The Middle East Conference last week at ABTS focused on the Christian and Islamic perspectives on human rights. It not only explored the theological and scriptural foundations of each, but also the implications for the universalization of rights within a region that is undergoing seismic shifts.
On the margins of the conference was another meeting of individuals and organizations that have been involved in responding to the Syrian crisis. Their concern was the survival of Christians in the midst of the bloodiest conflict being waged in the world today. All the discussions at the conference – such as protection of individuals and communities, the impact of Islamization of society on minority groups, and the very basic human right for food and shelter – were very relevant to what continues to unfold in Syria.
The Syrian Christians, who make up about 10% of the overall Syrian population, are a mixture of Greek and Armenian Orthodox (who are the majority within the 10%), Catholics, and various Protestant groups, including Presbyterians, Baptists, Nazarenes, Christian Missionary Alliance and others. Christianity has very deep historical roots in Syria with some of the oldest churches and monasteries in the world in Wadi Nasara (Valley of the Nazarenes). The Christians of Syria lately have enjoyed relative freedom under the present government, as have other minority groups in the country. But there have always been questions as to whether the Christians were aligned politically with regime, or were supporters because of the freedoms they enjoyed. The distinction is important.
As the crisis in Syria has evolved from a genuine desire for greater freedom into a civil war, the Syrian Christians find themselves in a very uncomfortable position. A few Christian groups have sided with some of the more moderate elements of the opposition, believing in change and revolution, while others have strengthened their support for the regime in power in order to ensure their ongoing protection. Their very real fear is that radical and extremist groups, who are now the strongest and best armed within the opposition, have an Islamic vision for Syria, with little tolerance for minority groups and their religions.
When the conflict started in March 2011, the Christians were perceived by some within Syria as being on the side of the regime. However, the resulting attacks on Christian villages and key leaders were interpreted in the West as being evidence of persecution. While there definitely were individual cases of religious persecution during that time, the attacks were based on political alignment rather than on a person’s faith.
This however has now changed with the growing influence of radical and extremist groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and their allies. There is documented evidence that churches have been desecrated and destroyed, that some clergy have been killed, two bishops have been kidnapped, and others have been intimidated. There is evidence of Christian villages having been destroyed, and of Christians having been forced to flee.
It would be very easy for the global Christian community to denounce these atrocities and demand that their politicians exert international pressure to stop the destruction of the Christian community in Syria, as happened after the US led invasion of Iraq.
Interestingly, Syrian Christian leaders, while very concerned about their own people, see the issues very differently.
- They do not want the focus of the international community to be only on the minorities within Syria, especially the Christians. They see themselves as Syrians, and all Syrians have the right to demand that the international community do everything possible to end the bloodshed and protect all Syrian citizens. Focusing inadvertently only on the Christians in Syria, heightens the local perceptions that the West is only concerned about the Christians and not the rest of the civilians, especially if they are Muslim.
- They reflect the feelings of the Christians who say that they want to stay in Syria. They fear the decimation of the Christian community in Syria. The Christians, just as other Syrians, have lost their jobs, their homes, and access to basic services such as health and education. Increasing numbers are refugees in the neighbouring countries or are displaced within Syria. However, many have said that they would stay in Syria, in their ancestral communities, if they could only get enough food and medical help. Unfortunately, the whole response to the Syrian crisis is under funded and every agency and NGO does not have sufficient funds to address the enormous scale of the needs.
- They feel that Western governments do not understand the crisis and have reduced the conflict to a very simplistic fight of good versus evil. Both sides in the conflict are already being armed by foreign governments that are not interested in what is good for the people of Syria, but for their own geostrategic advantages. So the European and American decision to arm the opposition further only adds fuel to the fire, does not level the playing field, and will only prolong the conflict. There are no innocent parties in this conflict and everyone has blood on their hands.
The global Church has lost its moral voice in the Syrian conflict and has chosen to remain silent. However, silence implies complicity. While the conflict is military and the solutions political, the Church has a role:
1. The global Church needs to rally prayer for peace in Syria and Lebanon. Jesus asked us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…Deliver us from evil”. This is not just a promise for a future age but a prayer for now.
2. The global Church needs to lobby their governments to advocate for protection of all Syrian civilians, regardless of religion. The warring parties and all their supporting foreign governments have ceased to abide by the Geneva Conventions and the rules of war that limit violence and protect civilians.
3. The global Church needs to lobby their governments to provide more humanitarian aid to the organizations responding to the crisis, while encouraging their own members to give generously.
Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy. Deus Misereatur – May God have mercy on us.