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Warren’s visit to Syria buffeted by government’s ‘PR blast’

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REVISED on Nov. 27, 2006 to correct attribution in paragraph 10 and replace a paraphrased statement with the quote in paragraph 18.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose-Driven Life” and pastor of the 30,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., is under fire for a recent trip to Syria during which he allegedly criticized American foreign policy in the Middle East and praised the nation’s Baathist leadership for fostering a climate of religious toleration.

Warren, who was on a three-nation trip to promote outreach and humanitarian efforts in early November, met with several leaders in the country, including President Bashar al-Assad, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallim and Grand Mufti Sheikh Badr al-Din Hassoun, an Islamic cleric. The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), the government’s chief propaganda outlet, posted four separate stories about the visit that, according to Warren, contained comments he did not make.

One SANA posting claimed that Warren addressed “Syrian-American relations” in a meeting with Assad.

“The American delegation stressed that the American administration is mistaken not to hold dialogue with Syria,” SANA reported. “The importance of dialogue among religions and achieving the just and comprehensive peace in the region which leads for stability and prosperity were emphasized during the meeting.

“Pastor Warren hailed the religious coexistence, tolerance and stability that the Syrian society is enjoying due to the wise leadership of President al-Assad, asserting that he will convey the true image about Syria to the American people.”

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SANA also reported that Warren, in his meeting with Moallim, had concluded that “Syria wants peace, and Muslims and Christians live in this country jointly and peacefully since more than a thousand years, and this is not new for Syria.” The same report included a statement attributed to Warren that he would return to America to tell the people that the “idea which had been shaped” about Syria did not “reflect the truth.” The report said Warren thought Americans should go to Syria “and realize her nice people and visit her wonderful and historical ruins.”

In a meeting with Hassoun in Damascus, SANA reported that Warren spoke of the need to spread a “culture of amity, peace and coexistence instead of the ‘clash of civilizations.’” That report also claimed that Warren believed there would be no peace in the region without Syrian assistance, and that “80 percent of the American people rejected what the U.S. administration is doing in Iraq and considered the U.S. policy in the Mideast as wrong.”

Hassoun reportedly asked Warren to convey to the American people “the real image of Syria,” which the cleric concluded was peaceful. He also said the American government had “distorted” Syria’s image before the world.

Warren’s comments, as reported by SANA, have angered numerous religious and political conservatives in the United States.

Mark Tooley, a columnist for FrontPageMagazine.com, the online political journal of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, took Warren to task in a Nov. 15 column, “Purpose Driven Terrorism.” Tooley wrote that Warren, like other preachers who delve into politics, had been naive in his dealings with the Syrian government. Tooley, who directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said he doubted that the comments attributed to Warren by SANA were entirely accurate, but said Warren’s presence there was a propaganda victory for the nation.

In Warren’s conversations with Assad and other Syrian leaders, Tooley wrote, SANA did not report Warren mentioning “Syria’s one-party police state, its political prisoners, its chambers of torture, its support for Hezballah terrorism in Lebanon, and its continued devotion to the destruction of Israel.”

While Tooley wrote that Syria was tolerant compared to Saudi Arabia, where conversion to Christianity is punishable by death, there are still significant problems for the nation’s Christian minority and political dissidents. Tooley said the country is one where “only the ruling Baathist Party and its allies are permitted to win elections, where all news media are owned or controlled by the government, where independent labor unions are prohibited, where universities must proclaim Baathist Party policies, where clerics are appointed by the government, where the president by law must be Muslim, and where women’s limited rights are governed by Islamic shari’a law, even though the government is ostensibly secular.”

Tooley also wrote that Christians cannot preach to non-Christians, and that authorities have blocked the construction of any new Christian school for four decades. Additionally, he wrote, all schools must have Muslim principals and all mosques are under government control.

Joseph Farah, editor of the WorldNetDaily website, wrote in his Nov. 20 column that Warren, like the Apostle Paul, had been blinded on the road to Damascus.

“Warren went to Syria and could find no persecution of Christians. He could find no persecution of Jews. He could find no evidence of extremism. He could find no evidence of the sponsorship of terrorism,” Farah wrote on his website.

“Despite the temporary loss of vision that prevented him from seeing any evil in the totalitarian police state, Warren’s hearing was apparently not affected -– for his ears were tickled by what he heard and apparently accepted lock, stock and barrel from the second-generation dictator, Bashar Assad, and his state-approved mufti.”

Farah publicly challenged Warren, describing his confrontations with the Saddleback pastor by saying, “I accused him of betraying his own country in a hostile foreign land and of being a propaganda tool of the Islamo-fascist regime in Damascus.”

