ATHENS, Greece — A trip to Syria that U.S. megachurch pastor Rick Warren says was inspired by a backyard chat with a Muslim neighbor has triggered criticism and questions that highlight the potential risks when preaching meets international politics.
But Warren’s visit — which included a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad — also reinforced his credentials as a rising force in a new generation of globe-trotting evangelists following famous predecessors including the Rev. Billy Graham.
Warren, who shot to superstardom with his blockbuster book “The Purpose Driven Life,” said he was not attempting to dabble in the hypersensitive world of Middle Eastern politics in the visit that ended last Sunday. Warren said he went to Syria as part of a three-nation trip of pastoral outreach and humanitarian efforts that began in Germany and wraps up in Rwanda on Saturday.
His statement, however, came too late to curb disapproval of his trip as word of it spread via the Internet.
Warren has been criticized by some evangelicals for holding talks with a nation long accused of abetting terrorism that is also one of Israel’s fiercest foes.
Conservative Christians have been among the toughest advocates in the United States for a hard-line against Islamic extremism. And Israel is strongly supported by a vast evangelical network, including some American churches that believe biblical prophecy calls for Jewish sovereignty over the entire Holy Land.
The Crosstalk Radio Talk Show, part of a Christian radio network, called Warren a “mindless shill” for Syria and said he “owes an apology to Israel, to the American people and to the victims of Syrian-sponsored terror.”
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported that Warren’s delegation supported Syria’s role as regional leader and expressed concern about U.S. policies, including the war in Iraq.
“The trip seemed like a message that you cannot ignore Syria’s role in the region,” said Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a Damascus-based political analyst.
Warren could not be reached in Rwanda for direct comment.
But a statement issued for Warren, who founded Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., described the Nov. 10-12 visit to Syria as “neither official nor political” and said he expressed “support for President Bush, our troops in Iraq and the war on terror.”
Warren, however, consulted with “Syrian experts” in the U.S. government before the trip, said his U.S.-based spokesman, Larry Ross. No other details of the discussions were available. Warren’s visit comes at a time when the Bush administration is under pressure to reach out to Syria and Iran to create greater stability in the Mideast, particularly Iraq.
Warren said in the statement that the trip was initiated after his Syrian-born neighbor urged him to visit his homeland during a discussion “over their backyard fence.”
Warren’s meetings in Syria included representatives from Syria’s Christian minority, professors and the nation’s grand mufti, Ahmad Bader Hassoun.
“I believe it is a mistake to not talk to nations considered hostile — isolation and silence has never solved conflict anywhere, whether between spouses or between nations,” Warren said in the statement Ross released Thursday.
In July, Warren postponed a planned visit to North Korea, which is under huge international pressures to suspend its nuclear weapons program. But he is still invited to preach in March at the first outdoor Christian event in North Korea since 1945, Ross said.
Straddling the worlds of faith and diplomacy is nothing new for religious leaders. In 1977, Graham preached in communist Hungary, the first of his pioneering forays in the Soviet bloc. Pope John Paul II, the globe-trotting pontiff who experienced totalitarianism firsthand in his native Poland, is credited with helping bring about the end of communism with his travels abroad.
Warren cited Graham and John Paul as models in an interview about his planned trip to North Korea with the PBS show “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” earlier this year.
“People say, ‘Well, you’re being a pawn. You’re being used,’ and things like that. The truth is I want to get the Good News out,” Warren said. “My reasoning is: why not? There are people in North Korea that have not heard for 60 years there is a God.”
Mark Noll, an expert in American evangelical trends at the University of Notre Dame, said Warren may be reaching a crossroads.
His ministry and writings have only faint political undertones. But he may be drawn into a political arena by the weight of his own celebrity.
“There’s a trend that religious figures — once they get a certain level of visibility and fame — seem to get pulled into politics,” said Noll. “Warren is at this stage. The question is whether he is looking for new worlds to conquer.”