BOB ABERNETHY, host: There was strong and widespread religious opposition this week to the Obama administration’s proposed military strike against the Assad regime in Syria. From the Vatican, Pope Francis called military action futile. He designated Saturday as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria. Several US Christian groups also denounced the use of force, saying it could lead to more violence. The military strike did get support from some Jewish leaders. A group of prominent rabbis wrote to Congress that US action could save thousands of lives.

Meanwhile, the refugee crisis has escalated dramatically. About one-third of Syria’s population has been displaced. More than 2 million people have fled the country and another 4.5 million have left their homes but remain in Syria. The UN described the situation as "the great tragedy of this century."

We get a religious view now on the possibility of a missile strike on Syria and alternatives to it. Kim Lawton, our managing editor, joins me for a conversation with Father Drew Christiansen. Currently at Boston College, he is the former editor of the Jesuit magazine America, newly appointed to the faculty at Georgetown University. Father, welcome, congratulations on your new appointment. What’s the most important reason that you oppose a missile strike against Syria?


REV. DREW CHRISTIANSEN, S.J. (Visiting Scholar, Boston College): Well, I think the missile strike doesn’t do the most essential thing, which is saving the people of Syria. And we could do more if we spent the money we’re spending on bombs on caring for the refugees. We’re the leading donor still, but still, so much...only a third of the money needed for refugees has been given.

ABERNETHY: But Assad used chemical weapons, apparently, on his own people. Isn’t that reason enough for a military strike?

CHRISTIANSEN: It’s no more reason than the 120,000 people he’s killed by other means. It’s a crime of war to kill innocent civilians under any conditions.

KIM LAWTON (Managing Editor, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly): Some people say, though, that this does—the chemical attack—did make a moral difference because it was something the international community has said we will not tolerate, and we need to send a message to other dictators that we will not tolerate that kind of activity.

CHRISTIANSEN: I don’t think that outweighs the need to do something to protect people, generally in Syria, from the kind of destruction that their government is wreaking upon them.

ABERNETHY: How could we do that? How would you—

CHRISTIANSEN: Well, for one, I would give support, as I suggested, to the refugee programs—


ABERNETHY: I understand. But, within Syria…

CHRISTIANSEN: Well, within Syria, I think work has to be done again to get the access to the people in need through the International Committee of the Red Cross. Beyond that, I think that the diplomatic surge, if you will, is needed to try to bring about negotiations among all the sides.

LAWTON: Some people see this, though, as one of those instances where we need to send a strong message. Would that appear to be, in some way, a cop-out from our stated goal of protecting, you know, the responsibility we have to protect people?

ABERNETHY: And losing a lot of credibility?

CHRISTIANSEN: I think it’s a legal and political nicety. The fundamental issue is saving the people. And credibility doesn’t stand up to the justifications for going to war at all. That’s not a just cause for going to war.

ABERNETHY: And so, what do you propose?

CHRISTIANSEN: Well, in addition to the refugee work, I would propose that there really be a campaign at the General Assembly in September, beginning that time, to get the nations of the world on board the negotiation route. And if they do that consistently, as the German foreign minister suggested yesterday, it seems to me that there’s a chance that these things can be resolved.


LAWTON: Some people talk about using the international instruments like the criminal court system to try to, again, send a message: “We won’t tolerate this.”

CHRISTIANSEN: There are problems there, particularly because you need the U.N. to do it, you need it to come from the Security Council and the Russians will veto it. An individual nation could bring charges, but that’s hard to say how that would work.

LAWTON: What are you hearing from your fellow Christians in the region, specifically inside Syria, a minority inside a religiously very divided country?

CHRISTIANSEN: Well, we’re hearing from some people who we know are normally vocal. I haven’t heard many new voices. And the community is divided. Some of the leaders on the political side of the resistance are Christians. But the bishops, in particular, have clung to the Assad regime because it’s protected them for so many years.

LAWTON: Is there a concern that acting, if the U.S. did act, could stoke some of those inter-religious tensions?

CHRISTIANSEN: Oh, there’s a deep fear that if the West intervenes, it’ll be seen as a crusade of Christians against Muslims. And so, you would expect that al-Qaeda and others would go after the Christians in the country.

ABERNETHY: But for you, again, the most important reason for your opposition has to do with...?

CHRISTIANSEN: With the need to protect the people in whatever ways we can and that are now practical.

ABERNETHY: And do you think there is—that we can do that?

CHRISTIANSEN: I think that means can be found internally through the committee of the Red Cross, which does that normally.

ABERNETHY: Father Drew Christiansen. Many thanks to you.

CHRISTIANSEN: Thank you, Bob. Thank you, Kim.

Debating Intervention in Syria

There was strong and widespread religious opposition this week to the Obama administration’s proposed military strike against the Assad regime in Syria. We discuss the possibility of a missile strike, and alternatives to it, with Father Drew Christiansen, former editor of the Jesuit magazine America. “I think the missile strike doesn’t do the most essential thing, which is saving the people of Syria. And we could do more if we spent the money we’re spending on bombs on caring for the refugees,” he says.

  • Bruce Bailey

    The Red Cross has no, and has never had, any control over a thug like Assad.

  • Kimberlee

    I don’t know if these statements are all factual, but this is excerpted from the IRC website for the Syrian Refugee Crisis:

    “The IRC is providing support to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees as well as Syrians inside their war-torn country. We are currently helping refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. In Syria, we have reached more than 700,000 vulnerable people with medical and emergency supplies. Our Emergency Response Team is at work in camps for the displaced, providing clean water and sanitation, education to primary students, and emergency supplies to families.”

    Many more details are provided on the website.

  • Lucy

    Thank you for offering a sane and humane intervention in Syria. As a caring nation, we should be providing aid to those innocents caught in the middle, not killing more of them. How about an all out effort to help the displaced citizens of Syria? Surely this is the best way to earn respect for our country!

  • Holly Huffmen – Matter

    I’m surprised that your producer would sit there and say we (US) need to send a message that chemical weapons wont be tolerated. FIRST: educate yourself! There is no confirmed proof that the Syrian leader used them. What was used was isolated and used by an independent group not connected with the countries leaders.

    If you really want to report the truth, go ask the Syrian people! THEY don’t want us there, WE don’t want us there! Why are you so eager to get more US citizens killed. Think before you speak!

    As for the refugees..they are refugees because they fear US! Not their leader. They are leaving because they fear we are coming. Thanks to Obama we are known worldwide for inciting war, killing innocents and acting on rumors. Sad.

    Obama wont be happy until war rages on the streets in the US. Look at his actions, all he has done is add to the rapid growing number of countries that hate Americans.. The war on terror is against ourselves because we are the ones creating them with every innocent murdered. We are no longer safe and Obama is to blame. It was his goal from the start. He is NOT US born and does NOT have our citizens best interests. Quite the opposite. I challenge ANYONE out there to show me a list of benefits “we the people” have gained against the one of our losses since he took office.

  • Alexandra Kahn

    And how much of humanitarian aid can and will actually reach the people? Too often such aid is sent in and it is confiscated by governments and never reaches the people. War is never good, but I feel there is no other way. We can never trust Assad to rid himself of Chemical warfare against his people, and the only other answer is to find a way to kill Assad—a good answer.

  • Bradley Strump

    Aid going into the country will not reach the people. Assad will see to that. And we cannot support those in refugee camps for generations and generations. The people want to go home and as long as Assad lives, that is impossible.

  • cipher

    You really don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re just a collection of Fox News and Teaparty talking points.