For Syria, the Arab Spring has turned into an icy winter of hatred and carnage. Almost every day has brought new reports of politically motivated killings perpetrated by the Alawite-minority government of President Bashar al-Assad against independence-minded groups thought to threaten the regime. According to various estimates, between 9,000 and 14,000 people have died since March 2011.
On May 25, forces loyal to Assad, son of the late dictator Hafez al-Assad, shelled and entered Houla, a suburb of the western rebel stronghold of Hom. Then they massacred men, women and children, leaving more than 100 people dead. “We are humans, not animals,” a Houla massacre witness said; “save our souls.”
Reports and photographs of the atrocity have prompted numerous nations to pull their diplomats from Damascus, the capital, and renew their efforts to end the violence. Yet the violence continues, seemingly unabated.
On May 29, in the eastern area of Assukar, 13 bodies were found, slain execution-style. “All the bodies had their hands tied behind their backs and some appear to have been shot in the head from a short distance," a United Nations official says.
Unlike some other Arab Spring flashpoints, the conflict in Syria does not appear to have a major religious component — at least not yet. According to Operation World, the country of 22.5 million people is 90 percent Muslim and 6.34 percent Christian, with a smattering of other groups.
Christianity, of course, has existed in this land longer than Islam — much longer. The church in Antioch was a great first-century missionary sending base. That kind of zealous outreach is greatly proscribed in Syria. While there is a measure of religious freedom, most ministry is confined to the members of one’s one religious community. “Today, Christians must exercise caution and wisdom in relating to the state and to Muslims,” Operation World notes. “Evangelicals in particular must discern how to effectively share Christ without proselytizing. Biblical training and a loving attitude toward Muslims are essential.”
Christians have many opportunities. According to Operation World, Christian literature is “freely available,” with Bibles readily obtainable at an annual book fair and at other venues. Christian broadcasting on radio and television comes via organizations such as Trans World Radio and SAT-7. The Jesus Film is available in eight local languages. “New believers from other backgrounds, OW says, “are increasing in number.”
Such gains come amid uncertainty and economic stress. War and violence in neighboring Iraq have brought in 1.8 million refugees in recent years. Combined with 600,000 recently-arrived Palestinians and the difficulty for many young people in finding employment, the country was facing all kinds of tensions even before the Arab Spring.
In this environment, Syrian Christians, who are divided into historic and more recent Protestant churches, have been emigrating in increasing numbers. They face discrimination in housing and employment, but these may be the least of their problems in the days ahead — that is, if the fears of observers such Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer come to pass.
“As I learned on [a recent] visit to Lebanon — to which many Syrian activists and refugees have fled — there’s a growing danger that atrocities like Houla will spark reprisal killings,” Rubin writes. “Those minorities, including Syrian Christian[s] … who are seen as supportive of President Bashar Assad’s regime, are at particular risk.”
The recent history of Iraq is instructive. The brutal but largely secular regime of Saddam Hussein treated the minority Christians, who were not perceived as a threat, more gently than some other groups, even providing perks such as church organs for some congregations. Christians were certainly in no position to refuse the “Butcher of Baghdad.”
But when civil order disintegrated following the dictator’s ouster, the long-smoldering hatred of Muslims against their Christian neighbors quickly fanned into flame. Since the Iraq war, the nation has seen a massive and tragic exodus of Christians fleeing persecution.
The same dynamic may well be repeated in neighboring Syria. Like Iraq, Syria is run by a ruthless but secular regime of the same party and has provided a measure of protection to Christians against Muslim fanaticism. Should that protection be removed, an icy season of violence against them could commence quickly. Rubin is not sanguine.
“If the Assad regime keeps encouraging massacres like the one in Houla,” she writes, “Syrian Christians are likely to pay the price.”
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com/blog.
Publication date: May 31, 2012