The following is a public service announcement to mainstream journalists who are frantically trying to cover all of the different political angles of the current Syrian refugee debates: Please remember that the word "Syrian" does not equal "Muslim."
This is, of course, a variation on another equation that causes trouble for some journalists who are not used to covering religion: "Arab" does not equal "Muslim."
Thus, if and when you seek the viewpoints of Arab refugees who are already settled in America, including those who came here during previous waves of bloodshed in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, please strive to interview a few Syrian Christians and members of other religious minorities.
This is especially important when covering tensions in the declining industrial cities of the Midwest and Northeast, where Arabs of all kinds have been settling for generations. You will often find that many of these tensions are, literally, ancient.
This is a rather personal issue for me, since my family was part of an Orthodox parish for four years in South Florida (including 9/11) in which most of the families had Syrian and Lebanese roots. It also helps to remember that many people who come to America from Lebanon were driven into Lebanon by persecution in Syria, much earlier in the 20th Century.
To see these factors at work, check out this recent Associated Press "Big Story" feature that took the time to talk to a variety of voices on both sides of some of these divides.
ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) -- A few days ago, a pastor asked Syrian-born restaurant owner Marie Jarrah to donate food to a welcoming event for recently arrived Syrian refugees. Jarrah, who said she regularly helps people in need, declined.
Like many of Allentown's establishment Syrians, she doesn't think it's a good idea to bring refugees to the city. She clung to that view even before last week's terrorist attacks in Paris. "Problems are going to happen," said Jarrah, co-owner of Damascus Restaurant in a heavily Syrian enclave.
This brings me to another crucial point. When interviewing members of religious minorities linked to Syria, try to grasp that there is a difference between "supporting" the leader of the current government and reluctantly supporting that government, in part because of its long history of protecting religious minorities from jihadist elements. There are Syrians who fiercely defend President Bashar al-Assad and then there are those who totally understand that he is a monster, but a monster that is not committed to killing them. Click here ("The evil the church already knows in Syria") for some background.
For example of this puzzle, see the following in the AP report:
Pennsylvania's third-largest city is home to one of the nation's largest populations of Syrians. They are mostly Christian and, in no small number, support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- a dynamic that's prompting some of them to oppose the resettlement of refugees, who are Muslim and say they fled violence perpetrated by the Assad regime.
Aziz Wehbey, an Allentown auto dealer and president of the American Amarian Syrian Charity Society, worries some Syrian refugees might have taken part in the fighting in Syria's civil war and have "blood on their hands."
"We need to know who we are welcoming in our society," said Wehbey, who immigrated to the United States a quarter-century ago and became a citizen.
Very little nuance there.
The AP team, I am glad to say, did a better job of showing that there are diverse points of view concerning the basic refugee settlement question on both sides of this religious divide -- in a Syrian community that dates back into the 19th Century. I thought this passage was especially effective:
"I don't have a problem with anyone coming here. I came to America as an immigrant. That's what I am," said Osama Dayoub, 23, who was raised in Syria but moved to Allentown in 1999 and gained citizenship. "You're going to make them feel uncomfortable? No. Let them live."
An Orthodox church where many pro-Assad Syrians worship -- and which recently sent a delegation to the Russian embassy in Washington to express gratitude for Russia's backing of Assad and its airstrikes in Syria -- is hosting a benefit next month for Syrian refugees locally and abroad. The church has already directly assisted a Muslim refugee family in Allentown.
"We are concerned like everyone else," said Nasser Sabbagh, a board member of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church and brother of the pastor. "We are concerned about the safety of the Lehigh Valley community and the Syrian community." But, he said, the refugees "are not terrorists. . I don't think we should isolate them and push them way."
So there are Syrians who are working to help the incoming refugees, while also cautious about screening issues. There are Syrians who do not want to see Damascus fall -- placing one of the region's last surviving Christian communities in the path of ISIS -- but who favor careful, discerning efforts to help those fleeing the current fighting.
As I read this story, I wondered about two issues: (1) Do these former refugees, and the descendents of refugees, feel differently about resettling intact Muslim refugee families, as opposed to accepting a wave of young, male, single Muslim refugees? (2) What is their take on the fact that the United States government seems be accepting an unusually low number of Arab Christians, in terms of the percentage of refugees who are currently fleeing the fighting in Iraq and Syria?
Just asking. However, this AP story did a good job of showing a few of the complexities hidden in this major issue in the news.