A distant war echoes in local church
A distant war echoes in local church
Worries arise over possible consequences of U.S. attack
By Paul Grondahl
Updated 7:48 am, Thursday, September 5, 2013
St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, founded by Syrian immigrants on South Dove Street in 1933, is a microcosm encompassing the nation's debate over a possible U.S. military strike against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in retaliation for an alleged chemical attack that killed hundreds of civilians outside Damascus last month.
"It's not our war, and I don't think we should be in it at all," said Wahid Albert, 52, of Schenectady. He left Syria in 1980, earned a civil engineering degree at the University of Buffalo and joined St. George's when he settled here in 1984.
The fighting puts Syria's Christian minority in a vulnerable position, stoking fears among family members who belong to St. George's.
"I worry that there will be a slaughter of Christians in Damascus by al-Qaida-led rebels if the U.S. sends a strike," Albert said. His mother and sister live together in a Christian neighborhood in the Syrian capital, where he said they are afraid to go outside because of the fighting. Two weeks ago, a rebel-fired mortar round struck 100 yards from their house, killing four people and injuring more than 30. Members of his wife's family also live in that area, and mortar attacks are common. Albert has urged them to flee to the safety of a second home in the mountains.
Since a popular uprising began in March 2011 that was part of the so-called Arab Spring, the conflict between Syrian rebels and the Assad government has been deadlocked. President Barack Obama is trying to marshal support in Congress and internationally for a strike against the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
"We're deeply worried about the situation in Syria and the ripple effect a U.S. strike would have throughout the region. Americans are largely ignorant of what's going on there," said the Rev. Gregory DesMarais, the pastor of St. George's, which has about 140 members.
A parishioner who is on vacation on the border of Syria and Lebanon wrote on the church's Facebook page recently: "I can hear the bombs at night."
Christians are about 10 percent — compared with about 90 percent Muslims — of Syria's population of 20 million. But the Assad regime historically has been tolerant and protective of the Christian minority. In turn, Christians have supported the government even in the face of evidence that the regime fired rockets loaded with the nerve agent sarin to kill his own citizens.
Albert and his family members in Damascus do not find the chemical weapons evidence credible. "We believe the attack was staged," he said. "Assad could have lobbed a Scud missile and killed a lot more people than with a chemical weapon. It doesn't pass the stink test."
Parishioner Fayez Abed of Troy has been distraught since he learned that family members witnessed a gruesome killing by rebels at a recent Christian wedding. He says eyewitnesses told him that rebels raided the ceremony and slit the throats of the bride and groom inside the church.
"Fayez is outraged and very emotional about it," said DesMarais.
DesMarais will open the church on Friday for a daylong program of prayer and reflection on the crisis in Syria. There will be morning matins, afternoon hours of prayer and vespers in the evening. A day of prayer and fasting will be offered on Sept. 14 for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Sectarian violence is not new in Syria. The St. George's church founders fled oppression in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. In Albany, they worked as laborers and settled in the ethnic melting pot of the South End. A dozen or so families first met for worship in each other's homes just off Second Avenue starting in the 1920s. The men pooled money won at weekly card games and built a little red brick church in 1956 near Bishop Maginn High School. The women got together on Friday nights to prepare communal feasts of baba ghanouj, hummus, tabbouleh, kibbe, lamb kebabs and other Middle Eastern dishes.
For most of its 80-year history, the ancient orthodox liturgy was conducted in Arabic. The church's interior was decorated with golden icons of saints.
In recent decades, the congregation has diversified to include Lebanese, Ethiopians, Egyptians and Palestinians. The tangle of regional conflicts in their homelands and the strong pull of nationalism threatened to tear apart the congregation.
But the center held.
National flags that once flew in the parish hall during coffee hour after the Sunday liturgy are gone, along with the rancor and clannish hostility the displays fueled.
"It took a long time for this parish to get past that nationalistic behavior, but we're a good example of dealing with our differences and coming together as one to worship," the pastor said.
Sunday services are now conducted in English, although parishioners are invited to repeat the Lord's prayer in Arabic or Amharic, a language of Ethiopia. "It's a tip of the hat to our ethnic makeup," DesMarais said.
As Albert expressed fear for his family's safety in Damascus, he recalled a happy childhood spent in the cradle of Christianity where his late father, who lived in the U.S. and served as an Army Reservist in World War II, had returned because his wife was homesick. "I went to a high school on the road to Damascus where St. Paul was converted to Christianity," he said.
Albert's daughter, one of his three children, who all in their 20s, called off plans to live in Syria. "They can't understand what happened to the beautiful country where we used to spend summers when they were young," he said. "They want to know where that Syria went."
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Praying for peace
What: Two days of fasting and prayer on the Syrian crisis.
When: Friday and Sept. 14.
Where: St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, 1 St. George Pl., Albany.
Call 462-0579 for times and details.