Syrian Ramadan at the Edge of War

Peace is not possible in states with different religions and sects when those tribal identities are used to trigger division. But it is possible when deep bonds are built upon trust, empathy, solidarity, commercial relations and respect. For me, this is a basic truth that has emerged from my years of experience practicing and teaching interfaith peacebuilding and conflict resolution in Syria.

To truly see this, however, we must broaden our historical lens. For centuries, subcultures such as the bazaar wove Syrian society together in a deeply cross-cultural, multi-religious way. The practice of inviting the "other" to share in one's holiday was common. And houses of worship were built within walking distance of one another. For the past 12 years, I've found and been able to connect the organic traditions of tolerance that grew from these historical realities with classical methods of conflict resolution to spearhead interfaith peacebuilding inside the country. Now, amid one of the worst catastrophes in the history of the Middle East, I continue to work, but in a much different and evolving reality. Tragedy may characterize the Syrian narrative today, but the people's intuitive spirit of coexistence continues to inspire me.

Three weeks ago, I was in southern Turkey taking a bus from Gaziantep to the Turkish border village of Reyhanli. The idyllic beauty of southern Turkey produces a tragic sense of nostalgia. It's a reminder of my own country's natural splendor just across the border; what I know truly exists beneath the callous exterior of destruction that the world sees today. Joining me on the bus were representatives from two organizations: Syrian Christians for Peace (CFP)--a humanitarian organization assisting Syrians of all backgrounds - and Tastakel--a women's leadership organization that empowers women to become agents of peace.

Several weeks prior, I'd called my friend Ayman Abdul Nour, President of CFP, and discussed the idea of holding an interfaith Iftar, the traditional meal at which Muslims break the daily fast during Ramadan. The justification was two-fold: foster positive dialogue between Muslims and Christians, and strengthen our ties to Syrian religious leaders. We decided to make it happen. Yet, even when travelling to the region to bridge different communities and their beliefs, I found it impossible to ignore the collective suffering that now engulfs the Syrian people. Before reaching Reyhanli, we stopped at an orphanage funded and administered by Syrians for Syrians. Playing with the kids, all of whom had lost parents to the conflict, I experienced what so many humanitarians know all too well: the inspiring innocence of children amid tragedy.

We returned to our van after that visit. As we finished the drive to Reyhanli, the history of the region presented a parallel course to our interfaith peacebuilding initiative. I realized that we were no more than 20 miles from the city of Antakya, formerly the "cradle of Christianity" and capital of Greater Syria, where Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted peacefully for centuries. It reminded me of my beautiful hometown of Damascus where churches, mosques and synagogues stand side by side.

When we arrived in Reyhanli, the diversity of the crowd awaiting our interfaith Iftar was obvious. Gathered around a table was a crowd of doctors, lawyers, judges, civil society representatives, moderate opposition leaders, and religious leaders and women leaders. A friend of mine from the Tastakel women's group addressed the gathering along with a priest from Idlib. The message was simple: we must return to the peaceful coexistence we once knew so well. Following these opening remarks, we partook in a traditional meal prepared by a woman from Syria's nearby Idlib province. The conversation continued as the dinner guests discussed how to better protect Aleppo's civilians, including religious minorities.

After dinner, we sipped tea. I noticed a vase of jasmine flowers resting at the center of the table; the scent reminded me of Syria. Looking around the room at the gathering of people from diverse religious and ethnic groups, I felt, "This is home." I commented that the flowers were a symbol for Syria. Everyone agreed. In the evening darkness, when the temperature drops, the jasmine flower opens and its aroma is most acute.

Amid the darkness encompassing my country today, I hope that the most beautiful elements of Syrian society - our tradition of tolerance, shared culture and incredible history - will likewise pierce through the night offering something beautiful that all can appreciate. There are many ugly things happening in my country, but the people continue to provide me hope that one day, again, peace will be possible.

Hind Aboud Kabawat

Director of Interfaith Peacebuilding Centre for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution George Mason University;