murdered more often.

That tactic, he argues, has turned out to be a smart moved for Syrian jihadis – it has enabled them “to establish substantial control of news reaching the outside world”

Posted in Article, syria news, syria now, syrian civil war | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment