I grew up in a peaceful Mediterranean port city. My mother is Byzantine Orthodox, and my father went to the Presbyterian church in Latakia, started by Scottish missionaries.
The religious elements in the civil war in Lebanon, where I was studying, forced me to re-examine my faith and showed me the power of God. After moving to Europe, thinking about my cultural roots in the Near East ignited the entire concept of the culture of God in my heart and mind.
My family is scattered between Syria, Holland, America, Canada, and the UK. Many Syrian families are similar; thanks to today’s technology, we’re always in touch with each other. I go to Syria two or three times a year, but I’m just starting a new ministry at St Mary Magdalene’s, Wandsworth Common.
My cousin, who lives in Germany, helped me to get a WCC [World Council of Churches] scholarship. As I was writing my Ph.D. in English, I came to Westminster College, Cambridge, for a term. They asked me to teach for another term, and appointed me as their senior chaplain to the universities in London.
In 2000, I was invited to Oberammergau, and met Bishop Michael Marshall, chaplain to the pilgrimage, and we became very good friends. That’s how the Awareness Foundation started. I’d had this vision, since I was 25, to have an organisation which would bring East and West closer. Bishop Michael and Charles Longbottom helped me to set this up in 2003 as an educational Christian charity. We work with all denominations and with all faiths in the Middle East through Ambassadors for Peace and Little Heroes.
Ambassadors for Peace is an ecumenical educational programme for young Syrian and Iraqi men and women, enabling them to develop peace projects which build bridges of mutual respect and understanding in their communities. The war tears those young hearts apart. They ask: how can the world allow such atrocities to take place? We train them to overcome their trauma and anger, and be effective.
Little Heroes provides local and displaced kids aged five to 12 with camps and meetings among refugees on the Syrian coast. Some have never heard a musical instrument, never had colour in their lives; so we’re trying to restore that missed childhood.
Our global programme is PAX, a growing online collection of faith-based videos discussing politics and faith, interfaith relationships, and how to combat extremism. The videos insist on compassion and respect, and demonstrate a Christianity that celebrates diversity and resists extremism and hatred.
In 2004, I became an Anglican, because it balances the heart and mind, reason and spirituality, experience and scripture, and combines my Byzantine Orthodox and Presbyterian backgrounds.
I wrote my book The Culture of God because I’d experienced for such a long time the misconceptions between the Near East and the West. I also wanted to explain the culture of God that profoundly changed my life. Christianity is not a Western phenomenon; so I show its cultural and theological roots.
Culture is the product of a communal life. We’ve always talked about the Trinity in terms of abstract theology, mystery, and faith rather than a practical reality as revealed by God himself. The best way to challenge and build our communities is to understand God as a community.
My familiarity with Levantine culture — Jesus’s own — gave me an understanding of the scriptures that I could never find in a Western Bible commentary. The Levant is the birthplace of all three Abrahamic faiths, and the people are very passionate, driven by their hearts. It’s where cultures and powers have clashed for millennia. As a result, our people have been easy targets for those who twist religion to gain worldly power.
We continue to experience the tragedy of the cross and the glory of the resurrection every day. Working with young people in Syria and Iraq, I’m stunned by the power of the Holy Spirit, transforming their lives and empowering them to become his peace agents in their broken communities. We try our best in Syria to keep the flame burning that we received from the Lord himself.
Many Christians in Britain are still almost embarrassed about their faith, and most don’t warm to the Church as an institution. Sadly, when faith becomes institutionalised, it loses its prophetic voice. Jesus would want us to liberate our faith without losing its orderliness, giving the Holy Spirit a much greater role in the life of the Church, and empowering the young to engage with mainstream churches.
When I was a chaplain at the London School of Economics, a student said: “Father, why are you bothering us with your presence?” I smiled, and said: “That’s exactly why I’m here, to bother you.” He said: “The time of the Church is over. Why can’t you accept it?” After that, we became very good friends, and discussed faith — because I wasn’t English.
It’s an irony: in the past, the Scottish, Americans, and Germans went to the Near East as missionaries, and now you’re calling me a missionary in the West. I don’t disagree with you. The Westernised Church has lost a great deal of its prophetic voice in society. I’m not denying the achievement of the Church, but we have to admit that many people are disenchanted.
I’d redefine what it means to be a bishop. Many bishops have become managers rather than shepherds. Jesus did not come to establish a company with managers — he called us to be shepherds. Bishops should get out from their offices and be what Jesus was. We are the servants of the people in reality, not only as clichés. And also I’d tell a lot of priests to move their bottoms from their offices and get their hands dirty out there. I’m out there every day, and I know how much the people need our listening ears and hearts.
I’m Syrian; so I see things differently. I see the Church as my mother, and my mother taught me that the family is not an institution, but a bond of peace and love. My mother is now 85, and still is the glue that binds us six children; so we communicate with each other daily. People see the Synod, the conflicts, the discussions. . . The tender, loving, self-giving side is there, but if it was more visible, we wouldn’t see a lot of our churches empty.
You cannot reach anywhere if you don’t love the culture you live in. London and England have opened their arms wide for me; so my critical voice comes out of a loving heart. Our Lord, because he loved his culture, he could be critical. I challenge the Church here not because I’m a stranger, no; I’ve been here 20 years, and feel great love for the country.
I’m passionate about art, and I paint. My influence is iconography, although I cannot write icons. I also enjoy reading, and write Arabic poetry, and I love walking in nature. I particularly love the sea.
War, and the devastation that senseless killing brings, makes me angry — in the name of any religion or ideology. The culture of peace is also part of the culture of God. A child’s smile makes me happy.
Prayer, for me, isn’t kneeling down or reciting familiar words, even less presenting God with requests. It’s the engagement between my life and the culture of God in every single little detail of my everyday life.
I’d choose to be locked in a church with St John the Evangelist. I’d have endless questions and things to share with him. As a second choice, Gilgamesh, the King who ruled the city of Ur and who gave everything up to go on a journey to find eternal life.
Fr Nassar was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. The Culture of God is published by Hodder Faith at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.49). Listen to him talk about the book on The Church Times Podcast