Christianity Today | The Road from Damascus: How an Evangelical Syrian Spoke at Harvard’s Commencement
Following Turkey’s recent incursion into Syria and establishment of a “safe zone” in coordination with Russia, the beleaguered nation faces another refugee crisis. According to the United Nations, 6.7 million Syrians have registered with their High Commission for Refugees. Turkey hoststhe largest share, with 3.4 million, followed by Lebanon with 1 million.
The United States: 21,645, according to official State Department figures, from the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Of those, 536 were admitted in the last 12 months.
Of the total, 21,245 are Muslim, compared to only 211 Christians, including five Protestants. Tony Alkhoury is not one of them. But his is a story of potential for those allowed in.
Born in Homs and an evangelical Christian, he is 1 of 450 Syrians in the US on an active student visa.
In Arabic, Alkhoury’s family name means “the priest.” Currently pursuing a PhD in practical theology at Fuller Seminary, in 2016 he began a unique cross-cultural ministry adventure—at Harvard University.
Through it drove the divinity student to the depths of depression, it ended with rapturous applause.
“I want to live, I want to love, and I want to be loved,” he told the student body, which selected him to deliver the commencement address this past May. “I want to fight to keep hope and make meaning of all the things that I do not have control over.”
In the prime of his life, Alkhoury witnessed the destruction of Syria. America might have been a refuge for many, until President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
Syrian visas reached a high point of 15,479 in 2016, the year of Alkhoury’s arrival. In January 2017, Trump issued his executive order banning citizens of initially seven Muslim-majority nations—challenged consistently in the courts and modified to include non-Muslim countries—and the number dipped to 3,024. In 2018, it fell to 41.
The meaning of it all, for which Alkhoury has long been seeking, has been years in the making.
Born in 1984 to Orthodox parents, he attended the local Alliance church in Homs. In 2005, he felt a call to full-time ministry.
Alkhoury became a youth pastor, volunteering also in peacemaking initiatives. Initially excited by the Arab Spring in 2011, he soured when it was hijacked by Islamic extremists. But his local university studies in pharmacology kept him off the front lines, as conflict plagued his war-torn city.
Following graduation in 2014, he prepared to pursue his theological studies in Egypt. But he desired to study in the US, and his senior pastor connected him to an evangelical-backed rescue operation.
Celebrities and religious freedom advocates—including Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, Glenn Beck, and Johnnie Moore— cooperated in various initiatives to raise millions of dollars to help displaced Christian refugees, relocating more than 10,000 to a dozen different nations.
Among the programs created was the Nazarene Fund, which agreed to support Alkhoury in America following his acceptance and full ride scholarship to Harvard Divinity School (HDS).
“I met him because evangelical pastors in Syria chose to stay, but also chose to send Tony here,” said Johnnie Moore, a founder of the Nazarene Fund.
Alkhoury applied to Harvard because he wanted to be challenged outside his conservative Christian bubble. Like many American evangelicals going off to college, he was.
His first roommate was an atheist, homosexual Jew. Touched by Alkhoury’s story, he offered free rent and sincere friendship.
And though at Harvard he was accepted warmly as a Syrian, some of Alkhoury’s colleagues were vocal in questioning how the university could accept an incoming contingent of American evangelical students.
But he also discovered like-minded evangelicals equally critical of the progressives.
“It breaks my heart to hear liberal friends talk about conservatives, and vice versa, implying they are bad people,” Alkhoury said. “Many people have a false tolerance.”
It was a difficult experience. At Harvard, he discovered the rhetoric of acceptance and inclusion. Yet when given the chance to actually engage different opinions, many progressives drew back.
“Dialogue is hard,” he said. “It isn’t fun.”
But he also had a message for the US church: Judge ideas, not people. No matter their politics, everyone can contribute positively to America.
Alkhoury stuck at it through the trials of language, culture, and homesickness. Trauma from Syria and anxiety in America plagued his studies. But both liberal and conservative friends helped him along, and his “American mother,” an evangelical Catholic, housed him with her husband for three months. She sees the hand of God in her “third son.”
“Tony had a fear of being persecuted at Harvard, but was received with love and care,” said Suzanne Grishman, CEO of Mercury One, which administers the Nazarene Fund.
“God uniquely positioned him to bring people together in civil discourse.”
Moore told CT that during commencement he couldn’t go three feet on campus without discovering someone—and all different types of someone—who spoke warmly of Tony.
And in the end, they voted for him to close their university experience.
“May the name of Jesus protect you,” Alkhoury began his speech, using a traditional Syrian Christian greeting. He proceeded to openly speak of his belief in the absolute universal truth of Jesus.
But he also praised the richness and genuineness of other faith expressions he discovered. And rather than challenging the student body, and through them America, he chose instead to confess his fear.
“When I left Syria, the country was engulfed in civil war, torn between those who are proponents of the regime and those who are opposing it,” Alkhoury told the student body.
“Both were completely and are still completely convinced that they are serving the country, but they are not.
“I feel terrified when I witness a similar polarization in the US today.”
Alkhoury graduated with a masters degree in divinity, but cannot yet divine his future. He can remain in America as long as he continues his education. But if he visits Syria, he fears the travel ban would bar his return.
Mercury One is ready to hire him as a spiritual case worker to counsel those who share his wartime experience—and worse. Grishman noted his “amazing ability” with various trauma victims, including ISIS captives.
But his application for an employment-based green card through Mercury One was rejected, and is now under court appeal.
His long-term goal is to be a connection between the American and Syrian churches, in order to support Middle East ministries from the United States.
Meanwhile back in Syria, his father underwent open heart surgery, and his mother is suffering from breast cancer. In Homs, life is now relatively peaceful, suffering only a few hours of blackouts each day.
“I pray the American government can look into my case quickly, so I can travel and see my ill parents,” Alkhoury said. “Everything depends on that, and I put it in God’s hands.”
As he does Syria.
“This disaster is certainly not from God,” he said, “but God is willing to partner with us to bring life out of these deadly events.
“The church has a responsibility to respond. And when people want to do something positive, they can do it.”
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