The situation in Syria: 1) The Christian community

What exactly is going on in Syria, and what should we make of it?

I’ll begin by saying that if you want to understand the situation in Syria today, the last place to start is to listen to the pronouncements of the American and British governments.  Listening to the news may not be much better. For, as Amnesty International said, with regard to British involvement in Libya, “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events.” (See my post Honesty in public life: What we were told about Libya.)  The same is true for Syria. Much Western media coverage is frighteningly misleading.

Background

I want to suggest that one might want to start by thinking about the Christian community in Syria. Syria has a large Christian minority. In 2006, it was reckoned that about 12% of the population of Syria was Christian; and it is estimated that in 1920, that figure was 25%.  Most of Syria’s Christians are Eastern Orthodox, though there are substantial numbers of Catholics, and quite a few Protestants.

Politically, the situation for Christians was generally not too bad over the past 50 years. The apostle Paul’s view of what Christians should look for in a government is probably best expressed in his words to Timothy (I Tim 2:1-2) “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” And that was pretty much the way it was in Syria. By Middle Eastern standards, Christians were able to lead a peaceful and quiet life, with freedom of religion that was pretty close to western standards.

For many in the west, this was brought home by William Dalrymple’s book “From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium“.

Dalrymple describes his journey, starting in Greece, and travelling through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt. In particular, he looks at how the Christian churches have fared over the centuries in the places he visits – and about their current situation. And what comes through fairly clearly is that the situation for Christians was probably better in Syria than in any of the other countries.

One of the best sources of information about Christian work in the Middle East in recent years has been MERF (Middle East Reformed Fellowship). MERF is not a political organisation. It describes itself as

“an evangelical Christian missionary organization which serves in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia on behalf of Reformed and Presbyterian Family of Churches and believers worldwide. Our work is bearing fruit for the Kingdom of Christ among the twenty-two nations of the Arab League and other Muslim areas in Africa and Asia. MERF strengthens national churches with ministries of evangelism, church extension, biblical training, and diaconal aid.”

However, because it is desirable that Christians are able to lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way, and because this does depend to a large extent on kings and others in high positions, MERF’s prayer letters do include information about the political and security situation in the countries it serves – including Syria.

So what has MERF been telling us about the situation in Syria?

In June 2013, they gave an overview of the situation.

Of the twenty-two nations in the Arab League, only Syria and Lebanon grant religious freedom to all citizens. Confessing Christians are a large portion of Lebanon’s population, but they are only about 12 percent in Syria. Other Syrian minorities are 18 percent, including the powerful Alawites. . . . Most Syrian Sunnis are moderate and have been content with the modern secular pluralist system of the ruling Baath party to which many of them belong. A small but significant Sunni minority identify with extremist Islamic movements, aspiring to topple the secularist system.

Notice four things:

1) Syria had just about the best religious freedom in the entire Arab world.

2) This was basically because the ruling Baath party was committed to a secular pluralist system.

3) Syria’s secular pluralist system was not only good for the 30% of the population that belonged to religious minority groups, but was also appreciated by moderate members of the majority Sunni community.

4) There were a lot of Sunni Muslims who were not moderate – i.e. they wanted an Islamic government.   Indeed, In the late 1970s, an Islamist uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood was aimed against the government. Islamists attacked civilians and off-duty military personnel, leading security forces to also kill civilians in retaliatory strikes. The uprising had reached its climax in the 1982 Hama massacre, when some 10,000 – 40,000 people were killed by the Syrian Army. In other words, in the fairly recent past, Syria had experienced serious problems with Islamist violence, and the Syrian government had responded harshly.

Things fall apart: the Arab Spring

In 2011, things changed. Again, from MERF:

The “Arab Spring” uprising began by internet-based social media activists calling for peaceful demonstrations for more political freedom and the end of one-party dictatorial rule. Encouraged by Western opposition to the Syrian regime and by support from Sunni states (like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey), organized underground Syrian Islamists joined the demonstrations, quickly introducing guns, bombs, and other weapons. A very few radical Sunnis in the armed forces were lured in by oil-rich Arab Gulf sheikhs. Most significantly, well-trained, well-armed and well-financed radical fighters have flocked to Syria from all continents.

Notice five things

1) Baathist rule in Syria was (and is) dictatorial.

2) The Arab Spring began with calls for more political freedom.

3) What actually happened was that it was taken over by Islamists, and started turning violent.

4) The Islamist rebels were supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey – and, in some way, encouraged by Western governments. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are both Islamist monarchies (in which apostasy from Islam is punishable by death); Turkey’s ruling political party has strong Islamist tendencies. All three countries are Sunni.

5) Islamist fighters flocked into Syria to join the conflict.

In particular, notice that from the beginning, this was more than a civil war between Syrians. Outsiders played a crucial part. And notice especially that direct support for the Islamic militants came from countries that are close allies of Britain and America.

Wikipedia provides more useful background information:

“The Assad government opposed the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration undertook to destabilize the regime by increasing sectarian tensions, showcasing and publicising Syrian repression of radical Kurdish and Sunni groups and financing political dissidents. Assad also opposed the Qatar-Turkey pipeline in 2009. A classified 2013 report by a joint U.S. army and intelligence group concluded that the overthrow of Assad would have drastic consequences; the opposition supported by the Obama administration was dominated by jihadist elements. According to Michael T. Flynn, the then-director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the report was ignored by the U.S. administration. “

Wikipedia confirms everything that MERF says.

