Leading light: Father Nadim Nassar crosses the divides

The only Syrian priest in the Church of England began his interfaith work while studying theology amid the 'living hell' of civil war. It wasn’t long before he realised that peace-making was needed everywhere, not just Lebanon

Since the age of 25, Rev Dr Nadim Nassar, above at Holy Trinity Sloane Square in Chelsea, London, had dreamed of working between the religions of the East and West, to establish dialogue and defeat ignorance. It is how the Awareness Foundation came to life. Photo: Mark Chilvers
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In an office high in the gallery of the magnificent Holy Trinity Sloane Square church in Chelsea, the thoughts of Nadim Nassar were interrupted by a phone ringing early one winter’s morning.

“Father Nadim?” the voice through the receiver said. “This is Buckingham Palace.”

“And I’m God,” the Rev Dr Nadim Nassar thought to himself. “How can I help?” is what he actually said.

When the caller insisted several more times that it really was Buckingham Palace, Father Nadim activated the phone’s speaker so that those in the room could hear as an invitation to dinner some months off was conveyed from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.

“I replied, ‘Let me check my diary’ because that’s what I always say when someone asks me about a date,” Father Nadim tells The National. “By this time, my assistant was hopping around the room, mortified. Luckily, the man on the end of the phone laughed and laughed.”

Warm and affable, Father Nadim is a natural narrator, a quality he attributes to the Middle East – and specifically Levantine – tradition of storytelling.

Every anecdote has the unmistakable ring of a parable. It is no coincidence that his first book, The Culture of God: The Syrian Jesus, places Christian teachings back in the context of the Levant.

In it, the Church of England’s only Syrian priest is an outspoken advocate for western Christians to recognise their Middle East heritage.

“It was a golden opportunity for me to write about my upbringing and reflect, because the publisher wanted that,” Father Nadim recalls.

“They said, ‘You're from Syria. You lived by the sea, like Jesus did by the Sea of Galilee. And so make a comparison.’ And this is what I did.”

He was born in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia in a region known for its high density of Alawites, a sect originating from Shiite Islam to which President Bashar Al Assad belongs, with Sunnis the second largest religious group, and Christians comprising about 10 per cent of the population.

His father, Jad, was a member of the Presbyterian church, established in Syria in the 1850s by Scottish missionaries. He was not, despite being a policeman, a member of the Baath Party because, as he often said, he eschewed dogma.

The young Nadim attended the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church and went to Sunday school with his Greek Orthodox mother, Malkeh. “I had a foot in each,” he says.

The youngest of six children - including two sets of twins born on the same day a year apart - Father Nadim (centre front in 1968) says his opinion was always as valid as everyone's in the family. Photo: Nadim Nassar

Even now, he has an affinity for water and is effusive about those who live near it. “Coastal communities tend to be more open to the world than inland cities, and they’re open-minded, too,” he says.

“My nickname when I was growing up was Ibn al Bahr, ‘Son of the Sea’. Like the sea, I can be passionate and stormy.”

The youngest of six children, including two sets of twins born on the same day a year apart, Father Nadim says no decision was ever imposed on any of them and that his opinion was always as valid as everyone’s in the family.

He recalls watching his mother, a seamstress, marking fabric with a piece of soap before “destroying it” with a large pair of scissors. “I would shudder and ask her if she wasn’t terrified of making a mistake,” he says.

“She wouldn’t understand my worry, and it was only when I saw these pieces coming together to form a beautiful dress that I understood. And she said to me, ‘If you don't destroy the fabric, you can never make a dress.’

“It’s like the cross,” he explains, “Without it, we don’t have the resurrection.”

A Muslim leader in the Scouting movement was a big inspiration for a teenaged Nadim and his friends, encouraging curiousity and asking questions to open their minds. Photo: Nadim Nassar

He talks about three childhood friends, Bassam and Nicola, who were Christian, and Nidal, a Muslim, and their search to find themselves, and the truth. In this, they were challenged by their Muslim scout leader.

