Every night of the year, pilgrims climb to the mountain-top Saidnaya monastery church for a vespers service. Built 1,500 years ago, for many in the Middle East it is a site second in importance only to Jerusalem. Inside the ancient Orthodox church with its golden icons, a priest monk blesses the pilgrims with a censor as the men bob up and down on prayer carpets. The women kiss icons in veneration, and light candles in prayer. This is a familiar scene, one played out in Orthodox churches all around the world. Only here there is one notable exception. At this church, located about 25 km north of Damascus, most of the pilgrims on any given night are heavily-bearded Muslim men, usually accompanied by their shrouded wives.
Syria target of American sanctions, junior member of the "Axis of Evil," repressive dictatorship, and the best nation in the Middle East in which to live if you are a Christian.
Christianity in Syria is ancient. A Christian community was already firmly established in Damascus within a few decades of Christ's resurrection. St. Paul was traveling there to carry out persecution of Christians when Jesus Himself appeared to him. Throughout Byzantine times, and well into the era of Islam, Damascus was a center of Christian learning and scholarship. The writings of such Syrian divines as St. John of Damascus helped define the Christian faith, and are still required reading in seminaries throughout the world.
Today, Christians in Syria comprise approximately 810% of the population, an estimated 1.3 million people. The majority of them are Eastern Orthodox Christians under the Patriarchate of Antioch. The historic city of Antioch, where followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians, is actually physically located inside modern day Turkey. However, the Patriarchate fled U.S. ally Turkey in the 1930's in order to find greater freedom in Syria, a nation the U.S. considers its enemy.
Syria does not recognize Islam as the state religion, unlike almost all other states of the Middle East. Proselytizing is not illegal. The website, International Christian Concern, reports that no government sponsored acts of religious persecution have been witnessed in Syria, and that no prisoners are being held because of their Christian beliefs. Syrian identity cards do not list religion, a fact that makes Christians feel more secure here than elsewhere in the Middle East. Major Christian celebrations such as Christmas and Easter are official national holidays. State-run television channels even run Christmas programs. Unlike other Middle Eastern nations in which public Christian displays are banned, each Easter hundreds of thousands of Christians take to the streets of Damascus for joyous processions. On any given Sunday, more Christians are at worship in Syria than in such formerly Christian nations as England.
Christian populations have been on the decline for decades throughout the Middle East. In the last 20 years alone, discrimination and persecution have driven two million Christians to seek new lives for themselves in Europe and the United States. Many towns and villages that were once overwhelmingly Christian within living memory are now virtually Christian-free. Only Syria has bucked this trend. Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Ibrahim, told journalist William Dalrymple, "Christians are better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East. Other than Lebanon, this is the only country in the region where a Christian can really feel the equal of a Muslim. If Syria were not here, we would be finished. It is a place of sanctuary, a haven for all Christians: for the Nestorians driven out of Iraq, the Syrian Orthodox and the Armenians driven out of Turkey, even the Palestinian Christians driven out by the Israelis."
Why Is Syria So Special?
The combination of two factors has created the relatively happy situation for Christians in Syria. First, the ruling of party of Syria is the Ba'ath. The ideological founder of this party, whose name is Arabic for "rebirth," was Michel Aflaq, a native of Syria and a staunch Christian. The main objectives of the Ba'ath Movement, as envisioned by such thinkers as Aflaq, were secularism, socialism, and pan-Arab unionism. These objectives are summed up in the party slogan, "Unity, Freedom, Socialism."
Two regimes have made use of Aflaq's ideology, one in Syria and the other in Iraq. Neither has lived up to his dream. Aflaq was both a strident defender of human rights and a tireless champion of the poor. However, both wings of the Ba'ath Party have maintained his relentlessly secularist orientation. It is that ideological umbrella which provides the cover under which Syrian Christianity flourishes today.
In addition to Ba'ath ideology, the ethnic composition of Syria's ruling elite encourages policies of tolerance. General Hafez al-Assad took control of Syria in a 1970 coup. Assad was an Alawite, a Muslim minority that is despised by Sunni Muslims as heretical. Orthodox Muslims often deride Alawites as "little Christians." As the Alawite liturgy seems to be at least partly Christian in origin, this barb probably contains at least some truth.
