The Scottish writer William Dalrymple says that Syria has been a kind of oasis for Christians in the Middle East. But Syrian Christians are now faced with a painful choice. They can offer support to a brutal dictatorship that, generally, has protected them but has killed 5,000 of its citizens since calls for change and demonstrations began in the spring of 2011. Or Christians can participate in the opposition, which, if it topples the regime, may bring to power a Sunni-led government that could be ultra-conservative and anti-Christian.
Tourists in Syria
I visited Syria with my wife and daughter in early 2010. We stayed in a Christian neighbourhood in Damascus where after church on Sunday mornings a group of Maronite Catholics — coiffed and middle-aged women wearing slacks and colourful sweaters — gathered in a coffee shop to visit much as they might in Ottawa or Saskatoon. But in the city streets one was more likely to see other women clad in black and wearing the veil.
The Muslim and Christian communities, to all outward appearances, were living in harmony. From the rooftop of a hotel in central Damascus, we could see both the minarets of mosques and church spires. The piercing Muslim call to prayer was matched by the jangle of church bells. There is an historic Christian presence in Damascus, one of the world’s oldest cities. In the Christian quarter, we visited the basement chapel of Ananias, where St. Paul was reportedly cured of blindness, converted and baptized.
Nearby, we visited St. Paul’s Chapel, which purportedly marks the spot where Paul was lowered from the city wall in a basket to escape the city’s Jews who were angry at his preaching a new religion. These buildings and any of the city’s churches, however, are small in comparison to the great Umayyad Mosque, which was built in the seventh century on the site of a Christian basilica that had been dedicated to St. John the Baptist.
Refuge for Christians
Syria became a refuge for Armenian Christians fleeing persecution and genocide in Turkey early in the 20th century, and much later it is a haven for Christians fleeing Iraq and other trouble spots. Writer Dalrymple says that the regime’s accommodation of Christians had a Machiavellian logic for Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970. He was a member of the Alawites, a Muslim minority group in Syria that comprises about 10 per cent of the population and is considered heretical by the majority Sunni population.
Hafez el Hassad ruled with ruthless determination by forming an informal coalition of religious minority groups including Christians, who comprise another 10 per cent of the population. When Hassad died in 2000, his son Bashar succeeded him. There was hope that he would be open to reform and for a time that appeared possible. But he has proven to be brutal as well, or perhaps more accurately he is a pawn of the corrupt military and economic elite, which has much to lose from change.
Any hope of reform has been quashed by the 2011 brutal crackdown on dissent. It has seen an estimated 5,000 people killed and possibly as many as 40,000 arrested. As Canadian Maher Arar who spent a year in Syrian jail knows too well, anyone arrested in Syria stands a good chance of being tortured.
Syria is a police state with a large army and police apparatus, although as tourists we noticed little of that when we were there in 2010. Taxi drivers and the owners of Internet cafes regularly serve as police informants. Security officers wearing civilian clothes mingle with crowds in the souqs and narrow alleyways in Damascus, Aleppo and other cities.
A driver who took us in a van to Mar Musa, a 1500-year-old Byzantine monastery on a mountain not far from Damascus told us that if we had been American tourists, state security agents would have followed his vehicle. While he waited for us to return from our climb of 800 stone steps to the monastery’s perch, they would have questioned him closely about our conversation with him.
Christians on both sides
The New York Times reports that there are Christians represented in the opposition to the regime, and that among those who support it “loyalty to the government is often driven more by fear than fervor.” The newspaper continues: “For many Syrian Christians, Mr. Assad remains predictable in a region where unpredictability has driven their brethren from war-racked places like Iraq and Lebanon, and where others have felt threatened in post-revolutionary Egypt.”
The Times story raises an unpleasant question. Does it take a strongman to protect the community (in this case the Christians) from the more dangerous, more intolerant currents in society? Clearly, the Maronite Catholic patriarch believes so. In September, Patriarch Bishara Boutros al-Rai urged Maronites to offer Assad another chance. Those comments prompted a rebuttal from Syrian Christians involved in the opposition. But the patriarch stood firm. “We do not stand by the regime, but we fear the transition that could follow,” he said. “We must defend the Christian community.”
