Syrian Crisis Splits Activists And Religious Groups Over Aid

The Syrian civil war is now in its fourth year. Many are calling it the worst humanitarian situation in a generation. Faith groups and human rights activists are divided over what to do.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The war in Syria is being called the worst humanitarian crisis of this generation. President Obama has faced criticism from some for not taking decisive action in the conflict. But at the same time, there has not been much public outcry for the U.S. to get more involved. Religious groups and activists, who came together a decade ago to rally against another atrocity, the genocide in Darfur, are split over Syria. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When President Obama was trying to decide how to respond to last year's chemical weapons attack in Syria, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) started a campaign to urge the U.S. not to launch air strikes against the Syrian regime. Reached by phone in Kentucky, Rev. Laurie Krauss says, this is what the church's partners in Syria wanted.

REV. LAURIE KRAUSS: Our partners have asked us to support a mediated process and to try to keep us out of it, militarily, thinking that that would make a situation of misery on all sides that much worse.

KELEMEN: Krauss, who runs the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Program, traveled to Syria, earlier the year, to meet her partners in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. She and visiting European clergy also had a rare meeting with Syria's president, Bashar al Assad.

KRAUSS: One of the reasons, I think, that our partners wanted us to go and sit with Assad is because, whatever his other many faults and, of course, they are manifold, he does support a pluralistic religious presence in Syria.

KELEMEN: Her church was one of the many religious groups that were active in the Save Darfur campaign a decade ago, calling for tougher action to end atrocities against civilians in the western part of Sudan. But while that storyline was simplified in a way that rallied a broad coalition, Kraus says, the narrative in Syria is more complicated.

KRAUSS: The simple story of Assad is bad and the opposition people are like Arab Spring. That's just not holding up.

KELEMEN: Because, she says, there's a clear al-Qaida presence among some rebel groups. That's also a concern for Rabbi Charles Feinberg, a long-time activist on Darfur, who has not yet spoken out in his synagogue here in Washington about the situation in Syria.

RABBI CHARLES FIENBERG: The Assad regime has been horrible, but so have many - there have been many atrocities committed by a number of the rebel groups.

KELEMEN: He's worried about the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views of the many of the extremist groups fighting in Syria. So Feinberg says, it's difficult to know how best to end atrocities or even help on the humanitarian front.

FIENBERG: The religious community needs to be challenged on that 'cause, I think, the humanitarian crisis is extraordinarily grave. And we've been derelict a bit in our duty in trying to - trying to separate out the politics, which no one can really understand or have sympathy for in the humanitarian crisis.

KELEMEN: The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum did take a trip to a refugee camp in Jordan and has been trying to highlight the humanitarian crisis in and around Syria. Cameron Hudson, who runs the museum's Center for the Prevention of Genocide, says it's been difficult to create the kind of broad-based advocacy that the museum did around Darfur in part because of Syria's place on the map.

CAMERON HUDSON: The Middle East has often been a polarizing place for faith-based activism. And I think that the Syria conflict crosses a lot of interfaith lines because it does enter into talk of Iran and Israel and Sunni-Shia and a lot of different divides.

KELEMEN: And it's not just the murky situation on the ground, says Bennett Freeman, who was, until recently, the Vice Chair of the board of United to End Genocide, an follow-on organization from the Save Darfur Coalition. He says, activists are war-weary after Iraq, and that worries him.

BENNETT FREEMAN: I would like to have thought we would have learned the lessons of Rwanda and Bosnia from the 1990's, and then Darfur from a decade ago, that when there is genocide or mass atrocities or use of weapons of mass destruction against unarmed civilians, that nations like the United States would be willing to intervene.

KELEMEN: But intervene toward what end? - wonders Rev. Krauss of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Program.

KRAUSS: Sometimes when Americans can't reduce it to a simple story, they just sort of tend to neglect it. Because it's too complicated to figure out how to help and who to help.

KELEMEN: She says, that's even making it harder for her group to raise money for relief. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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