Allentown, Pennsylvania, is home to the largest Syrian Christian community in the United States.
Prominent in that community is the Very Reverend Anthony G Sabbagh of St. George Orthodox Church, who was born in Damascus, Syria, and immigrated to the US as a young man.
Father Sabbagh is a primary source of information about current events in Syria for news outlets around the world, including CNN and Fox News, and his connections with family, friends, and associates still in Syria give him valuable insight into the civil war being waged there now between the government and disparate rebel forces. In 2011 he was extended the privilege of a private audience with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, spending over four hours discussing the geopolitical climate of Syria and its region.
The Independent Gazette sat down with Father Sabbagh, business owner Marie Jarrah, and others from the Syrian community in Allentown to obtain their first-person perspectives of events taking place in Syria, as well as their views of how those events are being reported in the news.
In meeting with Father Anthony—as he is affectionately known—it is immediately apparent to this reporter that he is a proud man, proud of his heritage, as he made evident during our conversation.
“You know Ananias?” he quizzed me. “Saint Ananias? Saint Ananias opened the eyes of Saint Paul on the outskirts of Damascus,” he explained as he read from the New Testament Book of Acts, Chapter 9. “The Saint Ananias Church is located right next to my family home,” he beams. “It is a church still underground, a sign of past persecutions.
“I am not afraid of what I say; I state the truth and I would die for my principles. Syria is a land of history. Bethlehem is a Syrian land. We are proud to claim Christ as Syrian. Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq were part of Syria, were greater Syria in the time of Christ.
“If we talk about freedom, it is about a virtue. The only war should be a war of love: we should be fighting each other over who should love more. Evil breeds evil; good breeds good; apple breeds apple; horse breeds horse, not monkey. If by war we think it will bring peace, we are wrong. Crazy thing is, we are killing ourselves. Greed and hate—eliminate hate. Sooner or later we meet our Waterloo.”
Father Anthony studied at Balamand Seminary in The Koura District, Lebanon, and was ordained on May 21, 1966, in Marmarita, Syria. “Damascus is my eternal memory, my motherland, all that I am. I love it because of sweet memories. It becomes home sweet home, attracts you back, like the migrating birds. If I did not have beautiful memories, Syria would mean nothing to me.
“People lived in harmony and peace. It was safe to walk the streets at night, without fear. You could exchange cash at the stores, no credit or debit cards, and not be afraid one would hit you on the head to steal. You would walk the streets and say hello to strangers.
“Muslim, Shiite, Sunni, Alawite, Jew, Christian, all nationalities, all religions. There was general acceptance of others with the same rights and obligations.
“Syria is the cradle of civilization and Jesus can claim to be Syrian. If you are born in America, you are American, and if you are born in Syria, you are Syrian. We are proud Jesus was Syrian; he lived our traditions. The town of Maloula, where Saint Takla lived, which the rebels just terrorized, was a peaceful town. Saint Takla was the companion of Saint Paul on his missionary journeys. The history of Syria is being wiped out by war. Christians are being persecuted today like they were in the early church because of the Islamic Brotherhood, the Salafi, the Wahhabi, and extremists from Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries.
“Damascus is the oldest city continuously inhabited in the world, I think the cradle of civilization. Its history should be kept intact. We need to protect it.
“Christians were never prosecuted under Hafez al-Assad, and Bashar al-Assad his successor. Bashar is better than the father [Hafez] for the Christians, minorities, and even majority.
“Lies, lies, lies, media and political prostitution—that is all you get these days. All are about greed and money.
“Look at Assad’s government. Vice President is Sunni Muslim, foreign minister is Sunni. Commander of the armed forces was Christian Orthodox killed by terrorist. The entire makeup of government is represented by so many factions.
“He is not the dictator he is being represented as. ‘This is what Assad did to his own people,’ [Secretary of State John] Kerry said. If the US allowed ‘a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad’ [in Kerry’s words] to get away with gassing his own people, ‘There will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.’
“You have testimonials of Christians, the Catholic patriarch, Armenian patriarch, Evangelical head of the Protestant church, Greek Orthodox patriarch of Antioch—are all behind Assad. All Christians are behind Assad. Business leaders. Druze, Alawite, Sunnah, lots of sects. Majority of people, 70 percent, behind him.”
Father Anthony continued: “We went to Washington to testify to the truth. We are the eyewitnesses. Christians were never treated better than they were under Assad.” Senator Rand Paul (R, KY) echoed this view in stating that “I think the Islamic rebel winning is a bad idea for the Christians, and all of a sudden we’ll have another Islamic state where Christians are persecuted.”
“We need to organize our communities to vote. We love America, and would die for it. We love the country that feeds us, houses us, offers justice for all.
“Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite Muslim. Alawites were Christians who were not able to pay taxations imposed upon them during the Muslim invasion of Syria, and who were converted into Islam to avoid being killed by the sword,” explained Father Anthony. Alawite Muslims follow the Shiite interpretation of succession to the prophet Mohammed, believing succession should be based on bloodlines, that being Ali bin Abu Talib. This contrasts with Sunni beliefs that Mohammed’s
successor follows a line of most the able and pious.
