Rev. Rick Warren earned criticism a couple of weeks ago for appearing in Syria and becoming a propaganda tool of the Assad regime. Warren responded with a press release that essentially blamed it all on bloggers, and Franklin Graham. Here’s the letter Warren sent out to his Saddleback community once the Syria controversy broke:

Dear Saddleback Family,

Tomorrow our team heads home from a three-nation P.E.A.C.E. plan
tour of Germany, Syria, and Rwanda. Our trip began with a P.E.A.C.E.
Plan briefing for 44 Christian missions organizations we’d gathered
in Atlanta.

In hindsight, I wish we’d been better prepared for our visit to
Syria. We would have handled some meetings differently, watched our
words more closely, and been more aware of the agenda of their state
press. We wanted to just slip in and out, but that’s nearly
impossible for me to do anymore. It’s been a learning experience. Be
sure to read the press release at the end of this note that gives
you all the details.

Why did we go to Syria? The simple truth is that I was invited by my
neighbor, Yassar. When we arrived, our first event was a home cooked
meal with 20 of Yassar’s family. Then, we were shown many of the
historical Christian sites in Syria: the road to Damascus where Paul
was converted, Straight street where the Holy Spirit led Paul, the
house where Ananias prayed for his healing, the wall where Paul was
let down in a basket to escape the Romans, the tomb of John the
Baptist and the oldest Christian church building in existence.

Next, my neighbor arranged for us to meet some key Christian
leaders, Muslim leaders, and government leaders – including the
president of Syria. Franklin Graham has had years of experience with
Lebanon and Syria, so I asked him what to say to the Syrian
President. Franklin told me, “Thank him for protecting the freedom
of Christians and Jews to worship there.”

As we left, the official state-controlled Syrian news agency issued
some press releases that sounded like I was a politician negotiating
the Iraq war by praising the Syrian President and everything else in
Syria! Of course, that’s ridiculous, but it created a stir among
bloggers who tend to editorialize before verifying the truth. Does
it seem ironic to you that people who distrust Syria are now
believing Syrian press releases?

In our meeting with the president, I explained (as usual) the
Saddleback P.E.A.C.E. Plan, and he gave us permission to send teams
to Syria.

Friends, I am aware that inaccuracies, misquotes, and misperceived
motivations get reported about me in the press daily. Most of the
time, I just ignore them. Jesus said, “If the world hates you,
remember that it hated me first.” (John 15:18 – NCV)

I love the paraphrase of Matthew 5:11-12 (Msg): “Count yourselves
blessed every time people put you down or speak lies about you to
discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for
comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that
happens—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven
applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and
witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”

Just don’t believe everything you read on the Internet or hear in
the media.

I love you all and I’m praying for this weekend’s FOR THE NEXT
GENERATION OFFERING. I’m excited about getting back home to see you!

Pastor Rick

My friend Chris emailed that letter to me on Nov 17th, and I’ve been hanging on to it expecting another shoe to drop. And now audio has emerged that, if authentic (and I have no reason to think it isn’t), catches Warren praising Syria for its religious tolerance and its “moderation.” That sort of praise is what got him in trouble, and which he tacitly denies in the letter above. Courtesy Lighthouse Trails Research:

The audio is apparently from a radio interview Warren gave to 1170 AM radio in Tulsa around the time of the Syria trip. In it, Warren clearly praises Syria’s “moderate” record and even drags the Apostle Paul into the discussion, characterizing Paul as a Syrian. Which is a strange view of history. It’s typical of Warren’s slippery use of selected facts to suggest meanings that simply don’t apply to a fair reading of all the facts. It’s true, Paul was from Tarsus, technically a city in first century Cilicia and modern Turkey, but never mind that. It’s also true that he was on the road to Damascus, currently Syria’s capital city, when he converted to Christianity, and sought out Christians living there immediately after his conversion. But it’s also true that Paul knew a very different Syria than the one that exists today, and it’s also true that Paul was every inch a Jew, not an Arab and certainly not a Muslim since Islam didn’t exist in the first century, until his conversion to Christianity. In terms of citizenship, Paul was Roman, not Syrian, but never mind that too. Equating the Syria of Paul’s time with the Syria of our time is beyond silly, yet that’s what Warren is doing by injecting Paul into his praise of Assad. Syria in the first century was one of many provinces of the Roman Empire; today it’s an Arab police state that sponsors terrorism in Lebanon, in Israel and very probably in Iraq. Syria is moderate only by comparison to even worse terrorist states. By comparison to nearly any Western state, Syria is a police state run by a hereditary dictator that sponsors terrorism and is working toward the destruction of Israel, with which it has considered itself at war constantly since 1963.