“He was a huge inspiration for me, encouraging our curiosity, asking us questions to open our minds. And so it was that I suddenly met this person, Christ.”

Despite no one in his family having been in the clergy, Nadim travelled the 250 kilometres to Beirut to study at the School of Theology. He was so young, only 17, that his mother accompanied him on the journey.

It was 1981, and Father Nadim describes the seven years of civil war that followed as “a living hell” in which he lived in constant fear, spending the best of his youth crawling around in the school’s basement to avoid snipers.

“I faced death many times,” he says. “I really faced death, and was very, very close to dying from sniper bullets and street fighting.”

Graduation day from the School of Theology in Beirut in 1988 after seven harrowing years in which Nadim Nassar says he spent the best days of his youth crawling around in a basement trying to avoid snipers. Photo: Nadim Nassar

As a passenger in one of the last five cars to leave Beirut before the city was closed in 1988, Father Nadim felt that God had spared him for a purpose.

He went to Cyprus through Syria for a year to help edit a hymnal, where he found some immediate relief from the daily perils of Lebanon’s civil war but was faced with internecine tensions of a different nature.

“I lived in Limassol which gave me a wonderful opportunity to get to know the Greek culture, but it also sparked in me the need for peace-making because it was so sad to see Nicosia divided like that," Father Nadim says.

"It was my first experience of a city divided after Beirut, which was divided from east to west, but not by a wall. It made me think that peace-making is needed everywhere, not just Lebanon.”

The student was poised to fly west to continue his theological journey but the Presbyterian Church had a job for him to do, back home in Latakia.

“I really didn’t want to go – I had grown up there – and I said to God, ‘You’ll have to drag me there by my ear’ as we say in Arabic.

"I was sent there and it was an incredible two years. But after that I wanted more than ever to go into further education so I went to Germany.”

While studying at Goettingen University, battling with a new language, Father Nadim turned to art as therapy when he needed a reprieve.

He still paints, and once sold a canvas depicting two half portraits – one of Jesus, the other of Buddha – for £12,000 ($15,916) to raise money for charity.

Father Nadim Nassar, above in 1994 in Germany, began painting while studying at Goettingen University, and still enjoys art as therapy. Photo: Nadim Nassar

Because his PhD thesis was in English, he eventually moved to Westminster College, Cambridge, on a short scholarship to be able to access secondary literature that was not available in Lower Saxony.

He returned to Germany only to receive a call from a minister in the United Reform Church offering him the post of senior chaplain to the universities and colleges in London.

“And I said, ‘Goodness me, this is a senior job and I'm still a student.’ They said: ‘We don’t care, and we don’t need you to finish your PhD so come to London'.”

The departure led to a chance meeting with Bishop Michael Marshall, the rector of Holy Trinity Sloane Square, who invited him to preach in the striking Arts and Crafts church.

“Since the age of 25, I’d had the dream of doing something between religions, faiths, between East and West, establishing dialogue and defeating ignorance,” Father Nadim says.

“I shared my thoughts with Bishop Michael and he said ‘Well, let's do something about that. Why don't you write your vision on one page of A4?’”

From that piece of paper, the Awareness Foundation sprang to life in 2003 to empower people of faith to embrace diversity.

The Ambassadors for Peace in Iraq, in 2019, an ecumenical educational programme for young Middle East men and women, that aims to empower them to build bridges of mutual respect and understanding in their diverse communities. Photo: Nadim Nassar

The Church of England, little by little, drew in Father Nadim. “I was always more sacramental than Presbyterianism can offer,” he says, “and then there was the combination in Anglicanism of faith and reason. It gave me a spiritual home plus an intellectual challenge.”

Until the pandemic, Father Nadim visited Syria regularly for the foundation to help equip children and young people to “become agents of peace and reconciliation”.

Occasionally on such trips, he is quizzed as to what right he has to speak about the war when he lives comfortably in London with his mother and sister, Houda.

