Why is the WCC a Bystander to the Assad Regime’s Violence?

The World Council of Churches, an umbrella organization that seeks to unite Christianity and offer prophetic words of peace and justice on behalf of almost 350 denominations worldwide, has said almost nothing about the brutal crackdown by the Assad regime in Syria.

A visit to the organization’s front page on August 3, 2011 and a review of the organization’s news archive indicates that the violence in Syria has not made it onto the organization’s radar. The organization has simply been a bystander to this violence.

The only place one can see any reference to the brutal crackdown is on the WCC’s “twitter” feed where it has offered a couple oftweets” about the violence which has cost 2,000 people their lives. The tweets do not condemn the Assad regime for the violence, but merely offer prayers for peace. This is odd given that the WCC has routinely condemned Israel for its efforts to defend itself against Palestinian rockets. A search for the word “Gaza” on the WCC’s website reveals the extent to which it has focused its condemnations on Israel. In fact, the WCC’s Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum (PIEF) has a website devoted to highlighting the suffering of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.

One possible factor contributing to the WCC’s silence about events in Syria is its response to the horrible massacre in Norway that left more than 90 people dead. The WCC’s front page currently has three links to articles about this tragedy. Given that the WCC’s General Secretary Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit hails from Norway, it is entirely reasonable that the WCC devote a substantial amount of attention to this tragedy.

This is only a partial explanation, however. While Rev. Dr. Tveit is likely busy struggling with the aftermath of the massacre in Norway, there are other WCC officials who could issue a well-crafted condemnation of the killings.

In particular, someone from the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) could issue a statement with a fair degree of authority. The most likely candidate for issuing such a statement is Dr. Mathews George Chunakara, the WCC’s program director for International Affairs.

It’s hard to understand why no one from the WCC has stepped forward to condemn the Assad regime. The violence is just overwhelming. According to a timeline published by the Telegraph (London), the Assad regime started killing Syrian citizens on March 23, 2011, eight days after the protests began. On that date, approximately 100 people were killed in Daraa. On April 22, another 80 people were killed.

A few days later, the Telegraph reports, “many more die[d] across the country, with dozens dead in Daraa.”

On June 3, 65 people were killed, most of them in Hama. (Hama, some may remember, is the scene of a terrible massacre perpetrated by the Syrian government in 1982 which left thousands dead.)

Two days later, another 40 people were killed in a town called Jisr al-Shugur. On June 12, a mass grave containing the bodies of 10 security was discovered in the same town.

The Assad regime sent tanks into a village near Turkey on June 18. Six days later, 18 protesters are shot dead and on July 1, 28 more people were killed during a mass protest in Hama.

And the violence continues, with the CNN reporting that more than 2,000 people have been killed since the violence began. CNN reports, “The violence has outraged world powers.”

But not the WCC.

The Assad regime is murdering its own citizens on a regular basis and the WCC has said virtually nothing.

It’s not as if the WCC has been silent about world events over the past few months.

Since the violence began in Syria, the WCC has, among other things, issued a call for NATO withdraw nuclear weapons from Europe, drawn attention to the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, issued a statement about the fighting in Libya, lamented violence in Sudan, called for an end to the food blockade of North Korea and lamented the attack in Norway.

It has only been silent about events in Syria.

It’s not as if the WCC is completely unfamiliar with what’s going on in Syria or the workings of the Assad regime – about which it has said nice things in the past.

In April 2008, a delegation from the WCC, including its then General Secretary Samuel Kobia, met with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad – the man who is currently in charge of a regime killing civilians in Syria – and issued a communiqué declaring that “Syria sets example for good relations between Christians and Muslims and hospitality to refugees.”

The WCC’s failure to condemn the Assad regime is related to one crucial fact: WCC member churches located in Syria rely on the Assad regime to keep them safe from Muslim extremists in that country.

The WCC’s page on Syria indicates several member churches are located in Syria. The page describes the political situation in Syria as follows:

Syria is the only secular country in the Arab world. It does not tolerate opposition, neither Islamic nor political. The country has been in the forefront of support for the Palestinian cause, and the struggle against Israel.

What the page does not say is that Christians in Syria rely on the Assad regime to keep them safe from Islamists who would replace the regi me. While the Assad regime does not have a perfect record in its treatment of Christians, this article published by the Christian Post in May indicates Christians are much better off in Syria than they are in other countries in the Middle East where Islamism is dominant. The article reads in part:

“They see what’s happening in other countries, specifically what’s happened in Egypt where we see a regime change but even more attacks against Christian churches, and they’re afraid that’s what’s going to happen in Syria,” Jerry Dykstra, spokesman for persecution watchdog Open Doors USA, told The Christian Post. (Links in original.)

This reality is one of the keys to understand the WCC’s notoriously lopsided witness about the Middle East. While the organization routinely condemns Israel (and the United States) for their actions, the WCC is reluctant to condemn authoritarian regimes in the Middle East for their misdeeds for fear of putting Christians in danger.

Given what’s at stake – the safety of Christians in the Middle East – it is uncharitable to condemn the WCC too harshly for making this calculation, but the next time the WCC assails Israel for its policies, it seems right to ask why the organization has been so vocal and focused in its condemnations of Israel and so obsequious in its dealings with the Assad regime. If this were the Gaza Strip, the PIEF would have another link to put on its page.

