Fall 2013, Vol. 15, No. 1

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The Christian Factor in Syria
by Andrew Walsh

As President Obama sought support this summer for a punitive bombing strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for using chemical weapons against civilian populations, there was predictable opposition from the National Council of Churches, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope Francis. What came as a surprise was the opposition of many American evangelicals.

It emerged in the statements of leaders like Rick Warren, in blogs, through a host of Christian news outlets and communication paths, and from obscure ministries. The influential magazine Christianity Today reported that almost two thirds of the National Association of Evangelicals’ 100-member advisory board voted against striking Assad in a straw poll.

The explanation lay in Syria’s endangered Christian population, which in recent months had stimulated an outpouring of evangelical anxiety.

“Christians have been caught in a crossfire in Syria,” one small California-based ministry said in a representative statement released on the PRWeb Newswire on August 30. “If the situation continues, the Syrian Church will suffer the same sort of destruction the Iraqi Church saw after the coalition forces intervention,” said Robert Berry, spokesperson and CEO of One Church//One Voice.

“Unlike liberal Protestants, evangelical groups and officials don’t routinely address foreign and military policy, instead focusing mostly on social issues,” wrote a somewhat alarmed Mark Tooley, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy,” a conservative policy organization that supports an assertive U.S. foreign policy, in a September 19 column widely republished in blogs. 

“Typically U.S. evangelicals have not identified with or paid serious heed to the plight of Middle East Christians, who are mostly Orthodox, Oriental or Catholic,” Tooley wrote. “Recent turmoil in Egypt and Syria, as well as the earlier mass exodus of Iraqi Christians escaping from sectarian war, has ignited expanded interest in previously what were deemed exotic Christian communities. Under assault by Islamist violence, and with few remaining refuges, Middle East Christians are gaining new found interest and sympathy from U.S. evangelicals whose religious persecution interest in past decades focused on mostly communist countries.”

Some of this new-found attention arises from the opportunity to whack the Obama administration. On October 5, for example, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann stirred that pot when she told the audience of Jan Markell’s apocalyptic Christian radio program “Understanding the Times,” that the Obama Administration’s decision to supply anti-chemical weapons gear and some arms to the Syrian rebels, whom she called al-Qaeda terrorists, was proof that the End Times were upon us.

But a more likely explanation lies with an accumulating sense that things have been getting much worse for Christians in the Middle East, beginning with the fallout of the war in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians fled the country as they became targets in the mid-2000s. Many, if not most of them, fled to neighboring Syria.

The current civil war in Syria began in March of 2011 with broad-based, non-violent protests against the Assad regime. As the conflict deepened, it acquired an explicitly sectarian character, with most of those in arms against the Assad regime drawn from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, supported politically and financially by other Sunnis in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States.

By 2012, the loosely connected rebel forces had grown to include significant numbers of radical Islamists, including many from outside Syria, and the war acquired clear sectarian tones. Christians and Alawite Muslims (a Muslim sect split from Shia Islam) made up most of the nation’s refugees, with as many as 200,000 Christians fleeing the city of Aleppo alone. As the headline on a July 10 story on the GlobalPost website put it, “Syrian Christians become kidnapping targets, flee to Lebanon; Syrian’s civil war is empowering extremists and squeezing Christians.”

In 2013, Christian clergy also became targets. Two bishops were kidnapped by Islamist radicals on April 22. Their fate is still unknown. An Italian Jesuit priest—a vocal supporter of the rebellion against Assad—disappeared in rebel territory in August, and in June, François Murad, a Franciscan priest, was shot inside a church building in northeast Syria. Reports of the destruction and desecration of churches in rebel territory continue to grow.

An April report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom diagnosed the situation this way: “Many minority religious communities have tried to stay neutral in the conflict, but opposition forces increasingly see their non-alignment, or perceived non-alignment, as support for the al-Assad regime. Minority religious communities have been forced by circumstances to take a position either in favor of the al-Assad regime, or in favor of the uncertainties of the opposition. As these sectarian fissures deepen, it is increasingly likely that religious communities will be targeted not for their political allegiances, but solely for their religious affiliation.”

In May, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky urged the Obama administration not to support the rebels in Syria and not to intervene directly. “Empowering Islamic extremists to achieve questionable short-term goals does not serve Americans’ long-term security or interests,” Paul wrote in an opinion piece for CNN.  Syrian Christians, he argued “are natural allies of the United States and if we’re going to seriously discuss any American interests in Syria, the welfare of these Christians is more important than arming Islamic extremists.”

That explicit plea to base U.S. policy on what is good for Syria’s Christians found considerable support over the summer. On June 25, it was echoed in a joint subcommittee hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee entitled “Syria’s Religious Minorities: Caught in the Middle.”

“Before the war, Syria was a fairly pluralistic society, with Alawites, Shias, Isma[i]lis, Yezidis, Druze Christians, Jews and Sunnis living together in relative peace, side by side,” Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) said in introducing the hearings. “The situation was far from perfect, as President Bashar al Assad’s regime had a vast security apparatus in place with members inside each of the religious communities to monitor their activities….The Assad government was guilty of serious human rights violations, including the summary imprisonment and execution of political opponents. But relations between various religious groups were generally not violent.”