“The rebels consist of al-Qaeda, Wahhabi from Saudi Arabia, Salafi, Muslim Brotherhood, and extremists who follow the Koran to the letter of the law. Any backslider should be beheaded. They are paid mercenaries, companies that manufacture weapons, and arms dealers.”
Father Anthony proceeded to speak briefly about Senator John McCain (R, AZ), who recently had this to say of the rebels: “I feel very badly for my friends in the Free Syrian Army today. I am against delaying reaction to what is a massacre of a thousand people. You saw these pictures of these dead children. Come on, this is horrific. We can’t stand by and watch this happen.”
Father Anthony disagreed with the senator’s assessment. “I have some kind of doubt around him that involves self-interest. He looks for extreme solutions. He is smuggled into the country, breaking the laws of a sovereign government. How can you trust or believe anything he says? If we back people breaking the laws how can we speak of justice?
“A family came to see me, and their daughter was exposed to chemical weapons. Their home was destroyed by rebels living in the Christian section of Damascus. They were told to leave and their daughter would be raped if they did not. The way they are killing and butchering people, it is not hard to think these rebels would not use chemical weapons. We are the eyewitnesses.
“In all my heart, I believe that Assad would not use chemical weapons. He is an agent of life, of vision. During his father’s war with extremists gas was not used. Assad has the upper hand, and knows we are looking for reasons to invade Syria. He is not stupid.
“In my own village Marmarita of Wadi-al-Nasara—the Christian Valley—the rebels targeted 14 Christians and killed them by rockets. Father Basil was gunned down trying to help wounded Christians in his village. Father Fadi Haddad went to the rebels to pay ransom for an abducted parishioner. They took his money and killed him, and not just killed him, but they take extreme joy in killing people. They do not worry about chemical weapons. While still alive, they plugged out his eyes, then cut his nose and ears off, and cut his tongue out, then fingers and toes, [finally] amputating his arms from shoulders and legs from knees before shooting him in the head.
“If Assad does not stay in power—the man who called for dialog with the rebels—means they have a plan to wipe out Christians, Alawites, and minorities, take over Syria, and accomplish the dreams of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and al-Qaeda, and establish an extreme way of life.
“I love America, the greatest place in the world, no better place, but we should be better, smarter. American people are good people and should reap better results in the world today. Right is always might, but might is not always right.”
Marie Jarrah, co-owner with her husband of the Damascus Restaurant in Allentown, concurs. Like Father Anthony, Jarrah was born in Damascus. She immigrated here in 1974. Jarrah said, “I do not believe Assad used chemical weapons. I cannot get it through my mind how many people died on 9/11, and now the US government secretly is supporting al-Qaeda by sending them millions and millions of dollars.
“If you are my friend, my close friend, and I know what you are doing to my family, I would not want you around me. Same goes for Assad. If we know he is doing this stuff, we would not support him. If there was any doubt, we would not accept that.
“My family is important to me, but my country is more important. My family will be gone one day but I want my country to be forever.”
Both Father Anthony and Jarrah are critical of the media. They have each been interviewed by reporters from across the world. Jarrah is most dissatisfied with CNN. “They do not tell the truth, they only bring on people who agree with them.”
In fact, Father Anthony declined a CNN request that he provide live commentary on President Obama’s address to the nation September 10. “I am tired of being used,” he remarked.
But Father Anthony and Jarrah are not alone in viewing with skepticism what some have termed agenda driven news. A recent investigation by the Independent Gazette brought to light that a 2013 Associated Press poll on the effects of the budget sequester was nothing more than a survey taken amongst the AP’s business writers. A recent Gallup poll showed that Americans’ confidence in newspapers fell to 23% this year.
“Why? What is the underlying reason for this. Why this house of mirrors? What is the goal? What is the purpose,” a resident from Wilkes-Barre’s Syrian Hill asked.
Jarrah’s daughter, Jenan Jarrah Salleet wrote to the Gazette, “The fact that Syria has a secular government is a big deal. Religion and politics are separate. This is a huge deal in the Middle East. President Assad has donated money to rebuild churches, he attends Christian masses, and he meets with bishops. He lets the Syrian Christians put up a giant Christmas tree in the center of Damascus. This is huge! Other Arab countries do not have this freedom.
“These are the things we want to bring to light to the general public. If President Assad goes down, then so do all the minority religions, including Christians. We will be massacred or run out of the country. President Assad has been critical in maintaining a secular government and securing the life, liberty, and freedom to all religious minorities in Syria, including Christians. We are petrified that an extreme group of people will take over beautiful Syria.”
Important questions go unanswered from our elected officials as they’re pressed on why Syria is in the crosshairs of the formidable American military apparatus. Our own columnists have wondered out loud whether it is ultimately all about the petrodollar, the US dollar’s long-standing status as the world’s reserve currency, and the proposed natural gas pipeline agreement between Syria, Iraq, and Iran, allowing natural gas from Iranian gas fields to be delivered to western Europe and bypassing Saudi Arabia and Qatar?
The old axiom “follow the money” most likely will help illuminate the answers we seek. In the meantime, innocents die, elected officials refuse to answer the tough questions, and America prepares to go to war once again.