Does fear about the physical safety of Christians in the Middle East distort the WCC’s witness about the region?

Is it because it’s safe for Christians to condemn Israel and not safe for Christians to condemn other countries in the Middle East?

In light of the evidence it seems reasonable to conclude the answer is “Yes, yes indeed.”

It has happened before.

J.A. Emerson Vermaat documented a similar phenomenon in a 1985 article in Conflict Quarterly. In this article, Vermaat describes how leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church repeatedly obstructed efforts to condemn the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan for fear of provoking repressive acts against the church itself. These efforts were successful at a number of WCC conferences.

At one conference during which delegates called for a condemnation of the invasion, the WCC issued a bland statement that spoke about “foreign powers [that] are intervening militarily and governments which oppress, exploit, imprison and kill innocent people.”

The invading countries were left unnamed, the statement said, because to do so “may endanger the position—even the lives—of many of our brothers and sisters, some of whom are participating in this Conference. We therefore confess our inability to be as prophetic as we ought to be, as that may, in some instances, entail imposing martyrdom on our fellow believers in those countries – something we dare not do from a safe distance.”

In another instance, the Russian Orthodox Church lobbied on behalf of the Soviet Regime to protect its own interests back home – in a manner similar to what the Middle East Council of Churches has done in WCC settings.

Again Vermaat provides some useful information, this time in his book, The World Council of Churches & Politics: 1975-1986 published the Freedom House in 1989. In this book’s first chapter “The Soviet Bloc: A ‘Selective Silence’” (pages 9-25), Vermaat details how officials from the Russian Orthodox Church worked to block WCC from speaking up for persecuted Christians living under Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. Vermaat writes:

Two days after the 1975 World Council of Churches Assembly opened in Nairobi, the Assembly’s daily newspaper, Target, published an “Appeal for WCC Action on Behalf of Persecuted Christians.” The appeal was signed by two members of the Russian Orthodox church—Gleb Yakunin, a priest and Lev Regelson, a layman. It immediately drew a sympathetic response from many delegates.
Within the World Council of Churches, wrote Yakunin and Regelson, “the matter of religious persecution (has) failed to take its due place—although it ought to become the central theme of Christian ecumenism.” The WCC, the Russians charged, was silent “when the Russian Orthodox Church was half destroyed” by Soviet persecution in the 1960s. “No indignant protest was heard….even when religion was completely crushed in Albania—and the WCC still remained silent even after a priest had been shot to death in Albania for having baptized a baby.” (Vermaat, pages 9-10)

The Yakunin-Regelson letter wasn’t the first time the WCC had been condemned for staying silent about obvious human rights abuses perpetrated by the Soviets. In response to ongoing criticism about its failure to condemn the persecution of Christians in Eastern Block countries, the WCC’s General Secretary, Eugene Carson Blake, said in 1972 that private communication to these regimes were more effective than public declarations. WCC staffers said offered a similar defense at a 1974 conference, arguing “Eastern European Christians would be placed in a difficult position if the WCC were to publicly protest human rights abuses by their governments.” Vermaat continues: “This policy of what might be termed ‘selective silence’ about reported repression in Eastern Europe has characterized WCC pronouncements for many years.”

In light of this reality, it should come as no surprise that “many WCC leaders and staff members at the Nairobi Assembly were annoyed by the Yakunin-Regelson letter.” Vermaat reports that “It’s bluntness contrasted with the carefully modulated tone that the WCC maintains in addressing human rights issue in Eastern Europe. In the wake of the controversy that followed the letter, the Nairobi Assembly was in many respects an exercise in damage control by the dissidents.”

Leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church were at the forefront of the efforts to keep the issue of Christian persecution at the hands of Communist regimes off the table. For example, when it looked like the Yakunin-Regelson letter was going to derail the election of a Russian Orthodox leader, Metropolitan Kikodim, to one of the WCC’s seven presidencies at the Nairobi conference, “delegates from mainly Third World Churches were invited to a meeting with the Christian Peace Conference (CPC), a Prague-based front for the Soviet Communist Party whose leader was none other than Metropolitan Nikodim.”

At the meeting, the Third World delegates were reminded of the Moscow Patriarchate’s influence with the Soviet government, and warned of the consequences to their own governments and countries if the delegates did not support Nikodim’s nomination to a WCC presidency. Among the inducements mentioned were Soviet and Eastern European aid to Third World countries and other Soviet-sponsored assistance to liberation movements. Nikodim was subsequently elected to a WCC presidency with much Third World support.

Ultimately, the Assembly responded to the Yakunin-Regelson letter by passing a resolution that said nothing specific about the persecution of Christians in the Eastern Block. “[A]nd so a veil was drawn over the plight of the religiously persecuted in the Soviet Union,” Vermaat writes, adding that a few years later, Gleb Yakunin, was arrested by the Soviets and put on trial for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” He was found guilty and sent to prison. That the WCC initially ignored the trial, but after protests emanating from England, the WCC’s acting General Secretary sent a letter to the Orthodox Church in Russia stating “We find the kind of sentence pronounced in the trials already concluded to be disproportionate with the seriousness of the crimes which have allegedly been committed.”

This is a pretty lame response to Yakunin’s imprisonment, but it is still better than what the WCC has done on behalf of the Syrian people suffering under the lash of Bashar al-Assad.

When it comes to dealing with the Assads, the World Council of Churches is the lapdog that didn’t bark.

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