Notice, in particular, three things:

1) Qatar and Turkey had their own reason for being hostile to the Syrian government.

2) The American government was involved in destabilising the situation in Syria before the outbreak of the Arab Spring, by (among other things) financing political dissidents.

3) The American government supported the Syrian opposition despite the fact that the opposition was dominated by jihadists – and the fact that intelligence sources warned that the overthrow of Assad would have drastic consequences.

What MERF leaves out is the fact that the Syrian government’s response to the protests was pretty harsh – see Wikipedia – but MERF does mention the government’s one-party, dictatorial rule, which means that we shouldn’t be too surprised at the harshness.

What happened?

The result for Syria, and in particular, its Christian community, was fairly predictable. Here are some excerpts from MERF’s June 2013 prayer letter:

“Armed Islamists closed in on Syrian Christian areas of Aleppo and Homs, forcing many in suburbs and villages to leave their homes, jobs, and businesses. Hundreds have been murdered and many are missing. Others used their life savings to ransom their safe passage or to release kidnapped loved ones. Most remain in Syria, sheltering with relatives or friends in the safer government-controlled areas. Others fled as refugees, mostly to Lebanon. As government forces regained neighborhoods and villages, penniless refugees returned to destroyed or looted homes, jobless and hopeless. In the meantime, major electricity and water facilities have been destroyed. Weakened by Western economic sanctions and an exhausting guerilla war, the government can offer little help to returning refugees.” 

Notice

1) Islamic forces were murdering and kidnapping Christians – and, presumably members of other religious minorities – and indeed, anyone who opposed them.

2) Government controlled areas were safer than rebel-held areas, and when government forces regained control, those who fled were able to return home.

3) One of the things that prevents the government from helping returning refugees is sanctions by Western countries.

From July 2013:

“While Western diplomats host opposition figures promising a democratic agenda, it is well documented that on the ground in Syria, passionate Islamists effectively head the opposition forces. . . . major media have shown little interest in the fact that opposition militias in Syria have also specifically targeted murderous cleansing operations against Christian civilians. . . . Two pastors, one in Aleppo and the other in Homs, give thanks to the Lord for being able to remain in their neighbourhoods, and that, after security was restored by the army, many members of their congregations returned and Sunday services resumed.”

Notice

1) Western diplomats meet with opposition figures, and there are promises that if government falls, democracy will come to Syria. The reality is that on the ground, the opposition consists of hard line Islamists.

2) The Syrian Army brought a restoration of security to areas of Homs and Aleppo and enabled church services to resume.

3) The mainstream media tended not to report the fact that the opposition militias were doing terrible things.

May 2014:

“Christians throughout Syria continue to suffer from the war waged in their country. A large number of Christians live in the city of Aleppo, the second largest city and a leading commercial centre. Because of this it has been targeted by Islamists, who occupy significant portions. The city has been repeatedly under siege, without utilities or communication and little food.

At the end of March, thousands of well-armed and organized Islamists suddenly crossed the borders from neighbouring Turkey to attack the predominantly Armenian Christian region of Kessab in northwest Syria. Most of the population descend from survivors of the early twentieth-century Turkish genocide of Armenian Christians. The Syrian army was only able to defend the community against the armed invaders for some hours, but it gave enough time for most families to run away to the south and take refuge in the government controlled areas of Latakia.”

June 2015:

“For four years, militant Islamic groups, heavily sponsored by pro-Western Sunni rulers and wealthy Sheikhs of the Arabian Peninsula and Turkey, have tried to topple the secular Syrian government and establish a Sunni Islamic state. The Syrian government is supported by secularists, moderate Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and minorities opposed to living under a radical Islamic regime.”

Oct 2015

Syria continues to be wracked by violence as zealous Islamists from all over the world strive to remove the secular government. Much suffering in Syria and Iraq has come at the hands of these violent Islamic militants, most of whom came through Turkey. In coordination with Turkey’s Islamic government, the well-armed militias are supported by fanatical, oil-rich Sunni Muslim rulers, including sheikhs of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States. All these Sunni Muslim states are long-time allies of the West. The West has also, more selectively, supported rebellion in Syria.  The Islamic government of Turkey seems not only to enable the entry of fighters into Syria, but also the crossing of thousands into Europe.

The same story comes over again and again and again. The rebels in Syria are largely Islamic extremists. Their main support comes from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, all close allies of America and Britain. And the American and British governments are also supporting the rebels while being careful not to be seen to fund groups that are known to be Islamist. Where the rebels have control, Christians and members of other religious minorities face violent attack, and tend to flee to government held areas for refuge.

And who is to blame? Well, obviously a large part of the blame lies with the Islamist radicals doing the killing in Syria. But they would be powerless if it wasn’t for the powerful forces behind them – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. However, it is not just those nations who were involved. There have been even greater powers at work.

I quote from MERF again – this time, their July 2014 prayer letter:

Against the advice of those knowledgeable of the history and nature of the region, Western powers got involved in the Iraq and Syria wars. The consequences continue to unfold. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost; millions more grieve the loss of family members, homes, and entire livelihoods. Christians and other minorities in both countries have suffered the most from the resulting collapse of regional equilibrium.

That, basically, is the gist of what is going on in Syria at the moment – and in particular, how it affects the Christian community there. There is, however, more to be said, and I hope to return to the subject of Syria soon.

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