In this exclusive report to the Religious Freedom Coalition Andrew Harrod reveals the feelings toward Muslims and the Assad government in Syria by high ranking members of the Syrian Christian clergy. Christians in Syria refer to the “golden age” of freedom they have had since 1970 that now is threatened by the installation of a Saudi style regime by the United States government. – Editor
By Andrew E. Harrod
“There will come a time when there will be no more Christians in Syria,” the Syrian Presbyterian Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, former General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches, warned recently on January 27, 2014, at Washington, DC’s Heritage Foundation. Jarjour explained Syrian Christians’ “stage of hopelessness” while “boxed in” by Muslim sectarian fighting in Syria’s civil war during two successive presentations by a Syrian Christian delegation.
The Heritage event and the previous day’s panel at McLean, Virginia’s St. John the Beloved Catholic Church clearly showed the “tragedy of the church in Syria” described at St. John by Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo. Sookhdeo, chairman of the Westminster Institute and international director of Barnabas Aid, the Syrian delegation’s sponsors, described a “Gethsemane that leads to a potential Calvary.” One-third of Syria’s two million Christians had fled the country during “perhaps the single greatest humanitarian disaster in the world today.” During a slide show, Syrian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Bishop Dionysius Jean Kawak at St. John noted United Nations estimates of ten million Syrians needing assistance by the end of 2013. Food, water, and electricity shortages afflicting the Syrian population marked a “lost generation.”
Jarjour at Heritage, meanwhile, discussed how Syrian Christians are “pressured to leave” by Sunni jihadist groups fighting for the overthrow of Syria’s Shiite-backed dictator Bashir Assad. Jarjour recalled one funeral of a Christian beheaded by such jihadists as well as the severed heads of two Armenian Christians sent to children as a threat. Jihadists also used Christians as human shields in the Syrian town of Homs. Kawak at Heritage also referenced the kidnapping by jihadists of Syrian nuns and bishops.
Such “very radical Islamist groups” entering Syria meant that local Christians had abandoned their support for opposition groups initially given when protests for reform of the Assad regime began in March 2011. Many of these groups were linked to Al Qaeda that, “contrary to popular opinion…is alive,” Sookhdeo noted at Heritage. Jarjour at Heritage saw a worrying precedent in Syria’s neighbor Iraq, where Muslim intimidation had expelled 70% of that country’s Christian population following Saddam Hussein’s overthrow.
Rev. Adib Awad, General Secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, explained at St John how such Muslim repression of Christians is not new. Jews and Christians are “second-class citizens in a religious state” under orthodox Islamic laws, he explained. While not always enforced in the past, these laws mandated distinctive clothing for Christians and low door construction in Christian dwellings so that Christians would humiliatingly bow upon entering. Muslim repression also resulted in destroyed churches while Ottoman Empire rule in Syria enslaved Christian youth as soldiers in the Janissary Corps or as haram concubines.
While non-Muslims have had some freedoms under past Muslim rule, “it can change anytime,” Adib said to this author at Heritage. Christians in the region have thus endured “different periods of fear for their future,” Kawak observed at Heritage. As a result of such centuries-long repression, modern Syria’s population is only 10% Christian while the region was essentially completely Christian before Islamic conquest in the seventh-century.
Yet the Syrian church is “one of the oldest in the world,” Sookhdeo at St. John noted. Christians are not “outsiders” in Syria, Damascus Armenian Church Primate Bishop Armash Nalbandian similarly affirmed at St. John. Rather “Christianity belongs to Syria,” a “cradle of Christianity.”[button link=”http://christmasforrefugees.org/” text=”Help a Christian refugee child today!” size=”small” alt=”off”]
The one modern “Golden Age” for Syrian Christians occurred under Assad family rule since 1970, Awad argued at St. John. Syrian Christians were free to build churches and follow Christian, not Muslim, family law in what was for Christians “probably the most liberal” Arab Muslim state. This “very acceptable atmosphere” for Christians explains why Christians such as General Daoud Rajiha, Syria’s defense minister until his July 18, 2012, assassination, have been loyal to the Assad dictatorship. Jihadist terrorists from 83 countries backed by countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, though, have destroyed this interfaith “land of coexistence,” Awad lamented at Heritage. “All this has changed dramatically,” Anglican Bishop Julian Dobbs agreed in introducing the Heritage panel, in what was “one of the easiest places in the Arab world to be a Christian.”
Amidst their present sorrows the visiting Syrian Christians maintained future hopes. For Christians who “want to continue to be part of Syrian society,” Kawak at Heritage sought a “secular democratic state” in a “new Syria.” Worried about “third- or fourth-class citizenship,” Syrian Christians wanted “full equality for all.” In such a Syria Christians could be “advocates of interreligious dialogue,” Nalbandian argued at Heritage.
To this end Syrians should “use dialogue rather than power” in deciding Syria’s future, however difficult this might be, Kawak urged at Heritage. This reflected the Syrian Christian “attitude of neutrality” toward sectarian conflict. Jarjour at St. John also termed himself a “person of dialogue” while calling for peaceful reform in Syria. “We want peace” and “terror to stop from any side,” Awad likewise affirmed at St. John while supporting the Geneva negotiations. Yet along with other delegation members, Awad at Heritage refused to express specific political views, saying “I don’t like to talk politics” in response to a question about Assad. As one audience member observed in private conversation, political remarks could be hazardous for the Syrian Christians in their war-torn homeland.
Questioning official American demands that Assad leave power, Awad suggested United Nations-supervised elections in Syria that Awad felt Assad would actually win with about 70% of the vote. American diplomats have privately agreed with Awad, he said, and added to this author at Heritage that a European foreign minister had expressed this view as well. While all of Syria’s minorities supported Assad, Awad estimated that 60% of Syria’s Sunni majority would support Assad against the jihadists.
The Syrian Christians did not judge dialogue with Syrian Muslims as hopeless. “Islam does not automatically mean terrorism,” Armash at St. John argued, but “also contains the principles of love…peace” and other humane values. Living together with “our Muslim brothers and sisters” was a similar wish of Jarjour at Heritage while noting that Christians and Muslims in the past “were doing very well with each other.” Jarjour cited the inspiring example of Muslims who had defiantly remained in a church threatened with destruction by jihadists in the Syrian village of Deir Atteih. Awad at Heritage, however, personally cautioned this author that while there are “moderate Muslims…they have no voice.”
Future thoughts aside, “much of the Western world remains silent” during Syria’s present predicament, Dobbs criticized. Querying “why the silence of Western Christians,” Sookhdeo at St. John discerned an “indictment of the church” in its lack of concern for the fate of Syrian Christians. Here there was also a “failure of Western governments” as well as the media. “Only one side” of Syria’s story appeared in the media, Sookhdeo complained at Heritage, while the Obama Administration needed to be “even-handed” in the matter. With respect to Syria’s minorities, it was imperative for the media and others to “break the silence.”