Those struggling to find ways to support Syria’s Christians frequently complained about the paucity of media attention to the plight of the country’s religious minorities. This complaint became pervasive in late August and September, as the rebel forces occupied a number of Christian-majority areas—most famously the small town of Maaloula, where local Christians continue to speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

In a September 8 post, American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher sputtered with rage that the New York Times was not reporting  about the situation of Syrian Christians or about what “American Christians discussing Syria in light of US political controversy” had to say, but was preoccupied, instead, with feature stories about gay nudist resorts in the Ozarks.

When the Times did print a story about Maaloula, on September 10, it angered the pro-Christians anyway. Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad’s report on a trip to insurgent-occupied Maaloula framed the story in terms of the perception problems faced by rebels. With the town’s population having fled the fight, rebels took videos of themselves promising not to harm the nuns in a local monastery and “instructing fighters not to harm civilians or churches and touring a monastery that appeared mostly intact.”

“The situation in Maaloula underscores the core problems that bedevil the movement against Mr. Assad: the opposition, rooted in Syria’s Sunni majority, has failed to win over enough Christians, who make up 8 percent to 10 percent of the population, or other religious minorities, “ Bernard and Saad wrote. “More than 450,000 Christians have fled their homes, church leaders say, during more than two years of war.”

The magisterial Christianity Today, struck by the intensity of the debate among American evangelicals, raised a painful possibility on September 13, under the headline “Should Syrian Christians Be Our Top Priority?” Kevin P. Emmert opened the blog post this way: “What’s best for Syrian Christians might not be what’s best for the rest of Syria.”

What is more important to America, he asked, the persecution of Syrian Christians or the fact that “Assad’s forces have killed tens of thousands and have allegedly used chemical weapons?” Emmert failed to answer his own question, however, instead offering brief reactions from a large number of evangelical scholars who all agreed that it’s good to support fellow Christians.

One way of answering the question is to determine the accuracy of seeing Syrian Christians as “caught in the middle” between a remorseless dictator and Islamist totalitarians. On September 3, Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins explored the complexities in a long blog post on American

Even as Jenkins expressed fear for the future of Syria’s religious minorities and deplored the Obama administration’s possible military intervention, his historical analysis revealed that Syria’s religious minorities had not simply been forced into Assad’s camp by Sunni Islamism. They were largely there already. Indeed, Syrian Christians had been key players in the creation and maintenance of the secular style of Arab nationalism that had produced the Assad regime in the 20th century.

French colonial policy in the years after World War I had attempted to create Lebanon as a Christian-majority zone in the Arab world. “In theory, that partition should have drawn a clear line between Christian Lebanon and non-Christian Syria,” Jenkins wrote. But, after the terrible persecutions of Christians at the end of the Ottoman Empire, most terribly in the Armenian genocide that also victimized other Christian groups, “Christians increasingly concentrated in Syria, where they benefited from French protection.”

In the years that followed, he wrote, “Christians struggled to create a new political order in which they could play a full role. This meant advocating fervent Arab nationalism, a thoroughly secular order in which Christians and other minorities could avoid being overwhelmed by the juggernaut power of Sunni Islam. All Arab peoples, regardless of faith, would join in a shared passion for secular modernity and pan-Arab patriotism, in stark contrast to reactionary Islamism.” Christian Arabs in Syria shaped the theory of modern Arab nationalism and even co-founded the Baath Party, which, in time, would consolidate their power in Syria and Iraq.

“Since the 1960s, Syria has been a Baathist state, which in practice has meant the hegemony of the religious minorities who dominate the country’s military and intelligence apparatus,” Jenkins noted. As an indication of the integration of Christians, five of the seven top advisers to Bashar al-Assad’s father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad in the 1990s were Christians. In the Assads’ Syria, in other words, Christians have long been understood to be beneficiaries of the regime.

American voices directly connected to Syrian Christians have also tended to be more frank about the pragmatic alignment of the country’s non-Sunni minorities with the Assad regime than American Christian sympathizers. Notre Dame Islamicist Gabriel Said Reynolds, for example, published an analysis in the Catholic weekly Commonweal on September 2 that carried the headline, “The Devil They Know: Why Most Syrian Christians Support Bashar al-Assad.”

“The Christian community in Syria has moved ever closer to the Assad regime,” Reynolds wrote. “Today many Syrian Christians who wouldn’t deny Assad’s record of repressing political opponents would rather put up with the repression than live under the rule of Islamists…Under Assad, things are clear: Oppose the regime and you’re in trouble; support or pretend to, and you’re not. Under Islamist rule, those who violate Islamic law—or who are even suspected of violating it—are in trouble.”

American clergy who belong to churches based in Syria are just as blunt. Officials of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, which is part of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, based in Damascus, have been trying to tell their story publicly since the middle of the summer, when the course of the civil war seemed to be shifting against Assad.

