Southern Baptist mega-church pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren disputed reports in Arab media that he praised Syria and took sides against U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Syria’s official news agency gave glowing reports about the author of The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold more than 30 million copies, who stopped in Syria on a three-nation tour touting his P.E.A.C.E. plan, aimed at attacking problems associated with global poverty.

According to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), Warren, pastor of the 30,000-member Saddleback Church in southern California, told President Bashar al-Assad the United States is wrong to refuse dialogue with Syria.

Identified as a “famous Protestant clergyman in the U.S.A.,” SANA said Warren credited al-Assad’s leadership for religious coexistence, tolerance and stability in Syria and pledged to convey “the true image about Syria” to the American people.

A separate report of a meeting with Syria’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Badr al-Din Hassoun quoted Warren as saying there is “no peace in the region without Syria” and that 80 percent of the American people reject what the Bush administration is doing in Iraq and believe U.S. policy in the Middle East is wrong.

Along with Iran, Syria was one of Hezbollah’s main international supporters in fighting against Israel this summer.

Conservative Christian media, already suspicious that Warren, who endorsed President Bush just before the 2004 elections, is moving toward the left, immediately took him to task.

WorldNetDaily’s Joseph Farrah denounced Warren for providing “legitimacy to a hostile foreign government, presided over by a brutal fascist dictator who hates Jews, threatens Israel, subverts neighboring Lebanon, imprisons and terrorizes its own citizens and even kills them in massive numbers when they stand up in revolt.”

Front Page Magazine contrasted Warren’s “lovefest” with Syrian officials with a different story “of a nation where only the ruling Baathist Party and its allies are permitted to win elections, where all news media are owned or controlled by the government, where independent labor unions are prohibited, where universities must proclaim Baathist Party policies, where clerics are appointed by the government, where the president by law must be Muslim, and where women’s limited rights are governed by Islamic Shari’a law, even though the government is ostensibly secular.”

Crosstalk Radio said Warren “owes an apology to Israel, to the American people and to the victims of Syrian sponsored terror whose blood continues to soak the earth’s soil.”

Warren responded with a press release and letter putting his comments in context.

“In hindsight, I wish we’d been better prepared for our visit to Syria,” Warren said in a letter to his church. “We would have handled some meetings differently, watched our words more closely, and been more aware of the agenda of their state press.”

Warren said as he was leaving Syria: “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?”

A press release said Warren’s visit to Syria was “neither official nor political,” but instead came out of a promise he made to a Muslim neighbor in California who asked him over a backyard fence to visit his home country of Syria, with many sites sacred to Christians and church history dating back 2,000 years, during his travels.

“Many Americans don’t realize that both Christianity and Judaism are legal in Syria,” the press release said. “In addition, the government provides free electricity and water to all churches; allows pastors to purchase a car tax-free (a tax break not given to Muslim imams); appoints pastors as Christian judges to handle Christian cases; and allows Christians to create their own civil law instead of having to follow Muslim law. Every Christian with whom Dr. Warren’s team met–including those in the city of Malula, where they represent two-thirds of the population–expressed gratitude for the government’s protection of their right to worship.”

“Let there be no doubt about our support for President Bush, our troops in Iraq and the war on terror,” Warren said he told the Mufti. When asked if American opinion had turned against the Iraq war. Warren said he replied, “Yes–The New York Times reported that 80 percent of Americans indicated in Election Day exit polls they now oppose keeping troops in Iraq.”

Warren, who according to the press release “often meets with presidents of nations he visits,” said he was told Syria’s state-controlled media would likely issue press releases after his meetings, which they did.

“The Syrian government has long had a bad reputation in America, but if one considers a positive action like welcoming in thousands of Christian refugees from Iraq, or the protection of freedom to worship for Christians and Jews in Syria, it should not be ignored,” Warren said.

He said in terms of religious freedom, Syria is more tolerant than places like Burma, Cuba, Iran, Iraq and nations identified in the U.S. Commission Report on International Religious Freedom. “Muslims and Christians have lived side by side in Syria for more than a thousand years, often with mosques and churches built next to each other,” he added. “What can we learn from them?”

Next year Warren is scheduled to visit North Korea, at invitation of its Communist regime, which likely will issue similar reports of praise.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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