Houses of worship in Northwest Bergen open doors to Syrian refugees
Oakland — When leaving home and traveling to an unknown land, there often are myriad reasons why. Freedom. Opportunity. Even survival.
For Sandy Khabbazeh, it was all of the above. Leaving her home in Aleppo, Syria, and her parents and older brother was by no means an easy decision, but it had to be made.
“I would consider myself a strong person because I had a lot of difficulty when I got here,” said Khabbazeh at a panel discussion on the Syrian refugee crisis, held at Ponds Reformed Church on Oct. 6.
The panel discussion was organized so area residents could hear firsthand the dangers and difficulties of being a refugee. Its goals were to elicit their feelings about the crisis and ascertain what they and the government could do to help the refugees.
Khabbazeh is one of the estimated 9.5 million Syrians who have been displaced by the civil war that broke out in 2011. As many as 6.5 million remain internally displaced. Arriving in 2014 on a student visa, Khabbazeh is being hosted by Rev. Nathan S. Busker of Pond’s Church, who moderated the discussion.
“It was about a year ago this month that Sandy knocked on the side door here, where our offices are located, and asked just to come in and pray,” recounted Busker. “From that moment, we began to befriend Sandy and get to know her. In January, she moved in with my family and she’s been there since.”
Upon hearing Khabbazeh and Busker’s story, religious leaders such as Minister Nolan Psalma of Upper Ridgewood Community Church, Imam Mahmoud Hamza of the Muslim Society of Ridgewood and Imam Mohammad Moutaz Charaf of the Elzahara Education Foundation in Midland Park expressed solidarity across religious lines and hoped to help housing refugees through their respective clergies just as Busker has.
The church leaders looked to panelist Robert Pettet, district director for Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5th District), for answers on ways they and their clergies could help, citing the government roadblocks often faced in the sponsorship process.
“If there are folks that come here and are brought here in more than one sponsorship where there’s a group of individuals, it’s not the government’s responsibility, is it?” said Pettet. “It’s ours. Because we are the people.”
While most agreed with personal accountability, no direct answers on the individual sponsorship procedure were offered. Pettet acknowledged his own lack of preparation and emphasized community accountability for the issue. Residents and church leaders pressed the issue, reiterating that their churches are already willing to help.
“I agree with that 100 percent, but if the government doesn’t allow refugees to come, we cannot help,” said Psalma.
For panelist Joseph Hakim, chairman of the International Christian Union, U.S. intervention is essential. Hakim, who was born in Lebanon, acknowledged the need to protect refugees but expressed a fear of what the influx of refugees would bring.
“I’m afraid if [immigrants are] going to be coming to America for their hidden agenda, I have a problem with that,” Hakim said. “If they want to come to America with the understanding that we’re all coming to America for a better future and a better life, and learn from the Americans what they can leave us with, towards the future, then immigration is the right thing to do.”
Michael Karsan of Oakland echoed his sentiment, fearing that the migration of refugees coupled with those from Mexico could threaten the nation’s identity.
“We haven’t even got a language anymore…You’ve got millions of people coming here and they’re looking to shortcut the system. We don’t know who they are.”
But most of the some 30 people in attendance asked the same question: What can we do to help? With Ponds Church owning an adjacent property, normally used to house families that have fallen on hard times, and the Ridgewood and Midland Park churches having their own facilities, some resources exist to aid the refugees. All, then, that remains is the question of getting started.
“The ability for me to say, ‘OK, we can probably get Congress to act on this next week and we can have this immediately,’ Id be a fool to promise,” Pettet said. “I can’t. I don’t know. I don’t know the dynamics of what’s moving. I don’t know the dynamics of certain security concerns and processing concerns. What I can say is that if there are folks that are with us now that have immigration problems and it falls right into the purview of what we are doing currently as an office, we get to work right away on it. We can move on that.”
While Busker acknowledged that answers from the federal government have not been clear, he said that progress had been made and residents and churches are taking it upon themselves to move forward.
“The whole purpose of the gathering was to see if there were other people that were equally frustrated and concerned,” said Busker. “So what’s been happening is I’ve been receiving emails from the Ridgewood contingent that we’re going to get together and we’re going to identify what are the next steps now.”
For Khabbazeh, the discussion ended on a hopeful note.
“She was able to meet some of the leaders from Ridgewood,” said Busker. “They’ve emailed and texted her with both their support. There are people outside our church that care about her, her family and what’s happening.”
Front Page Magazine Interview with the Chairman, Joseph Hakim
March 9, 2015 by
A conversation with Joseph Hakim, President of the International Christian Union.
The recent beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian workers in Libya by Islamic State (IS) affiliates prompted a conversation with Joseph Hakim, President of the International Christian Union (ICU), an umbrella organization that seeks to secure the wellbeing and survival of Middle Eastern Christians. Hakim is a Lebanese-born Orthodox Christian and a proud American.
Joseph Puder: You’re the President of the International Christian Union, an organization that focuses on the plight of Middle East Christians; as such, what would you ask our US government to do in order to alleviate the suffering of Christian minorities in the Muslim Middle East?
Joseph Hakim: In the Middle East today, Christians are getting killed daily, their homes are being destroyed, young girls are raped by Muslims, and Christian refugees are escaping ISIS terror to Iraqi Kurdistan or Turkey, living in leaky tents during the cold winter. While all this is happening, President Obama and his administration are silent, along with the rest of the world. We do not expect the President to take action to alleviate Christian suffering in the Middle East. The ICU however, would like US Congress to be true to its commitment to uphold religious freedom, and safeguard the lives of our Christian brothers in the Middle East with an extensive humanitarian rescue action.
