The Edmond Sun

September 7, 2013

Leaders urge prayer, explain role of religion in Syria

Mark Schlachtenhaufen
The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — As talk continues about a potential U.S. strike in Syria, local leaders are urging the faithful to pray for peace and commenting on the role of religion in the region.

Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama is scheduled tell the nation why he believes military action is necessary in response to the Bashar al-Assad regime-launched chemical attack which, his administration says, killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children.

Polls show a majority of Americans, weary of war after campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, oppose unilateral action and their representatives in Congress appear to be listening as votes to authorize a military strike approach.

The question of what happens if Congress votes against action in Syria, if the president will act on his own authority, a subject of debate, remains unknown.

Locally, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley said he will heed Pope Francis’ call to pray and fast today in solidarity with the people of Syria, and he urged the 120,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and all men and women of good will in Oklahoma to do the same.

“The road to peace must be paved with prayer,” Coakley said.

Stephen Hamilton, pastor of Saint Monica’s parish in Edmond, asked his parishioners to treat today as they would Ash Wednesday.

“Violence and war should never be taken lightly and, though at times war can be morally justified, it is always a sad development whose human toll amasses more in the loss column than in the victory column,” Hamilton wrote in an email message to parishioners.

Catholics in the archdiocese are encouraged to consider the noon emergency siren test as a reminder to pray for peace.

Recently, anti-war protesters have attended rallies in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

If the U.S strikes, Israel faces promised retaliation from Iran and Syria. Israel is home to sites sacred to Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha’is.

In May, during a background briefing, an Obama administration official who was not named for security reasons, said Hezbollah (The Party of God) is committed to kill or die on behalf of the Bashar Assad regime.  

A large number of Hezbollah fighters were operating in Syria, and the group is working with Iran to provide a range of support to the Assad regime including fighters, weaponry and training a large pro-regime militia, the official said.

Furthermore, U.S. analysts believe Iran and Hezbollah have enlisted Alawite, Iraqi, Shia militant and terrorist groups to participate in counter-opposition operations in Syria, the official said.

All of this support is helping the regime brutally crack down on the opposition and kill civilians, and is contributing to regional instability, notably in Lebanon, the official said. Iran and Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria was deepening to ensure their ally’s survival, he said.

Mateen Elass, senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Edmond, the author of several books about Christianity and Islam, said understanding the complexity of the crisis in Syria begins and ends with religion. Elass lived in Saudi Arabia and his father lived in Syria where Elass has relatives living now.

Elass said the undercurrent in much of the deep and long-standing conflict in the Middle East and in Syria is due to the Sunni-Shiite divide.

Sunni Muslims believed the community should choose the rightful successors of Muhammad, according to Merriam-Webster. Shia Muslims believe that succession should have stayed within the prophet Muhammad’s family and favored Ali, who was married to Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah. Ali eventually became the fourth caliph, but not before the political dispute became violent. Shiites are Muslims of the Shia branch of Islam.

Syria is 74 percent Sunni and Iran 89 percent Shiite, according to the CIA World Factbook. Elass said Assad is a member of the Alawite religious sect that is more aligned with Shiites. There are many shrines sacred to Shiites located in Syria, an important client-state of Iran, which is also a Shiite nation. According to various sources, Iran has delivered supplies through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Elass said.

A sort of shadow war between Muslim groups is being waged in Syria, Elass said. Hezbollah has sent squads into Syria to execute non-Shiites; Syria’s ID card denotes if the holder is Shiite or Sunni, Elass said. Other influences in Syria include the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda-related groups.

“The big question regarding Iran is: Would Iran use an attack by the U.S. as a pretext to attack Israel?” he said.

Iran’s anti-Israel saber-rattling is fairly typical, Elass said. If Iran or Syria were to attack Israel, the Israelis are more than capable of responding militarily, he said.

Analysts have wondered how American inaction would be read by Iran regarding its nuclear ambitions, which the U.S. and Israel are tracking, and how it would be read by countries possessing chemical weapons. To this point, Russia has been standing behind Syria and arguing against military strikes that are not U.N. Security Council sanctioned. | 341-2121, ext. 108