Syria’s 2 million Christians face an intolerable dilemma. The bad option is for Bashar al-Assad to retain his brutal grip on power. The worse option — for Chistians, at least — is for Assad’s dictatorship to fall.
As some have predicted, persecution of the country’s Christian minority is escalating as the civil war spreads. Islamists, who now dominate the opposition, have embarked on a bloody campaign of genocide against Christians, who constitute about 10 percent of the population.
“As for the larger conflict, the Christians are caught in the middle,” says Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “The churches have not allied with the Assad regime. They have no armed protector, inside or outside the country, and they have no militias of their own. But they are not simply suffering collateral damage. They are being deliberately targeted in a religious purification campaign — one that the United States government finds convenient to overlook as it supports Syria’s rebels and praises Saudi Arabia as one of our ‘closest partners.’”
In a hearing earlier this summer, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, called on the administration to protect Syrian Christians. Smith saidthat “Christians are even more fearful for their lives and safety than other segments of the Syrian population.”
Shea, meanwhile, testified, “Though no religious community has been spared egregious suffering, Syria’s ancient Christian minority has cause to believe that it confronts an existential threat.”
In response to historic and ongoing genocides, human-rights advocates are speaking out on governments’ responsibility to protect (R2P) the people within their borders. When governments fail to do so — or even commit genocide themselves — then the “international community” supposedly has this responsibility. The Syria crisis vis-à-vis its Christian population, however, seems to be exposing R2P as a mere pious platitude ... like the international ban on chemical weapons.
“Christians can forget about the White House priority of R2P … as it applies to them,” Shea says. “… few in Washington are even bothering to ask what impact American strikes will have on Syria's sizeable but defenseless Christian minority.”
The impact of the conflict, however, is enormous … and widening.
Shea says that “the Christians of Syria have already suffered massive reprisals. Since [July], attacks against them have only intensified. … the ancient mountainside Christian village of Maaloula, just north of Damascus, has been shelled by rebels from a position of higher ground. Many Syrian Christians have fled to Lebanon, but those who remain report that they fear ethnic cleansing."
At the hearing chaired by Smith, Christian Solidarity International CEO John Eibner said, after he met many displaced Christians and church workers in Syria, “Victims recounted to me the religious cleansing of Christian neighborhoods in Homs and Qusair by armed jihadists who threatened them with death if they did not leave their homes."
If only we could discount these reports as the work of overactive imaginations. Unfortunately, they are becoming commonplace.
“On June 23, Catholic Syrian priest Fr. François Murad was murdered in Idlib by rebel militias,” Shea states. She is unable to confirm chilling reports that he was beheaded. “It is apparent, however, that he was a victim of the shadow war against Christians that is being fought by jihadists alongside the larger Syrian conflict,” she continues. “This is a religious cleansing that has been all but ignored by our policymakers, as they strengthen support for the rebellion.”
Foreign Islamists are particularly targeting Christians in Syria, according to Archbishop Jeanbart of Aleppo’s Melkite Greek Catholic Church. “As soon as they reached the city,” Jeanbart says, “Islamist guerrillas, almost all of them from abroad, took over the mosques. Every Friday, an imam launches their messages of hate, calling on the population to kill anyone who does not practice the religion of the Prophet Muhammad. They use the courts to level charges of blasphemy. Who is contrary to their way of thinking pays with his life.”
Shea notes, “According to the U.S. State Department, Syria now has scores of rebel militias with new ones popping up all the time. Many are extremist.” She quotes one source, who says,“[T]he purpose of these groups is not only the liberation of Syria from Assad, but also the spread by force of radical Islam throughout the Middle East and the conquest of Jerusalem.”
Such actions and attitudes are not without precedent in the recent history of the region. When American troops overthrew the secular (but murderous) regime of Saddam Hussein nearly a decade ago, Muslims took advantage and began persecuting Iraq’s Christians, forcing many to flee (ironically, to neighboring nations such as Syria). Today, only about a third of the Christians of Iraq remain in that country. A similar pogrom could await them and their Syrian brethren.
The recent chemical weapons deal brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin — a patron of Assad — may keep the current regime in power. Whether that will lead to a lessening of Islamist violence against Syria’s Christians, however, remains to be seen.
Whatever happens, prayer is essential.
“Hidden in the noise of the current political environment is still an unrepresented issue in Syria — the intentional and systematic persecution of Christians,” says David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA. “We are calling Christians on all sides of the political debate to dedicate themselves to prayer for our fellow believers who are targeted for their faith. They've done nothing wrong ... only being bold enough to associate themselves as Jesus followers. Please pray earnestly for protection of their lives, families, businesses and freedoms.”
Stan Guthrie is author of the new book A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy: 60 Predictions Everyone Should Know. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.
Publication date: September 17, 2013