Over the past many months, a number of Syrian Christians and their leaders have made comments, which have taken me by surprise. They say, “The West has betrayed the Christians of Syria and abandoned them. They support and arm the rebels who not only want to overthrow the regime, but also want to rid Syria of Christians.”
These comments strip away the façade of the simple narrative told by the western media and their governments of the battle between good and evil in Syria – that the regime is bad and that the opposition is good. Michael Weiss recently wrote about “the civil war within the civil war”. He described in detail the emerging brutal conflict within the Syrian opposition between the more secular oriented factions who have a vague notion of a semi-democratic Syria and the more extremists groups such as the al-Nusra Front, which are fighting for a radical Islamic vision of Syria. The latter are better armed, better trained and bearing the brunt of the fighting, and as a result making significant inroads and able to hold territory they have taken. At the same time the extremists are practicing the same brutality that the regime has been known for.
Syria’s Christians are about 10% of the population and have historically been protected by the regime, whose leadership is predominantly Alawite, a religious minority within Syria. As dictatorial regimes in the region come under increasing pressure and begin to collapse, the Christians are among those who become targets of violence and many are forced to leave their homes. Those who remain don’t seem to have a place in the new emerging Islamic dominated societies, as the radical extremist elements would prefer not to allow non-Muslims to have the same rights as Muslim citizens.
The West under the guise of being champions of democracy, while glossing over their agendas for geopolitical dominance and energy security, see the Arab Christians as an inconvenience and having no strategic value. So they are abandoned to their fate; hence their sense of betrayal.
However, Arab Christians in the countries experiencing political upheaval are often viewed as not belonging to the mainstreams of society, culture and faith, all of which are becoming increasingly Islamic. Though their ancient historical and religious roots predate Islam and go back to the earliest days of Christianity and they have kept the faith since then, they are mistakenly perceived as vestiges of a western imperialistic Christianity. The irony is that they are seen as betrayers of what many feel it means to be Arab; their wrongly held perception being that Christianity is a western religion and that to be Arab is synonymous with being Muslim.
While in a different context and at a different time, Philip Yancey describes the struggles of Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo, who as a child grew up in Manchuria and was perceived as an alien, a child of the despised Japanese occupiers. Upon his return to Japan his anguish deepened as he experienced further rejection, being part of the 1% of society who were Christians. During World War II his feelings of isolation turned into a sense of betrayal as the West, whom he had always seen as the spiritual home for his Christianity, destroyed Japanese cities, indiscriminately killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. His novels consequently struggled with the silence of God and a sense of rejection not only by his own people but also those who were supposedly his brothers in the faith.
This story of double betrayal and abandonment is the story of the Cross. The living God in Jesus is betrayed by his own people and the Roman occupiers, and then by one of his disciples. He is then abandoned by those closest to Him. Though many of us may know about the silence of the Father, Syrian and Iraqi Christians, as did Shusaku Endo, have come to understand the agony God endured because of betrayal and abandonment.
But the story of the Cross also includes redemption.
In the midst of all this there is another story of forgiveness and reconciliation that is being played out. It is a story of redemption that only God could have written. As Syrian refugees are flooding into Lebanon, some Lebanese pastors and churches are opening their doors and hearts to assist those who are terrified and have lost everything. They do this in the face of intense criticism from many Lebanese who have never forgotten the brutality of the 20-year Syrian occupation. There isn’t a family who hasn’t endured the repeated shelling by the Syrian army. Many recall family members who were killed or tortured. Yet the impact of these few pastors as they lead their churches in demonstrating forgiveness and reconciliation that is only possible through Christ is so profound, that I believe it will breathe new life into the Church in Lebanon. They are living out the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
The timeless story of betrayal, forgiveness and redemption is still being played out in the Middle East today and it is the only message of hope for the region.