In response to recent blasts against megachurch pastor Rick Warren's reported praise for Syria, Warren released a letter to his Saddleback leadership saying his visit to the country was neither official nor political.
Warren is headed home today after training thousands of church leaders during his three-nation P.E.A.C.E. Plan tour of Germany, Syria and Rwanda. After his visit with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a state-controlled Syrian news agency reported that the evangelical leader had praised the religious coexistence between Muslims and Christians.
Reports of Warren's supposed statements sparked immediate opposing reactions from groups noting Syria's history of terrorism.
VCY America Radio Network said in a statement that they are "appalled and angered that Rick Warren is praising a nation that has long supported international terrorism and that desires the utter destruction of Israel."
Warren, however, explained in a press release last night, that he was in Syria to meet with and encourage the country's key Christian leaders; dialogue with top Muslim leaders; and promote religious freedom.
The release stated, "Dr. Warrens visit to Syria was neither official nor political, but rather came out of a promise to his Muslim neighbor in California."
"Friends, I am aware that inaccuracies, misquotes, and misperceived motivations get reported about me in the press daily," Warren said in his letter. "Most of the time, I just ignore them. Jesus said, 'If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.' (John 15:18 - NCV)."
His trip to Syria, Warren explained, was motivated by the invitation of his neighbor in California named Yassar. Yassar had arranged for Warren to meet with some Christian leaders, Muslim leaders as well as government leaders, including the president of Syria.
Seeking some helpful tips from someone more experienced in the Middle East, Warren asked evangelist Franklin Graham about what to say to the Syrian president.
"Franklin told me, 'Thank him for protecting the freedom of Christians and Jews to worship there,'" said Warren stated.
SANA, the Syrian news agency, cited his comments out of context.
"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!" said Warren. "Of course, thats ridiculous, but it created a stir among bloggers who tend to editorialize before verifying the truth."
According to the latest International Religious Freedom Report, Syrias constitution provides for religious freedom, but the government imposes restrictions on this right. Such restrictions include the discouragement of public proselytism and the careful monitoring of groups the government considers to practice militant Islam.
Despite the restrictions and the country's history of using terrorism, Christian leaders whom Warren met with were said to have expressed gratitude for the government's protection of their right to worship.
Warren was also quoted to have said that 80 percent of the American people oppose what the Bush Administration is doing in Iraq. Thursday's press release clarified that Warren was citing The New York Times which had reported that 80 percent of Americans indicated in Election Day exit polls they now oppose keeping troops in Iraq.
The Syrian government has long had a bad reputation in America, but if one considers a positive action like welcoming in thousands of Christian refugees from Iraq, or the protection of freedom to worship for Christians and Jews in Syria, it should not be ignored, Warren said from Rwanda. He further explained that in terms of religious freedom, Syria is far more tolerant than places like Burma, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, and nations identified in the U.S. Commission Report 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, he added. What can we learn from them?
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."
According to Warren's letter, the Syrian president granted Warren permission to send P.E.A.C.E. Plan teams to Syria.
Overall, the Syrian trip has been a "learning experience" for Warren.
"In hindsight, I wish wed been better prepared for our visit to Syria. We would have handled some meetings differently, watched our words more closely, and been more aware of the agenda of their state press. We wanted to just slip in and out, but thats nearly impossible for me to do anymore. Its been a learning experience."
In August, Warren ended a 14-nation tour launching P.E.A.C.E. Plans and training tens of thousands of church leaders around the world. The Purpose Driven pastor is also scheduled to preach in North Korea next year at the 100th anniversary of the Pyongyang revival. He said he goes wherever he's invited and that he is not going for political reasons but to share the good news.