The Tragedy of Syria: Christians in the Crossfire

John ArmstrongIslam, Kingdom of God, Orthodoxy, Religion, The Church, The War on Terrorism

Map_of_syriaIf you watch or follow American news, from the left or the right, you hear continual calls for our government, working with the United Nations, to engage militarily with the Syrian government in support of the rebels in that nation. I submit that the simple view held by the vast majority of Syria's Christians is very different from what we hear day-to-day. Their message is: "Please stay out!" Why? After all, some Christians have died in the present cycle of extreme violence. And this uprising is now nearly a year old. The images we generally see are of government oppression and open attacks on rebels that defy imagination. 

As with Iraq so it now is with Syria. If the secular government is removed the end result will likely be much worse for minorities, especially for Christian minorities. Syria's religions are as follows: 74% Sunni Muslims, 13% other Muslims, 10% Christian and 3% Druze. President Bashar Assad, an autocratic leader for sure, leads a secular government. If he is removed the result would likely be a Sunni Muslim government that would be extremely unfavorable to minorities. Those Syrians I have spoken with tell me that Sunni Muslims, Christians and the Alawite community, a small offshoot of Shiite Islam, are all under threat if this present government falls. (Interestingly, the Russians and the Chinese are keeping the UN out of Syria right now. Their reason seems to be entirely based on a "balance of power" position in the Middle East!)

Like Saddam Hussein was in Iraq, Bashar Assad is an oppressive ruler. But if the West supports an "Arab Spring" the results will very likely be much like those we've seen in Egypt and Tunisia. A dentist, under anonymity, said, "Of course the Arab Spring is an Islamist movement. It's full of extremists. They want to destroy our country, and they call it a 'revolution'."

Syria's Christians date their origins to Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. Church leaders in Syria have generally aligned themselves with the government urging their followers to give Assad a chance to enact a long-promised political overhaul while also calling for an end to the present violence.

Jeffisgr8t-2134322Ignatius IV, patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, described Syria as an oasis of religious tolerance where Christians can worship freely, build sanctuaries and run schools, activities that are restricted to varying degrees in almost every other Middle Eastern country. Christian ministers are often shown on television in Syria taking part in joint prayer services for peace with Muslim clerics. And the defense minister of Syria is openly Christian! The patriarch actually displays a photograph of himself with President Assad on his wall. I find the same response among Syrian Orthodox Christians in the United States. 

Do not misunderstand my point. Christians have died in Syria. Things have been terrible over there the past twelve months. But recent reports from Syria suggest the rebels are as violent and aggressive as the government troops. Rebels are acting more and more like the Assad regime according to many Christians. The truth is that Christians in Syria have little or no confidence in a successful revolution. The ones I have spoken with tell me to urge Americans to stay out of this situation. It took me some time to realize why but now I think that I understand their reasons. When we removed Saddam we celebrated but the church in Iraq began a whole new period of history. Many Christians have died, churches have been bombed and most Christians have fled Iraq now, many into neighboring Syria. 

While we may think these Middle Eastern uprisings are a good thing the fact is that most of them lead to great suffering for our brothers and sisters. Perhaps we should make this a higher priority than America's own political agenda in the world. I, for one, think the church transcends military operations. I hope our government will listen to the Christians of Syria, and other minorities, and stay out. I also pray for the peace of Syria, especially for my suffering brothers and sisters there. Many of these people are wonderful Christians with deep faith in God and profound love for their homeland. Syria is a gorgeous country with friendly people. It may not be a just democracy but it is not an evil empire either. 

One of my frequent themes on this blog is global Christian mission. If we are to practice a truly global faith, and not simply an Americanized version of Christianity, we should pray for the church in Syria and then work for peace. This seems to be at the core of what it means to faithfully follow Jesus in the modern world.