JP: The Lebanese constitution set up the presidency to be occupied by a Christian. For almost a year there has been no acting president in Lebanon; can the Christians in Lebanon regain their constitutional prerogatives? And how did the Taif Agreement change things for Christians in Lebanon?
JH: Lebanon’s independence in the 1940’s meant to give Christians a safe haven in the region. The Christian architects of the state thought that if they could build a nation based on equality and human rights, a secular nation would emerge that would impact the surrounding states. The Muslim nations, on the other hand, were thinking of how to Islamize Lebanon. Since the 1950’s, Christians in Lebanon have been under siege. When Israel and the US came to help the Christians in 1982, the Arabs lobbied the US to refrain from helping the Christians. President Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, and his brother Amin Gemayel who succeeded him, refused to engage with Israel as his brother did. At that point, Arab-Muslim petro-dollars bought off Christian politicians such as Amin Gemayel, Samir Geagea, Elie Hobeika, and General Michel Aoun. These figures under different patrons fought with each other, and damaged Christian community interests. It ultimately led to the decline of the Christian power and position.
The rivalry among these Christian figures enabled the implementation of the Taif Agreement, which split the Lebanese Parliament into 50% Christian – 50% Muslim. Most importantly however, the constitution allocated the presidency to a Christian, but under the Taif Agreement, the office lost its executive power, which in turn was given to the Prime Minister who is constitutionally a Sunni-Muslim. Now, both the Sunni and Shia Muslims are playing the Christian political leaders mentioned above, with the goal of dividing power by thirds between the three major confessional groups: One third Christian, one third Sunni, and one third Shia.
To the question of whether the Christians can regain their constitutional power, the answer is no. To maintain the Christian character of Lebanon, the world Christian powers must commit their resources to it, and seek to replace the current corrupt Christian political leaders who do the bidding for Islamic Arab and Iranian petro-dollars.
JP: Is Hezbollah destined to be the major force in Lebanon, or do you predict changes to come as a result of the war in Syria?
JH: I believe that as long as the current US administration is in power, nothing will change regarding Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon. The bottom line is that as long as Assad’s Syria is strong, Hezbollah will be on top. If the Assad regime is defeated, it will lose some power in Lebanon. Hezbollah is committed to controlling Lebanon at all costs. While the Christian youths are partying in the cafes of Beirut, the Islamists, Palestinians, IS, and Hezbollah maintain heavily armed and trained militias.
JP: Daesh or the Islamic State (IS) just overran two Christian villages in Syria. Previously, Christian clergy have been kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by IS. How do you see the situation for Syrian Christians in the coming months and years? Can the Christians in Syria survive Daesh? What must be done to save them?
JH: News sources reported that 300 Christians have been seized in the Hassakeh province of Syria recently by IS, who raided as many as 33 villages. The ancient Assyrian Christian community has been the primary victim of IS brutality. It seems as if history is repeating itself. One hundred years ago it was the Ottoman Muslim Turks who, like IS, perpetrated genocide on Christians.
Recently, Christians began to defend themselves, but it is too little, too late. They are fighting IS with few weapons and no training, and they are no match for IS’s arms and fighters. The ICU has requested the international community to send either UN or NATO troops to protect the vulnerable Christians from being massacred by the bloodthirsty savages of IS. We also demand that the governments of Turkey and Qatar stop their financial support of IS.
JP: The Washington Post had an opinion piece on September 19, 2014 titled; Christianity in Iraq is finished. It described the horrific plight of Christians in Iraq. Do you believe that Christian life in Iraq could be revived?
JH: Anytime and anywhere non-Muslims live under Sharia Law, the system will classify and treat the non-Muslim as second-class citizens. In the 1950’s my dad was working in Iraq, and while riding in a bus on a hot day, his sweat dripped from his arm onto a Muslim sitting next to him. At the same time, his tattoo with the image of Christ on his arm was exposed. The Muslim called him a kafir, and publicly insulted him with impunity. Unless Islam goes through a liberal transformation, Iraq’s Christian community will die a slow death, and ultimately disappear. Many Iraqi Christians have fled to Kurdish areas, Turkey, and when possible, the West. Christian life in Iraq is unlikely to be revived.
JP: The Islamic Republic of Iran has cracked down on religious freedom. It accuses converts to Christianity with apostasy, and many of them languish in prison. What should the US government do in this regard while the negotiations with Iran are ongoing?
JH: The US Commission on International Religious Freedom reported Christians in Iran face harassment, intimidation, discrimination, arrests, and imprisonment. Dissidents and human rights defenders are increasingly subject to abuse and several were sentenced to death and even executed for the alleged capital crime of “waging war against God.” The number of Christians imprisoned for their faith increased last year. Iranian authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained about 400 Christians throughout the country. As of February, 2014, at least 40 Christians were in prison, detained, or awaiting trial because of their religious beliefs.
In January, 2013, Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born American pastor, was sentenced in a trial without due process to eight years in prison for “threatening the national security of Iran” for his activity in the Christian House Church movement. Pastor Abedini had been in Iran since June, 2012, to establish an orphanage and was arrested and imprisoned in September, 2012. He is presently in solitary confinement and was physically and psychologically abused. The US government is aware of it, but has continued to dialogue with Iran without attempting to alleviate the condition or protect the Christians in Iran.
JP: How do you see the future of Christians in the Middle East?
JH: Christians need a state of their own and an alliance with the US, and Israel. Otherwise, being leaderless and without a military force, Christians have no chance to survive.