The United States Institute of Peace proudly hosted an interfaith dialogue last month including faith leaders from over a dozen Syrian religious communities. After two days of dialogue, we discovered that despite the clamor of the western media, Syrian religious leaders, activists, journalists, lawyers, women and men from all backgrounds, share a common desire to rid the country of both tyranny and extremism.
No one supported the Assad regime, after its murder of over 200,000 Syrians, but also no one supported the extremism of groups like ISIS. Instead, the Syrians shared how they want to see a civil state based on human rights for all Syrians. This is the Syria that I know, the Syria that existed before the Baath party took over in March 1963. Despite the current chaos, Syria, for many years, was an example of how all religions and sects could live side by side.
The participants of the interfaith dialogue signed a list of recommendations, which included supporting a civil democratic state based on the rule of law, respect and equality, and which promotes diversity and religious freedom.
Too often, the media suggests that there are only two options when discussing solutions for Syria: the tyranny of the Assad regime or ISIS style extremism. But there is a third option, one that is too often sidelined, but actually deserves much more attention and support. This third option is the multitude of Syrians that desire freedom and democracy. The people who support this third option come from all sectors and communities. And they include not only secular youth, communists, leftists and Christians, but also, many Syrian Muslim clerics who I have come to know and who share this passion for a free Syria.
One of these scholars is Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, a religious scholar of top stature, who was a preacher at the regal Grand Umayyad Mosque of Damascus. Al-Yaqoubi was an early critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and was forced to flee the country soon after the 2011 revolution began, because he publicly called on the president to step down. Today, al-Yaquobi is a symbol for those who support the third option in Syria. At the start of the revolution, he preached two Friday sermons in a row against the regime, openly supporting the revolution for freedom and dignity. He stated that the people of Syria cannot accept a regime that has been killing and oppressing for over forty years.
Even after being forced out of the country, al-Yaquobi has stayed unwavering to his principles regardless of the consequences and, he continues to preach a message against tyranny, and for freedom and democracy. Whether in speaking against the Assad regime, or against extremist groups who have tried to hijack the uprising, al-Yaqoubi has called loudly for a democratic state that protects all Syrians whether they are Christians, Alawites, Yazidis or other minorities.
When extremists kidnapped the nuns in Maaloula, al-Yaqoubi was one of the loudest religious voices calling for their release. Furthermore, when ISIS declared their caliphate, al-Yaqoubi was one of the first of many Muslim scholars to state that this caliphate was illegitimate. He signed a Letter to Baghdadi (LetterToBaghdadi.com), the leader of ISIS, stating that it is a major sin for any Muslim to join ISIS. This letter to Baghdadi has been signed by over 100 Muslim scholars.
Last Saturday I prayed with Sheikh al-Yaqoubi in Washington, DC, for yet another fallen hero in our Syrian tragedy, Peter Kassig. We both cried not only for this young, beautiful American who wanted to help the Syrian people, only to be slaughtered by the savages of ISIS, but also for all Syrians, from all sides, paying a high price for a simple demand: freedom and dignity. We also prayed for the release of a dear friend we share: Father Paulo D'Oglo, a priest who worked for freedom and peace in Syria and was kidnapped in the summer of 2013 in Raqqa.
We ended our prayers together, uttering the same word, amen.
Hind ABOUD Kabawat
Senior program Officer: Syria
United States Institute of Peace