Roma Downey, star of former television series "Touched by an Angel" and an executive producer behind the Emmy-nominated "The Bible" series, told The Christian Post on Thursday after returning from a meeting with Arab Christians in Jordan that she feels compelled to let it be known that the last thing anyone in the Middle East wants is more military action, despite the atrocities believed to have been committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The United States claims that more than 1,400 people, nearly a third of them children, were attacked on Aug. 21 by state forces with chemical weapons. However, Assad denies carrying out such an attack on his own people. Nonetheless, President Barack Obama has been pressing Congress and the global community for support to strike the Syrian government for its alleged violation of international laws in a civil war that has been waging for two and a half years.
Downey, who just returned from the two-day conference in Amman, Jordan, hosted by King Abdullah II ibn al-Hussein to address "The Challenges Facing Arab Christians," told CP that her heart was full with an urgency to share what she had learned from her interactions and talks with leading church representatives from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan who also spoke at the meeting.
"It became so clear to me from listening to the Arab Christian leadership speak, that while everyone is upset with Assad, no one over there believes that the answer is military intervention," said Downey.
"They are praying and urging America not to attack," she added. "I think it's important that we in America, particularly Christian America, understand that the fate of Syria's Christian is very much in danger here."
Downey and her husband Mark Burnett, also responsible for the successful "The Bible" series, attended the conference as ambassadors of the World Evangelical Alliance, along with Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary general of the WEA. The "Touched by an Angel" star said she was the only woman in attendance who made official remarks.
Describing her Middle East visit as "emotional and intense," Downey told CP that her overwhelming impression in listening to Arab Christians was "that there's such a fear over there of military intervention and their hope really is that we can find a political solution and avoid military action."
Below is a transcript (edited for clarity) of CP's phone discussion with Downey, who, having only returned from Jordan the night before, sounded very full of the experience.
CP: What were your thoughts as you heard other people speak and you interacted with Christians from the Middle East?
Downey: Look at the number of Christians that were in Iraq before the war. I think maybe it was 1.2 million, and that population is down just to a couple hundred thousand. The Syrian Christians in particular are deeply concerned about what would happen to them. What would the Holy Land be without holy people?
I think that perhaps we in America don't…the Arab Christian is a…in many ways perhaps we don't relate to them in a way that we should. Saint Paul refers to the Church as One Body and we're supposed to be in communion with each other.
I just came back with such a heavy heart and I feel like I had been there and I got to hear them share their fear and concerns. Clearly, no one is in favor of Assad or anything that he has done. It's outrageous what has occurred there. It's just that they feel strongly that there's no plan in place for the Arab Christians.
I was also just so grateful to King Abdullah and to the Jordanian people to host this event. It was incredible that they accepted…that they brought this leadership together. Jordan is also to be commended because they have opened their borders to so many refugees. They have so many people in camps all over their country. And clearly their resources are being drained as they try to feed these people and take care of them. Water, of course, is a huge issue in desert regions. We're so impressed by the generosity and the spirit of the Jordanian people.
CP: What are some things, do you think, Christians who are not in the Middle East could do to help or bring attention to the situation?
Downey: I think that it's…obviously we're encouraging Congress to take into consideration the plight of these Christians, to speak up and speak out for them, and to keep them foremost in our prayers as these decisions are being made. I know that this past week (New York) Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan has spoken up. I know that the Pope has spoken out. We heard clearly at this conference, these Arab Christian leaders are keen that another political solution can be explored and found.
I grew up in Northern Ireland in a very complicated political landscape all through my childhood. I grew up as a Roman Catholic in the North. We had an ongoing situation that has become known in our history as The Troubles. If you had asked anyone when I was younger in the 1970s if there was an opportunity for a peaceful situation or the possibility of power sharing, I don't know that anybody would have said yes. Yet, here we are in 2013. I just returned home this past summer to my hometown of Derry, which is the second city of the North, which had been divided by a river all through my childhood. On one side of the river mostly lived Catholics, and on the other side of the river mostly lived Protestants. The city center had been pretty much destroyed in a bombing campaign through the '70s. There was such tension and pain and hurt there.
This past summer I was able to walk across this peace bridge that connects both sides of the community now, and people are moving back and forth in a harmonious flow. The government of Northern Ireland is a model for what can happen, as our Prime Minister is a Protestant leader and our Deputy Prime Minister is a Catholic leader. They work together and have figured it out over there. It's a blessing how that has occurred.
Yes, it's awful what's going on in Syria and what has happened there in the last few weeks is outrageous and must be called that. I just don't see that going in there to strike militarily is the answer.
CP: King Abdullah during the conference made similar remarks, regarding the coexistence and fraternity between Muslims and Christians that you say has been accomplished by Ireland's Catholics and Protestants...
Downey: Yes, he did. That word coexistence really touched me. There's a wonderful quote by a poet called Rumi where he says, "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there." I don't claim to understand the complexity of the many issues that are happening, nor clearly to have the answers. I don't believe that adding a…that to go over there and bomb them is going to do anything but create more pain and will create reactions that we possibly can't even imagine at this moment.
CP: King Abdullah also said in his remarks that Christians should speak out on behalf of Islam to let others know that true Islam "preaches tolerance and moderation, and rejects extremism and isolationism."
Downey: Absolutely, and I think that His Majesty King Abdullah and Prince Ghazi (bin Muhammad) who attended the conference also, spoke to that. That Islam is at its heart a loving religion. It's the extremists in any form that are creating havoc and hate. The need for tolerance I believe that the king also said, it was the duty to show tolerance. It's all of our duty to show tolerance to each other.
The king is extraordinary though. I think they have continued to be a stable and neutral sanctuary of a country in that region. We were so grateful to be there and to get to share in that, to participate. I felt very privileged to be the only woman in the conference, the only woman to stand up and speak. I think sometimes a thing felt through a woman's heart... We often think that it's not women who are sending their sons out to war.
CP: Was it a large group of attendees?
Downey: Yes. There were probably over 70 leaders representing all of the regional countries there. There were probably another few hundred people in attendance. It was a very full few days.
We also had an opportunity to visit the baptism site of Jesus, which is along the banks of the Jordan River. That was very touching for me to be there at what really is the birthplace of Christianity if you think that's where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. We had an opportunity also to climb up onto Mount Nebo, which is the mountain from which Moses saw the Promised Land. You can look out onto the whole region there, quite extraordinary.
I just came back so upset and knowing that our faith was born in that region. Not suggesting that we should only be concerned about Christians, I just feel that there's no lobby for Arab Christians really in this country. I think that the average American doesn't really think of that region with an…and there being Christians living over there, we're so uninformed in many ways here. I just felt it was my duty to come back and say what I had heard and to speak out.
CP: What do you want to impress on those in the U.S. observing this situation?
Downey: It became so clear to me from listening to the Arab Christian leadership speak that while everyone is upset with Assad, no one over there believes that the answer is military intervention, and that they are praying and urging America not to attack. I think it's important that we in America, particularly Christian America, understand that the fate of Syria's Christian is very much in danger here.