How an Evangelical Syrian Spoke at Harvard’s Commencement

Image: Courtesy of Tony Alkhoury

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 hosts the 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, Chris Seiple, 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.

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Source: Christianity Today