Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dear "Burn a Koran Day" Pastor Terry Jones: A Personal Message from A Syrian Catholic Priest

The "Pastor" Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center

The "Pastor" of Florida's Dove World Outreach Center Terry Jones has announced that he will go ahead with his plan to host "International Burn a Koran Day" on 9/11 this year, despite a warning from General Petraeus that this action will endanger US troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and criticism from the White House. Jones, who has also written a book titled Islam is of the Devil (which has a Facebook page and Twitter account) insisted he would not be deterred. In remarks published by Florida radio station WOKV on Tuesday morning, Jones said, "We think the message is that important. We can not back down just because of fear, because if we back down, it won't make Islam any more moderate."

Right. Because Terry Jones is clearly an authority on moderation, what with the Koran-burning and all.

It's easy to point fingers at nutballs like Jones (or Fred Phelps, the "Pastor" of the Westboro Baptist Church, who is famous for his--paging Fr. Freud-- obsession with homosexuality) but it is a mistake to dismiss such expressions of hate as fringe sentiments because they come from wackadoodles like these. The potent mix of Christianity (or a version of it in any case), American nationalism and conservatism that characterized the Bush presidency did not disappear with Obama's assumption of the office. On the contrary, this toxic mash of ideas has supplanted the arguments about the role of government that used to characterize the Republican party... And the Democrats aren't exactly breaking their necks to distinguish themselves from these ideological stink bombs either.

I'd argue that Islamophobia (and homophobia for that matter) are absolutely mainstream sentiments. As we have seen in the rancorous public debate around construction of the Park 51 Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan, while the racist nuts yell the loudest the echo of their message can be heard through the statements of putatively "liberal" politicians like Howard Dean. Times like these reveal the character of a people. That is what makes Obama's weak-kneed response to the Park 51 Islamic Center opposition so disappointing (if not entirely surprising) and Mayor Bloomberg's stunning moral leadership in support of the center so inspiring.

Of course, "moral leadership" brings us full circle to religion itself. Just when I lose patience with religious leaders of all stripes someone surprises me... in a good way.

The letter below, by a Syrian Catholic priest named Father Elias Zahlawi was written to Terry Jones in response to his insistence that burning Korans is a proper use of his position as a Christian leader. I love that Father Zahlawi responded to Jones as a fellow leader of a Christian faith community who is also an Arab. Arab Christians--like me--are virtually invisible in the discourses around the Middle East, despite the fact that we are the only indigenous Christians on the planet. Both Arab and Christian, we are in a unique position to weigh in on tensions between US Christians and Arab Muslims, so often racialized as White vs. Brown. It is also true that many Arab Christians in the West use their faith affiliation to construct assimilated, "White" identities and are very invested in articulating the differences between Arab Muslims and Christians. My own family is often like this. But without smoothing over such differences it is also possible to celebrate the possibilities suggested by an action like the release of this letter by an Arab Catholic priest.

In his letter Father Zahlawi articulated many of my own questions when"Christians" like Jones and Phelps preach hate. He writes, "Tell me, is there in the character of Jesus, in his words or in his actions anything that would remotely justify even a hint of promoting disdain and hatred among people?"


(Via The Ugly Truth)
"Respected Pastor Terry Jones,

I have read your worldwide call for the burning of the Quran on this coming 11th of September. Your message stated that you are a pastor of one of the churches in Florida in the United States of America.

As an Arab Catholic priest from Damascus (Syria), I wondered what would be your objective, as an American pastor, for such a call?

I wondered, and I ask you: What are your responsibilities as a pastor?

Are you really a Christian pastor serving God in a church in America?

Or are you merely a layperson from America who is pretending to be in the service of Christ?

Did you give in to your nationalism (Americanism) rather than giving in to your Christianity?

What is your aim with that call?

(Do you wish) to further fuel hatred among people? Is that consistent with (the teachings of) Jesus, whom you represent in your eyes and the eyes of many others?

Tell me, is there in the character of Jesus, in his words or in his actions anything that would remotely justify even a hint of promoting disdain and hatred among people?

Have you forgotten that Jesus was completely for love, forgiveness and peace? Have you forgotten what he taught us when he told his disciples and the people after them to tell God the heavenly Father of all to “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who wrong us”? You overlooked or forgot that when Jesus was hanging on the cross and being subjected to insults and vile words, he raised his voice, saying, “O Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Who, then, do you represent or who are you trying to guide with this call of yours?

