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Kathryn Jean Lopez / April 9, 2017

Let’s Not Look Away

Sometimes chemical weapons and missiles have an odd way of uniting people, however briefly.

Sometimes chemical weapons and missiles have an odd way of uniting people, however briefly.

When Syrian president Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his people this past week, and President Donald Trump announced a bombing of a Syrian military installation in the wake of the attack, you could see New York Times columnists, CNN commentators and a broad swath of people not accustomed to supporting Trump show signs of cautious support. There were even calls for prayer.

For one moment, everyone looked at the images of young children dead and felt the horror they represented. For a moment, we cared. But how long will our attention stay with the people of Syria this time?

It was about a year ago that Aleppo Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart came to the United States to try to get our attention. He pleaded, “Please pray for us. Speak about us. Put pressure on politicians.”

“I don’t think we realize the depth of the suffering of your people,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan told Archbishop Jeanbart while the two were discussing the situation a year ago on the cardinal’s radio show.

Despite that suffering, three thousand people filled the cathedral in Aleppo for Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday masses last year, even as war raged, even as Christians knew they were targets.

Jeanbart tells his people to have courage. “Hope,” he says, “will keep us going. … Peace will come. And when that day comes, Syria will be a beautiful country.”

The beauty of Syria is something Jeanbart likes to insist on. Because it was not a land made for violence, he explains.

“We do not hate those who persecute us,” Jeanbart told Cardinal Dolan. “And we have so many Muslims who are our friends,” he said. A mufti has offered him help — even a place to pray in his mosque if he needs.

Explaining some of the cultural gaps between East and West in his new book, “The Islamic Jesus,” the Turkish author Mustafa Akyol writes about the hostility between America and Muslims in Iraq after the war: “It was that they were conquerors of a people whom they did not know and whose profound sense of the sacred they did not understand.” In an interview, I asked him: “Is it entirely fair to call the U.S. conquerors?”

He replied: “Good question. Perhaps I should have used the word ‘victors’ rather than ‘conquerors.’ Because, of course, America did not occupy and annex Iraq, it rather just toppled Saddam and soon left.” He continued: “What I meant, however, is that whenever you use military means on a colossal scale, you will cause ‘collateral damage’ that you did not intend or even imagine. It is a good reason for having second thoughts before any military expedition.”

(Akyol supports the current U.S. bombing of Syria, which he rightly calls a “genocidal regime,” but he stresses the necessity of bearing “wiser action” in mind.)

I don’t know how long our attention will stay fixed on Syria and her people this time. We would be wise — and it would be just — if we remember the people who must live there. The mothers and fathers and families who don’t care to be in the crosshairs of war, as one friend put it on Facebook the night missiles started firing. Let’s not watch this like the latest Netflix series, but instead try to keep our attention and prayers on these people and their needs — beyond not being gassed to death. As Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus, has put it: “If you look at the last 15 years of American involvement (in the Middle East) … we could have done a better job knowing the people, knowing the culture, knowing the communities.” So, let’s not stop paying attention when the gassing and bombing stops, as we so often do.

COPYRIGHT 2017 United Feature Syndicate

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