Prior to Assad's coup, Sunni Muslims had ruled Syria for 1,400 years. The new dictator quickly reversed the long-standing pecking order within Syrian society that had kept Sunnis at the top for so long. In the new Syria, Assad organized the religious minorities, including the Christians, into a bulwark against the Sunnis. The Sunnis, to say the least, were somewhat disturbed by this. The Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim organization, actually declared a jihad against the Assad regime in 1976, after Syria intervened in the Lebanese Civil War on the side of the Christians. The Assad regime eventually crushed the Brotherhood in 1982, killing over 10,000 Sunnis in their heartland of Hama. Ever since, Muslim fundamentalism has been ruthlessly kept in check.
Hafez Assad died in 2000. Towards the end of his life, five of his seven closest advisors were Christians. His successor and son, 34-year-old Bashar al-Assad, has largely continued his father's governing policies. Despite his relative youth, the junior Assad has shown indications of being a talented man and good head of state. But he is also an embattled leader who faces serious opposition from abroad, fueled primarily by his regime's continued support of Palestinian resistance groups, and Syria's continued occupation of Lebanon.
Syria in the Cross Hairs
Assad's primary antagonists are the U.S. and Israel. In October 2003, Israel staged an air attack on Syria in retaliation for a suicide bombing in Haifa. At the end of 2003, the U.S. enacted a sanctions protocol. The result of these moves, so the Bush and Sharon Administrations hope, will be a great Jeffersonian democracy akin to the success story unfolding in nearby Iraq. In an article published by National Review Online, Oubai Shahbandar, the U.S. spokesman for the Reform Party of Syria, stated exactly what the U.S. and Israel are seeking, "American and European policymakers must make it clear to the current Syrian dictatorship that there can be only two choices: capitulate to the will of the Syrian people and let a new democratic, free Syria emerge or face the humiliation suffered by your fellow Baathist neighbors in Iraq."
To further the Bush Administration goal of fostering "a change in Syria," The Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 was passed with overwhelming support in both the House and the Senate. The officially stated goals of this law are: “To halt Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, stop its development of weapons of mass destruction, cease its illegal importation of Iraqi oil and illegal shipments of weapons and other military items to Iraq, and by so doing hold Syria accountable for the serious international security problems it has caused in the Middle East, and for other purposes.”
The act bans all transfers of “dual-use” technology to Syria. In addition, the act recommends a wide range of sanctions against Syria, including: reducing diplomatic contacts with Syria, banning U.S. exports (except food and medicine) to Syria, prohibiting U.S. businesses from investing or operating in Syria, restricting the travel of Syrian diplomats in the United States, banning Syrian aircraft from operating in the United States, and freezing Syrian assets in the United States. The act obligates the executive branch to enact at least two of the recommended sanctions, but does permit the president to waive the sanctions if it is determined that they would harm U.S. national security.
The act was hailed by hawks in both the U.S. and Israel. The Christian Coalition ranked its passage as one of its major legislative victories in the 108th Congress. There has also been, of course, the inevitable talk of military action against Syria, should the act fail to induce the desired effects. Richard Perle, for one, has suggested that there are troops to spare in Iraq that can occupy Syria in short order. So far, however, the Bush Administration has downplayed the military option.
Revealingly, the remaining leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, living in exile for the past 20 years in London, are also calling for a democratic Iraq. Prior to the visit of Pope John Paul II to Syria in 2001, the group published a statement that proclaimed, “The utmost that any political group can do is to take its place on the national map according to the size it is given by its actual popularity through the free and honest ballot boxes.” It seems that Muslim fundamentalists have no objection to free elections they expect to win.
Calls for freedom and democracy sound innocent enough to Americans, for whom these two words are practically synonyms. However, trying to forcibly implant such notions in a religiously fractious society such as Syria is a recipe for disaster, particularly for the Christians. Under the Assad regime, Christians have enjoyed religious and cultural freedom unparalleled in the Middle East. As critics charge, Syria is indeed a one-party police state totally bereft of political freedoms. However, it is precisely because of the strict control the regime keeps over the political life of the country that it can extend security and freedom of worship to religious minorities. A democratic system would bring to power a Sunni-dominated government that would be far less accommodating to Christians, and could usher in a round of genocide unimaginable in scale.
