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SALT LAKE CITY — The first North American leader of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese — a Christian church with ancient roots in Arab lands in and around Syria — said his home country should not be entombed with the message and acts of evil that the Islamic State group, or ISIS, brings.
His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph Al-Zehlaoui is in Salt Lake City this weekend and will perform a ceremony of ordination on Sunday.
He spoke candidly in an interview with the Deseret News Saturday about the violence of his native country of Syria, which he left 20 years ago as an emigrant to the United States.
"If (ISIS) are fighting for a good cause, if they are fighting for freedom or for democracy, they would not destroy churches and monasteries or kidnap bishops and nuns and civilians."
Rather, he said ISIS is made up of mercenaries, paid killers recruited from countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar and they come with a deadly cause.
"They are paid for doing it; they are even teaching their children to kill."
Metropolitan Joseph said the people of the United States and elsewhere need to remember that ISIS does not embody the people of Syria, where he still has family. His nieces, he added, go to work and go to school and he worries about them being kidnapped and killed.
He stressed that ISIS has seized an opportunity to kill and "devour," and is taking advantage of that opportunity to breed fear, mistrust and a perversion of faith, adding that he does not agree with calls to cut off entry to the United States to anyone from Syria or anyone who is Muslim.
"I am not the government. I cannot say who is qualified to come here," he said. "This nation is open to everyone," to those looking for opportunity, dignity and human rights.
"This is against our values here in our nation, against the Constitution, against a lot of our principles," he continued. "Look how many cultures we have in this nation, look how many colors we have in this nation, look at how many accents we have in this nation. This nation is for everyone."
Born in Damascus, Syria, in 1950, he completed basic schooling in his home country and in Lebanon and earned a master's in theology from Aristotle University in Greece. He was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree from St. Tikhon Orthodox Seminary in South Cannan, Pennsylvania, in 2010.
He was elevated to the rank of archbishop in 2011 and in 2014, was elected to become the archbishop of New York and archbishop of all North America by the Holy Synod of Antioch.
While not supporting a ban on refugees from Syria or those of Muslim faith, he said countries need to be careful and discerning.
"If under the name of refugees we bring terrorists and killers, it will be dangerous against this nation."
He said the complexities of the dynamic political and religious conflicts that surround the debate gives him pause on his own journey to the United States more than 20 years ago, and what it means to him.
"I am blessed and God bless America, for the freedom, for the opportunity … for the human rights," he said. "I feel it, I breathe it and live it all the time."