This strategic support of the regime may well have been overtaken by events. The killing has continued and the call for international action has grown louder. Former allies, including Turkey and Russia, have become critical. The Arab League has sent in a team of observers and imposed limited sanctions. Assad’s days appear to be numbered but Christians fear that they might suffer a savage backlash when the dynasty falls.
The choice facing the Christians of Syria is obviously difficult, it is between “supping with the devil(you know) with a long handled spoon”, or figuring out a way of being Peacemakers (Conflict Resolvers). Given that the State side is not exactly enlightened, it would seem necessary to conflict resolution to find a vehicle for change, such as a “witness” for the Arab League monitors, or something. Being on the side of the persecuted can’t be bad either.
Kind of between a rock and a hard place, aren’t they? Years of repression or too little too late have driven people into the arms of the most radical. It was ever thus. Who will offer the Syrian Christians a place if the Sunnis take over?
Should Christians in Syria join the opposition or support the current regime under which they apparently feel relatively secure?
The question is almost impossible to answer without first stating explicitly what ‘joining the opposition’ actually means. If it means taking up arms and employing violence to reach a political objective, the answer is a clear “no!” Killing for any reason constitutes a repudiation of Christianity and the notion that Christians can ever resort to violence to ‘improve’ their position or security simply extinguishes the light of Christ in favor of an accommodation with Caesar.
Christians do well to remember that, as a child, Jesus was a homeless, child refugee fleeing into Egypt with his family and later, when on trial for his life, declared his Kingdom was not of this world. In between, his entire ministry was a complete, non-violent repudiation of repression in all its forms, including physical as well as spiritual deprivation. The Christian’s primary duty is to emulate the Christ and that entails no compromise with evil in its many manifestations, including political violence and repression.
The Syrian regime is a brutal dictatorship. If Christians are unable to live peaceably in Syria or any other country, then they face a very difficult choice. On the one hand, they can leave, and throughout history thousands of people of faith, and not just Christians, have left their native lands in order to live and practice their faith in peace. That is a very difficult choice and one that is never taken lightly.
Alternatively, Christians can also choose to stay and endure suffering for their faith, following the example of martyrs throughout history in a manner analogous to Jesus’ supreme act of love as the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. Both choosing to endure suffering without retaliation and leaving to avoid being caught in violence break the cycle of violence and both options were used by Jesus during his ministry and while he was on the run from the authorities. Even at the cost of his life, Jesus refused to be employ violence.
For the Christian, non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with the good. In the action of ‘picking up arms,’ one simultaneously ‘lays down the cross’ that Jesus said defines discipleship. Similarly, when one fails to object to wrong-doing, one becomes complicit in that wrong-doing.
Christians in Syria should also remember that whatever comfort or security they may have with the current regime, the nature of tyranny means such support can vanish in the twinkling of an eye and be replaced with repression. History is littered with the corpses of those who counted on tyrants for their continued security. For the Christian, the only security in this world is Christ because gospel values are diametrically opposed to worldly values, and no worldly value is more repugnant to the authentic Christian than that of accepting violence as a legitimate political tool (something our Prime Minister has yet to learn).
It is true that the current Syrian dictator could be replaced by a regime openly hostile to Christianity. Such a development would be tragic, but by no means unprecedented. It is equally true that the current regime could decide to persecute Christians tomorrow. Christians either stand for the gospel and ‘let the chips fall where they may,’ or they simply become religious mercenaries looking for the ‘best deal’ from the Caesars of our own time.
It is never easy to take up one’s cross and follow Christ, but that is the challenge Christ put before every would-be disciple in the world, not just those in Syria. That fact is easily overlooked in the West where so many so-called Christian churches and their adherents have made an easy accommodation with Caesar. Such parodies of Chistianity are no longer deeply troubled by sins like using violence for political ends or sending the poor away empty because the rich are not yet fully engorged. Such is the nature of the desolating sacrilege and exaltation of Caesar in our own time.
The question we might asked ourselves is ” Is Libya and Iraq better off now that they have democracy. ” I was listening to the CBC yesterday and the reporter reporting from Jerusalem on Syria. It was a different truth than the report from somebody who was actually in Syria:
http://www.kpfa.org/archive/id/76242. Next or coming soon the liberation of Iran from the Iranian people.