It is precisely for this reason that religious minorities in Syria, the Christians above all, fear that current U.S. policy in the Middle East will bring down the Assad regime. The founding of a de facto Kurdistan in Northern Iraq has already rocked the Assad regime by encouraging riots among Syria's Kurds. Many analysts suspect that these riots may have even been actively organized by outside forces. In addition, international isolation is likely to only increase the pressure on an already weak Syrian economy. If things continue in this vein, Assad's grip on power could lessen, paving the way for his acceding to hard-line Sunni demands for a more religious state, or even his outright ouster.
It is true that problems with Syria do exist. In contrast to its tolerance of minorities at home, the record of the Syrian regime in its occupation of Lebanon has been decidedly mixed. Since intervening to stop the Lebanese Civil War in 1976, Syria has pursued a strategy of "divide and conqueror" as a method of control. Thus, Syria has, at some point, cultivated alliances with almost every faction in that tortured country's religious conflict. This has caused a great deal of pain among Lebanese Christians, many of whom chafe under continued Syrian dominance of their country. It is also true that Syria provides some measure of assistance to groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, who are currently fighting Israel. (Syria has no link to any organization that has ever attacked the United States. Osama Bin Laden will get no support from Damascus.)
Even given the shortcoming of the Assad regime, it is impossible at this time to envision how imposing democracy on Syria could improved the situation. After all, if one wishes to know how a more "democratic" Syria would turn out, one only has to look next door to Iraq for the answer.
Inside "Liberated" Iraq
At Basra University, menacing groups of men have been stopping cars at the university gates and haranguing women whose heads are uncovered, accusing them of violating Islamic law. Even Christians have started wearing headscarves out of fear, something that never happened under Saddam Hussein's regime. Organized into armed militias, Muslim fanatics roam the streets of Basra, waging a campaign of fear to enforce Muslim law. Christian alcohol vendors have been gunned down in their shops, and others have had their shops destroyed. Christians throughout Iraq report confiscations of property, kidnapping of family members for ransom, and violent attacks on homes. Christian churches operate only during daylight hours out of fear, and many Christians stay away altogether.
To make matters worse, the compromise Transitional Administrative Law has actually gone far towards officially establishing Islamic rule in what was once a secular country. Article 7 states, in part, that "Islam is the official religion of the State and is to be considered a source of legislation. No law that contradicts the universally agreed tenets of Islam, the principles of democracy, or the rights cited in Chapter Two of this Law may be enacted during the transitional period. This Law respects the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice." Given the fact that many of these requirements are contradictory, most Christians fear that Islamic law will become the source of power in the new Iraq.
Iraqi Christian groups have characterized the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq as a “treacherous conspiracy.” It is very possible that this treachery will lead to the extinction of one of the world’s oldest Christian nations in its own homeland. Despite repeated calls for help by Iraqi Christians, loyalty to the Bush Administration and devotion to Israel have kept the Christian community within the United States largely silent.
Summing up the situation, one Christian merchant told an AP reporter, “No one can say things under Saddam Hussein were good in Iraq, but now with the situation we are in now, we look back on them as perfect.”
A Call to Action and Prayer
A newly "liberated" Syria would look no prettier than does the newly "liberated" Iraq. For this reason, it is imperative that Americans, particularly Christian Americans, take notice of the plight of our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq. First, we must pray fervently for the safety of Syrian and Iraqi Christians. Second, the Bush Administration must hear from us loudly and clearly. We must find our voices to cry out on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.
The reckless bluster directed at Syria must end immediately along with all U.S. sanctions. At the same time, the Bush Administration must stop building the Islamic Republic of Iraq, and immediately find a way to provide for the security of Christians living in that badly destabilized country. The consequences of failing to hold George Bush accountable for his catastrophic policies could be dire. Christians in United States cannot remain silent. If we do, then we are guilty of shedding the Blood of Christ just as surely as if we had hammered the nails ourselves.
April 2, 2004