An Interview with Mindy Belz
By Wendy Murray
If you are anything like I am, the ongoing struggles with various countries in the Middle East generally and the suffering country of Syria particularly, become too taxing and complicated to get my head around. Feeling helpless and confused, I am tempted to stop listening. Yet I am summoned to try. I hope you feel similar conviction.
Thankfully, my friend and colleague, fellow journalist Mindy Belz, not only understands this part of world lucidly, interprets its complexities cogently, and has traveled to and reported on the region extensively; but she is also large-souled. This suffuses her sensibilities about this part of our broken world with conviction. She can help us understand and guide us as to how to act.
Mindy, editor of WORLD magazine (since 2004), served as the magazine’s international editor from 1986 to 2004 and has trotted the world many times over never taking the easy ride. Months after 9/11 she traveled to Beirut, along with family members of 9/11 victims–to attend a meeting of Muslim and Christian religious leaders. In 2002 she made her first reporting trip to Iraq—crossing the Tigris River in a motorboat to avoid monitors for the Saddam Hussein regime. That launched a decade of reporting on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including embeds with the U.S. military, coverage of Iraqi refugees in Syria, and reporting from Afghan villages and among Afghanistan’s fledgling Christian community. She has covered war in the Balkans, Sudan (including Darfur–now South Sudan), Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Mindy recently took time to help me better understand what is at stake in Syria and, hence the region and –ultimately — for all of us:
Why should Christians care about what is going on Syria?
Mindy: Two reasons, at least: First, when 9 million people out of a country of 20 million are somehow affected by war—forced from their homes, faced with food and medical shortages, injured or killed—we should take note and try to relieve that suffering. Second, the Christian community in Syria has been one of the most vibrant in the region and the longest-surviving. It also historically sheltered other persecuted believers, including Armenian Christians and more recently Iraqi Christians. We in the West tend to be rootless people, always reinventing ourselves and chasing the latest thing. But I believe the treasured legacy of Christianity in Syria is something we can learn from and should want to protect.
What is at the heart of this conflict and why did Anne Richard, the assistant secretary of state for population, call it “the suicide of Syria”? [Asst. Secretary Richard was speaking on Tues., Jan 7, at a Senate hearing a week before an international donors conference in Kuwait.]
Mindy: The conflict grew out of other Arab-Spring movements, with Syrians taking to the streets in protest of the oppression of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Assad cracked down harshly on those protests, inciting armed rebel groups to spring into action. What’s become clear over nearly three years of fighting is that the rebels have been overtaken by outsiders — notably al-Qaeda affiliates with backing from Saudi Arabia and other states. It has become—and could openly widen into—a war between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and its allies, and Shiite Iran.
[“Sunni Muslims believe and confirm that Abu Bakr was chosen by the community and that this was the proper procedure. Sunnis further argue that a caliph should ideally be chosen by election or community consensus. Shi’a Muslims believe that Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad, should have replaced Muhammad as Caliph and that Caliphs were to assume authority through appointment by God rather than being chosen by the people, causing Ali to attempt to exterminate them.” (Wikipedia). To learn more about the nuances of contemporary Islam, see my article, Islam, U.S.A, Christianity Today (4/3/2000)]
In your purview of this region generally, and in your knowledge of Syria specifically, has the United States contributed to this catastrophe?
Mindy: In this case of Syria the U.S. entered in by standing with one side, the rebels. That’s a very different position from defending a political process, such as we did in Iraq, defending the right of Iraqis to choose their leaders. Another way to say it: by choosing sides in Syria we’ve sided with some of the same terrorists U.S. troops fought in Iraq. By siding with one over the other the U.S. has become small, in my opinion, diminishing the role we could otherwise bring to this situation as as a broker, not a partisan. One major and devastating result has been — getting back to the “suicide” comment– the Assad government has blocked aid to areas not in its control, while the rebels have blocked aid to other places, hurting everyone. The U.S. customarily could come in this kind of situation to try to move negotiations forward, but we have failed to do so. In the meantime this country self-destructs. In over 20 years of covering international conflict—in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan—I’ve never seen us bungle so badly.
The problem of what to do seems two-fold: One, people do not understand the complex nature of what is happening here and two, even if they did and if they felt compelled to act, they do not know what to do on an individual level. How can this disconnect be redressed?
Mindy: I think our policy leaders, even going back to the time of the Bush administration and the Iraq war, have done an abysmal job of making the case to the American public for a strategic role for the United States in the wider Middle East. If they did that, that is if they spoke plainly about the need to combat Islamic terrorism because of its threat to Americans and to all people everywhere, I think Americans would better understand the need to act. And from that, both policymakers and the rest of us would see the value of standing alongside minority communities in the Middle East, particularly Christians, who aren’t taking up roadside bombs and wearing suicide vests.
What is the best work going on right now in Syria to help the suffering of the people and how can the believing community help in this effort practically?
There are a lot of faith-based organizations working effectively with church networks inside Syria and among refugees in bordering countries. I talk about them here. And when traveling in Syria I’ve seen the supplies and work of groups like Barnabas Fund, Voice of the Martyrs, Food for the Hungry, and Samaritan’s Purse. I know there are others—the Mennonite Central Committee, for instance, have had a strong aid presence in Iraq when few others did. That’s a start. An important question to ask is whether aid groups have local Syrian partners. Absent that, it’s very hard for aid to get through.
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In addition to publication in WORLD, Mindy’s reporting has been published overseas, as well as in First Things, Frontpage Magazine, and The Weekly Standard. She has appeared on Fox News and ABC News and is a regular guest on radio talk shows.
Mindy is a former Capitol Hill congressional staffer, and she attended George Washington University. She grew up in Richmond, VA, but for more than 25 years has lived in Asheville, N.C., where she is also a wife and mother of four grown children.