“I always tell them about what I lived through in Lebanon in the 1980s, and then they understand,” Father Nadim says.

In England, he is too frequently for his liking asked ‘When did you become a Christian?’, and was even told by one well-meaning congregant how nice it was to have an imam visit.

“I am often faced with an enormous amount of ignorance in the West, about Christianity in the Near East, even from people in the Church,” he says.

“I often reply, ‘If you know that St Paul became Christian on the road to Damascus, as the saying so beloved of the British goes, why are you surprised that I am a Christian?’

"That Damascus in the saying has nothing to do in their minds with the Damascus that is still the oldest inhabited capital in the world.”

Nadim Nassar during his ordination as a deacon in 2003. The pull of Anglicanism was twofold: faith and reason. As he puts it, 'It gave me a spiritual home and an intellectual challenge.' Photo: Nadim Nassar

He feels at home in this country and as an Anglican, but thinks that he will never go any further in the Church of England “because I’m outspoken”.

It is true that Father Nadim is unflinchingly forthright about what he sees as the failings of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, for not using a major church such as St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey as a “gravity pole” during the coronavirus pandemic for the nation and all faiths of prayer and devotion.

Syria is another bone of contention. Father Nadim tells of a telephone call from Lambeth Palace, asking him to take part in a seminar on Syria, and then a call again not long afterwards to cancel because “the Archbishop thinks it’s complicated”.

“I said, ‘Give my regards to the Archbishop, and say we will not talk about the Trinity any more either because it’s too complicated. Since we are now at Christmas,’ I said, ‘let’s not talk about the incarnation or God becoming human. Let’s talk about Father Christmas … because otherwise it’s too complicated.’”

The Rev Dr Nadim Nassar inside the striking Arts and Crafts-style interior of Holy Trinity. 'I am often faced with an enormous amount of ignorance in the West about Christianity in the East, even from people in the Church,' he says. Photo: Mark Chilvers

Unlike the Archbishop, the Queen, the "Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England" who lives in that other palace, did not rescind her own unexpected invitation to Father Nadim.

The year was 2016 and the occasion was Her Majesty’s 90th birthday dinner, to which Elizabeth had requested the company of a small selection of guests, including the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and Apple’s former chief design officer, Sir Jonathan Ive.

“It was a really, really lovely experience,” Father Nadim says of the “dine and sleep” stay at Windsor Castle.

The Queen put him at the head of the table and surprised him with a black-and-white photograph of the 19th-century pan-Arab hero, Emir Abdul Qader Al Jaziri.

“I was amazed,” Father Nadim says, still moved by the thoughtfulness of the monarch and her deep knowledge of Arabic Christianity.

Prince Philip engaged him in one of the most interesting and memorable conversations of his life, with the opening line: “How on Earth did a Syrian man become an Anglican priest?”

'It was a really, really lovely experience,' says Father Nadim, pictured signing the register at Windsor Castle. Photo: Nadim Nassar

Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, who was also a guest and would later become patron of the Awareness Foundation, summed up Father Nadim’s contribution.

“I was so envious," she said. "You were laughing and having a good time, and I was on the boring side of the table.”

Even five years on, the tale is punctuated by his laughter, but perhaps no anecdote as much as the one that occurred right after a sceptical Father Nadim received that first telephone call from Buckingham Palace.

As he recounts, the black-tie dress code for the dinner was not a problem. He could just don a suit and his dog collar. But getting there was trickier.

When a volunteer at the Awareness Foundation offered to give him a lift as a joke, he thought it a marvellous idea, which is how he found himself in a Volkswagen Beetle in a queue of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys outside the castle.

Something of the priest’s reputation seems to have preceded him. As if they knew what fun lay in store that evening, the royal aides came out to meet Father Nadim, giving him a hug, and exclaiming: “We’ve been waiting for you.”

Updated: January 12th 2022, 1:09 PM