Isn’t it enough what has been happening since September 11, 2001: the killing, destruction, displacement and starvation of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, from Palestine – the land of Jesus – by your leaders in particular, headed by George Bush, who was claiming direct communication with God?

Wouldn’t you agree with me that with your call (to burn the Quran), you have demonstrated that you are really unfamiliar with Jesus and that you desperately need to re-discover him again to be a true Christian pastor who calls, like Jesus, for the comprehensive love and full respect for every human being and a commitment to the full and wonderful teachings that call upon all believers, without exception, to always stand beside the poor, the oppressed and the disadvantaged?

My brother Pastor Terry Jones. Can you tell me, honestly, if Jesus came today, whose side would he take?

Is it the side of the powerful and arrogant oppressors who dominate the world and endlessly plunder its resources, violate its laws and international treaties, and kill people in their countries and destroy houses on top of their owners and turn them into refugees across the earth? Or is it the side of those who are oppressed, the disadvantaged, hungry, and homeless?

Did you forget what Jesus himself would say on the Day of Judgment to each person in front of him: “All that you did to one of my brothers, you actually did to me”?

I wonder if you have overlooked or forgotten that Jesus did not point in that speech on the Day of Judgment to the religion of any of those mistreated persons. He only referred to everyone as belonging to the human race and to his standing with the deprived, the weak, and the oppressed in this world.

So how could you as an American Christian pastor stand with the oppressors from your country whose injustice has spread around the world?

Aren’t you afraid of when you appear before Jesus on Judgment Day and you are burdened with a heavy conscience, like your leaders who are blinded by the gods of power, money, control and greed?

My brother Pastor Terry. Do you think I am being unfair if I conclude that your hatred toward Islam is what drove you to such a reprehensible call for the burning of Islam’s holy book, the Quran?

But let me ask you, as a Syrian Roman Catholic priest: What do you know about Islam? It appears to me from your call to burn the Quran that you are ignorant of Christ and Christianity, and that makes me believe that you are also ignorant of Islam and Muslims.

Believe me, it is not my intention to indict you and it is not my intention to engage with you in a religious debate about Christianity or Islam. However, after I prayed for a long time, let me suggest for both of us to make a joint effort on this coming September 11.

You might ask me what effort can we do jointly when you are in Florida and I’m in Damascus?

Here is my suggestion.

I invite you to visit Syria, where you will be my guest and the guest of many of my Muslim and Christian friends. Syria is a country populated mostly by Muslims and in which Christians are indigenous to the land and have lived side-by-side with Muslims for centuries and centuries.

Come and don’t worry about anything.

Come and you will find out about Islam and Muslims what will comfort you, please you, surprise you, and even lead you, from where you are today in Florida, to invite all people to live in respect, love and cooperation among all people.

This is what people need rather than the un-Christian call to fuel the sentiment of hatred and division.

Come to Syria and you will be amazed by the good nature of people and their faith, their relations, friendly cooperation and openness toward all strangers.

Come to Damascus to witness and live an experience that is not in your mind nor the mind or expectation of all the churches of the West or their bishops, pastors, and clergymen.

Come to see and hear two choruses, Christian and Muslim, singing together during Christian and Islamic holidays to praise Allah, the One God, who created us all, and to whom we all return.

My brother Pastor Terry.

I call you my brother and I am serious about calling you brother and about my invitation to you. I await a word (of reply) from you. Trust me that you will find a brother in Damascus, actually many brothers.

Please contact me and don’t delay. I am waiting for you in Damascus.

I ask God to make our anticipated meeting the beginning of a long and interesting path that we undertake together with other brothers in Damascus and around the world.

How desperate is the need of our world for bright roads.

Come, the road to Damascus is waiting for you.

Father Elias Zahlawi"


  1. This is what people need rather than the un-Christian call to fuel the sentiment of hatred and division.


    I realise it's probably too much to ask that he will take up the offer to visit Syria - but I will still hope and pray that he might at least pause and consider where his actions are taking him.

  2. It never occurred to me that Jones would take him up on his offer (although that would be awesome)I just hope that this letter gets a lot of attention. I am genuinely mystified that no one (the MSM, politicians, other religious leaders) ever asks these hatemongers to justify themselves on relation to Jesus' example. I love that Father Zahlawi did that here.