“Anyone who prays for peace in Syria must acknowledge, at the beginning, that ‘vicious wrongs’ have been done on both sides and that ‘there really is no good armed force over there. None we can trust,’” Bishop Basil Essey, the Antiochian Orthodox bishop based in Wichita, Kansas, told religion columnist Terry Mattingly September 14.

“So the choice is between the evil that we know and that we’ve had for 30-40 years in that part of the world, or another evil we don’t know about except what they’ve shown us in this awful civil war.”

The bishop’s American superior, Archbishop Philip Saliba of New York, didn’t bridle when Robin Young of National Public Radio’s “Here and Now” program described him and his church—the largest of the Syrian Christian churches—as “supporters of President Assad” in an October 3 interview.

The archbishop replied calmly that he had no problems with the Syrians who began the revolt against Assad in 2011. They were “good people…a real genuine opposition. They were for something genuine. They want more democracy. They want more freedom.” But, he said, they had been pushed aside by jihadis, “foreigners, the mercenaries who came to Syria from Chechnya, from Turkey, from Saudi Arabia, from Libya, from Tunisia. So I’m concerned about al-Qaeda and Al-Nursa.”

“My hope,” he said, is that the Assad “regime stays. The alternative is to have al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda that destroyed our twin towers in New York City and attacked the Pentagon and exploded a plane over Pennsylvania. They’ve been fighting us all over. They hate us as Americans. They hate the Christians [in Syria].”

It’s possible to understand this sort of grim realism, the inescapable imperative that an evil choice must be embraced in order for one’s own people to survive. After all, worried Syrians report that Sunnis are chanting in their streets: “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to tarbout”—to  the coffin.

But the Obama administration doesn’t face exactly that choice. To base American policies on the imperative to protect Christians means to support a regime identified with decades of repression, whose artillery and air force have killed tens of thousands of people, and which the American government is convinced has used poison gas to maintain its grip on power. That’s a difficult balance to strike.

And in the United States, a counter-critique is developing that suggests that many religious and conservative critics are unwitting dupes of the Assad regime and its Christian operatives. David Kerner’s September 10 blog in laid down that charge under the headline, “How Assad Wooed the American Right and Won the Syrian Propaganda War.”

Kerner alleged that many of the stories about the persecution of Christians in Syria in American news outlets, blogs, and internal networks were launched in pro-Assad publications and websites. “One of the most common ways for pro-Assad propaganda to find its way into reputable newspapers is through Christian news outlets,” he wrote. “Arab Christians have many legitimate fears of how Islamist takeovers in Syria and elsewhere could affect them—but nonetheless, some of the outlets that cover their plight regularly trade fact for fiction.”

 “The official Vatican news agency Agenzia Fides, for example, was caught reproducing word for word a report on the alleged mass killing of Christians in the city of Homs from Syria Truth, a virulently pro-Assad website. The Agenzia Fides report was eventually picked up by the Los Angeles Times—with no mention, of course, of the original source.”

Rick Warren, who entered this summer’s debates very cautiously—with a series of Tweets quoting Bible verses—learned about the vigor of the Assad regime’s publicity machinery the hard way in 2006. Then, Warren had to bat down a series of outraged cries from the Institute of Religion and Democracy and other conservatives after Syrian government-controlled newspapers gave lavish coverage to a meeting in Damascus he had with Assad.

After his return to California, he issued a public statement saying he had been misrepresented by both the Syrian media and American bloggers: “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.”

An increasing number of journalistic skeptics are also writing stories raising questions about whether some Syrian Christian leaders are honest witnesses or Assad operatives. A Lebanese-born Catholic nun, Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, who administered a Melkite Catholic monastery in central Syria for many years before fleeing to Lebanon this year, is often named as a suspect.

“The National Review uncritically cited her claim last year that Syrian rebels gathered Christian and Alawite hostages together in a building in the city of Homs and proceeded to destroy the building with dynamite, killing them all,” Kenner wrote in his September blog. “More recently, she has argued that the video evidence of the August 21 chemical weapons attack was fabricated, writing that it was ‘staged and prepared in advance with the goal of framing the Syrian government as the perpetrator.’”

Ben Hubbard of the New York Times profiled the nun on September 21, noting that the Russian government placed great confidence in her 50-page analysis of the August poison gas videos, which argued that the videos “had been fabricated ahead of time to provide a pretext for foreign intervention.” Hubbard drily noted that “Mother Agnes…has no expertise or training in chemical weapons forensics or filmmaking, and although she was in Damascus at the time of the attacks, she did not visit the sites or interview victims.”

Instead she watched the videos on a computer screen while secluded in a Geneva hotel room. “She is not a military expert,” Lama Fakih, a Syrian researcher for Human Rights Watch, told the Times.

“There are other shadows around Mother Agnes,” Hubbard wrote. “She has helped foreign journalists obtain visas, suggesting trust by the government. The widow and two colleagues of Gilles Jacquier, a French journalist killed last year, published a book in which they suggest that she conspired in a lethal trap set by the government.” The nun has sued the journalists for libel and denied any link to the government.

“She defends the regime and plays the Christian card,” one of the Swiss journalists who wrote the book on Jacquier’s death, told the Times. “We know very well that Bashar wanted to play the Christian card and still does.”


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