After two years of civil war, the Syrian crisis is now in the news–especially the western media–more than ever before. The Syrian government’s apparent recent actions of using chemical weapons against civilians has rightfully sparked concern from the West. As intervention, war, and peacemaking are being debated, it seems helpful to consider the perspective of Syria’s Christian population. Despite being the minority religion in a majority Muslim context, the church in Syria is one of the oldest Christianity communities in the global church. Works by Kenneth Cragg, Samuel Moffett, Dale Irvin and Scott Sunquist, and Phillip Jenkins have helpfully related the story of early eastern Christianity.
In an article this past week in the National Catholic Reporter, some strong perspectives from Syrian Christians were communicated. This included the opinion of church leaders who argued that Arab trust in the West would only be weakened by intervention:
In late August, the Melkite Greek Catholic patriarch of Antioch in Syria, Gregory III Laham, pointedly asserted that any military intervention by the United States in his country would be a “criminal act.” Such an assault, Laham said, “will only reap more victims, in addition to the tens of thousands of these two years of war. This will destroy the Arab world’s trust in the West.” He warned it would be no less serious than the use of chemical weapons.
There is also concern that removing the Assad regime would only mean more violence toward Christians. The report continues:
Since the outbreak of civil war in 2011, reports suggest Christians have been the targets of mounting violence. Observers believe tens of thousands of Christians have fled the conflict zones, some going into internal exile and others seeking refuge in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Armenia. The Syriac League, a nonpartisan body in Lebanon, estimated in May that there are 10,000 Christian refugees from Syria in that nation alone . . . In addition to physical attacks, reports indicate churches and meeting places have been torched, Christian-owned businesses have been looted, and in some cases, Christian women have been targeted for assault. The Christian Post reported in December 2011 that fundamentalist taxi drivers in rebel-controlled areas of Syria had vowed to attack any unveiled female client, who tend to be Christians. Christian clergy have also become tempting targets for kidnapping, including two Orthodox prelates grabbed by still-obscure forces in April. The prelates’ fate remains unknown. In late February, the website Ora Pro Siria, operated by Italian missionaries in Syria, claimed the going price for a kidnapped priest was in the neighborhood of $200,000.
As a result, many Syrian Christians “seem to prefer the devil [the current government] they know.” The article concludes:
Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic humanitarian group, recently issued a report on Syria, quoting one Christian woman who asked to remain anonymous. ”The government was bad, but at least we were safe,” she said. “Not anymore. … Look at what has happened to our churches in places like Aleppo and Homs. The extremists threaten us when we want to celebrate major feasts like Christmas and Easter. They don’t want us in the area at all.”
These concerns have certainly been validated by recent escalated violence in Egypt toward its Christian minorities.
Let us not forget to pray for these ancient communities and their current witness in Syria as we also pray for peace in Syria and wisdom for world leaders and governments as they consider their response to the Syrian situation.