Farah recounted that Warren had issued a response via e-mail stating that he visited Syria at the invitation of a neighbor. Farah quoted Warren as saying that he “did not pretend to be a diplomat” and that he had been warned by the U.S. State Department to expect a “PR blast” from the Syrian government.

In a letter to the members of his congregation, Warren encouraged his church not to believe “everything you read on the Internet or hear in the media.”

“Friends, I am aware that inaccuracies, misquotes, and misperceived motivations get reported about me in the press daily. Most of the time, I just ignore them,” Warren wrote, reminding his congregation that Jesus told His disciples in John 15:18 that the world would hate those who followed Him.

Warren explained to his congregation that the trip was an effort to promote the church’s global P.E.A.C.E. plan in Germany, Syria and Rwanda, where Warren has already spent a significant amount of time. With regard to Syria, Warren said he wished he had been better prepared for the trip.

“We would have handled some meetings differently, watched our words more closely, and been more aware of the agenda of their state press,” Warren wrote to his congregation. “As we left, the official state-controlled Syrian news agency issued some press releases that sounded like I was a politician negotiating the Iraq war by praising the Syrian President and everything else in Syria! Of course, that’s ridiculous, but it created a stir among bloggers who tend to editorialize before verifying the truth. Does it seem ironic to you that people who distrust Syria are now believing Syrian press releases?”

Warren said he explained the Saddleback P.E.A.C.E. plan to Assad during his meeting with the president and that Assad gave the church permission to send teams to Syria.

“We wanted to just slip in and out, but that’s nearly impossible for me to do anymore. It’s been a learning experience.” Warren wrote. He also encouraged his congregation to read a press release his publicity agent had issued about the trip to Syria. In that release, publicist A. Larry Ross said Warren had discussed religious freedom and academic exchange with Syrian leaders.

“Contrary to reports by the official state-controlled Syrian news agency, Dr. Warren was in Syria to meet with and encourage the country’s key Christian leaders and to promote religious freedom,” Ross said in the news release. “Leaders who met with Dr. Warren included the Patriarchs of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church; the leader of the coalition of Evangelical Churches of Syria; and the pastor of the world’s oldest standing church dating back to 315 A.D.”

Ross said Warren’s visit to the country was “neither official nor political.” As for his supposed criticism of American policy in the region, the news release quoted Warren as saying there should be “no doubt about our support for President Bush, our troops in Iraq and the war on terror.” Ross also explained Warren’s comment that 80 percent of the American public wanted U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq. When asked about whether American public opinion had turned against the war, the news release stated that Warren replied, “Yes. The New York Times reported that 80 percent of Americans indicated in election day exit polls they now oppose keeping troops in Iraq.” Ross noted, however, that Warren’s team was told by a Syrian official that it would be a mistake for American troops to immediately pull out.

Warren did claim, according to the news release, that Syria had been tolerant in protecting freedom to worship for Jews and Christians in Syria and in welcoming thousands of Christian refugees from Iraq. He said the government had been far more tolerant that others such as those in Burma, Cuba, Iran, Iraq and other countries named in the annual report of the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“Muslims and Christians have lived side by side in Syria for more than a thousand years, often with mosques and churches built next to each other. What can we learn from them?” Warren asked. “I believe it is a mistake to not talk to nations considered hostile; isolation and silence has never solved conflict anywhere -– whether between spouses or between nations.”

The U.S. State Department, in its annual report on religious liberty, described Syria as generally tolerant but controlling of various religious groups in the country. The nation, according to the report, “officially disavows sectarianism of any kind” and has also been concerned with curtailing the spread of radical Islam, primarily out of its desire to protect its socialist government.

“The security services were constantly alert for any possible political threat to the State, and all groups, religious and nonreligious, were subject to surveillance and monitoring by government security services. The Government considered militant Islam in particular a threat to the regime and followed closely the practice of its adherents. The Government has allowed many mosques to be built; however, it monitored and controlled sermons and often closed mosques between prayers,” the State Department report said.

Syrian policy toward Jews is harsher, according to the State Department. “The Government primarily cited tense relations with Israel as the reason for barring Jewish citizens from employment in the civil service, serving in the armed forces, and for exempting them from military service obligations. Jews were the only religious minority group whose passports and identity cards noted their religion. They must obtain the permission of the security services before traveling abroad. Jews also faced extra scrutiny from the Government when applying for licenses, deeds, or other government papers. The Jewish community is prohibited from sending historical Torahs abroad under a law against exporting any of the country’s historical and cultural treasures. This created a serious problem for the dwindling Jewish community concerned for the preservation of its religious texts.”

Warren was scheduled to make a visit to communist North Korea in July, but postponed that visit after dictator Kim Jung Il’s regime fell under increasing international pressure to halt its nuclear program. Ross said, however, that Warren still has a standing invitation to preach there whenever the nation proceeds with its first outdoor Christian event since 1945.
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