As for Syria’s religious tolerance, Warren has a point — but it’s a pretty weak point. Officially, Syria does have freedom of religion, and that’s more than you can say even for liberated Afghanistan. Syria is more tolerant of Christianity than, say, Iran, but according to the US State Dept and human rights groups, the Syrian secret police also monitor every single church (and synagogue and even mosque) in the country and forbid evangelism. Missionaries working in Syria may do so legally, but must be very discreet. The Jehovah’s Witness sect is banned outright. Jews are barred from holding government and military office, out of fear that they might be Zionist operatives. Add all of that up, and it’s something less than total freedom and tolerance. It’s closer to dhimmitude than actual freedom. The Assad regime holds Islamists at arm’s length domestically, out of fear that they’ll overthrow the secular dictatorship and install one based on sharia, but Syria seems eager to align with Iran and Hezbollah, and is using the latter to destroy Lebanon’s democratic government. By constitutional decree, Syria’s president must be a Muslim. And Syria’s Muslim president stoked up Muslim anger over the Mohammed cartoons earlier this year, showing that he’s not above Islamic and Islamist grandstanding. So taken as a whole, Syria deserves far less praise than Warren lavishes.

Here’s the basic problem with Warren: He’s very shrewd, but ultimately unprincipled in how he uses words, history, text and basic facts in order to build his message. Now that he’s been caught out expressing the very kind of support that the Syrians credited to him — and which he subsequently denied — expect him to spin out a new story. Or stonewall until it goes away. Warren’s way is very Clintonian. That word, I chose to use very deliberately.

(h/t Chris R.)

More: Having read over Warren’s letter a couple of times, I’m struck that he’s using verses that speak of taking criticism from people outside the church to deflect criticism coming from within the church. The two verses Warren cites in the letter are meant to encourage believers who find their faith under assault from non-believers. But in the Syria question, non-believers aren’t the ones criticizing Warren, and the criticism isn’t directed at him because he’s doing something right. The criticism is coming from fellow Christians, and we’re criticizing him for praising a police state that doesn’t deserve praise. It’s just typical of how Warren cherry-picks verses and uses them out of context to justify his stances and positions.

Update:
Thanks an alert commenter and WND, there’s another twist in this story. Warren or someone at Saddleback may have engaged in a cover-up regarding a recording of Warren’s comments.

I am much obliged to Bruce Delay, a talk-show host at KFAQ 1170 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for downloading the audio version of Rick Warren’s YouTube video, recorded while in Syria.

Now, keep in mind, Warren has been telling the world he was misquoted by the Syrian press when he extolled the virtues of the totalitarian police state.

But before anyone questioned his statements, Warren’s Saddleback Church had recorded him as he strolled down a Damascus street explaining what a peaceful and tolerant place Syria really is.

As soon as I hotlinked to the YouTube video last week and questioned Rick Warren about it, the church yanked it. I didn’t have time to download a copy, but, thankfully, one johnny-on-the-spot talk-show host did.

You may not be able to see it, but you can at least hear it. Here is a word-for-word transcript of what Warren said in the 50-second video:

“Syria’s a place that has Muslims and Christians living together for 1,400 years. So it’s a lot more peaceful, honestly, than a lot of other places because Christians were here first.

“In fact, you know Saul of Tarsus – Saul was a Syrian. St. Paul, on the road to Damascus, had his conversion experience and so Christians have been here the longest, and they get along with the Muslims and the Muslims get along with them. There’s a lot less tension than in other places.

“It’s a moderate country, and the official government rule and position is to not allow any extremism of any kind.”

This is what Rick Warren said about Syria.

That is where the audio I posted above actually came from — Warren said what he said in Syria. I had that part of the story wrong, and I regret the error. And make sure to read the rest of the WND article. Farah explains quite well the longstanding relationship between Syria and terrorism, and between the Assad regime and the Christian and Jewish minorities in Syria.

But this means that the Syrian state-controlled press got its paraphrase of Warren more or less right. Warren said what they said he said, in Syria. And Warren has been denying it since the story broke, which means he has been lying about what he said.

Instead of holding him to account, someone yanked the smoking gun video from YouTube. That’s a cover-up in my book. The question is, whether Warren had any direct role in removing the YouTube video.