Source: Alfred the Great Society | Robin Phillips
Syrian Christianity goes back to the earliest days of the Christian faith, with language, traditions and practices that have remained largely unchanged since the time of Christ. Despite popular misconceptions, the nation of Syria is not an Islamic state. The Christian population living in Syria has enjoyed a measure of stability under the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. This tenuous stability is now being undermined by Islamic rebels who, supported by Western powers, are attempting to overthrow the government and destroy the native Christian population.
Christianity in Syria
Not long after Christ’s ascension, the church at Jerusalem was scattered following Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 11:19). Many Christians fled to Antioch in modern day Turkey, where Barnabas was later sent to check on the church (Acts 11:22-27). Barnabas found that the gospel had taken deep root in Antioch, as evidenced by the fact that it was here that the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). The city of Antioch became a thriving centre of Mediterranean Christianity and one of the five major Apostolic sees (the others being Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome and Alexandria).
As a centre of apostolic Christianity, the Antiochian church sent missionaries throughout all of Asia Minor. It was from these missionaries that the gospel was reinforced in Syria. Partly because of this, the largest grouping Christians living in Syria call themselves Antiochian (the official title of their church is the ‘Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch’).
Christianity flourished so much in Syria that when the Ottomans invaded Antioch in the 14th century, the Antiochian church moved its headquarters from Antioch to Damascus in Syria. Damascus was also a stronghold of ancient Christianity since the earliest days. In fact, it was because the church at Damascus was thriving that Saul, later the Apostle Paul, decided to travel there to persecute the Christians of the city, prior to his miraculous conversion experience on the Damascus road.
The Damascus-based Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch (or the ‘Antiochian Orthodox church’ for short) has one million members in Syria, with worship and practice that has remained relatively unchanged since the early days of the Apostle’s successors. An interesting testament to this is the fact that it is only among Christian communities in Syria that Aramaic, the language in which Jesus spoke, still survives as a living tongue.
More recently, missionaries and immigrants from the Middle East have spread the traditions and practices of the Antiochian church throughout the world, giving millions of Christians a chance to connect with some of the oldest Christian prayers and practices. The church in Syria is thus responsible for 2 million Christians worldwide, including many in America. (My own family attends the Damascus-based Antiochian Orthodox Church, which was planted in our village by a missionary priest.)
Syria also has a strong presence of Christians from other traditions, including the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the Oriental Syriac Orthodox Church, the Assyrian church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church and a minority of various Protestant groups.
Back in the 1920s Christians made up as much as 30% of Syria’s population, but throughout the 20th century they were subject to fierce persecution. The Christian population in Syria now amounts to about 10% of the total population.
The church in Syria came to enjoy relative stability under the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad’s family, who have ruled Syria since 1971. al-Assad has never insisted that Islam be the nation’s state religion, although the constitution requires the President to be a Muslim. For many years Syria has been looked upon as a safe haven for Christians, and thousands of Iraqi Christians recently fled to Syria to escape the persecution in their homeland in the wake of Western intervention.
The equilibrium in Syria began to be disrupted after the, so called, ‘Arab Spring’ hit the country in 2011. Rebel groups, many of whom have links to Al-Qaeda, began seeking to overthrow the government. Syria’s Christian population became engulfed in the crossfire of this civil war. Because most Christians in Syria have remained neutral in the two-year civil war and some have supported the government, the insurgents with the ‘Free Syrian Army’ perceive Christians as enemies. Consequently, they have begun systematically confiscating land belonging to Christians, in addition raping women and killing children. Dozens of churches have also been desecrated or completely destroyed, mainly around Homs and Aleppo.
Astoundingly, the anti-government ‘Free Syrian Army’ is considered moderate by the West and is supported by the David Cameron, the Obama administration, NATO and the EU.
In March the New York Times reported that the America’s Central Intelligence Agency had expanded an airlift of arms and equipment to insurgent militants that had been occurring since early 2012, totalling around 3,500 tons of military equipment in total. This coincided with a series of rebel victories. America has kept up the momentum, and last month Ben Rhodes, U.S. deputy national security adviser, revealed that America was stepping up the assistance it was giving to rebel groups, hoping to finally tip the balance to help the insurgents overthrow al-Assad’s government. The announcement coincided with the emergence of new lethal weapons in the hands of rebel forces.
If the rebels do succeed in overthrowing the government, the worst case scenario could be a repeat of what happened in Yugoslavia during the late 90s, after Western troops supported Islamic Albanian rebel groups seeking to overthrow the government. Once the Muslim rebel groups had successfully separated from the lawful Yugoslavian government based on Serbia, they formed the, so called, Republic of Kosovo. Christians living in Kosovo were then targeted for destruction and sacred monasteries that were hundreds of years old were levelled to the ground.
This pattern is being repeated in Syria as Muslim rebel groups seek both to overthrow the lawful government as well as to eliminate the native Christian population. Consequently, Christians in Syria are frightened to worship publicly and many have had to flee to refugee camps in neighbouring countries
‘Disproportionate Violence and abuse’
A special ‘Vulnerability Assessment’ report conducted by the World Watch unit of Open Doors International from June 2013 warned that Syrian Christians are the victims of “disproportionate violence and abuse.” They warned further that Christian women in Syria are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse.
There is a sad irony here. The intervention of American and Britain in Iraq resulted in a hard-line Islamic takeover and the eviction or extermination of the native Christians living in Iraq. Many Iraqi Christians died, while countless others fled to Syria where they thought they would be safe. And now Western powers are seeking to empower the very forces that are persecuting the Christian population in Syria.
Metropolitan Hilarion, the chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, lamented that “in those places where the authorities are replaced by the rebel groups, Christianity is being exterminated to the last man: Christians are expelled, or physically destroyed.
He recalled that “Syria has taken more than two million Iraqi refugees, thousands of whom are Christians.” But now the Metroplitain says “thousands of militant extremists under the guise of opposition forces unleashed a civil war in this country. Extremist groups armed and trained by means of foreign powers are deliberately killing Christians.”
Rebel Groups Kidnap Archbishop
The situation in Syria reached crisis proportions last April when insurgents groups kidnapped two Archbishops who were on their way back to Aleppo after accomplishing a humanitarian mission. The two church leaders (Yohanna Ibrahim, archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox church and Paul Yazigi, Metropolitan of the Antiochian Orthodox church) had been traveling outside the besieged northern city of Aleppo in an effort to provide aid and comfort to war-torn regions and to negotiate the release of two priests. Their driver, a church deacon, was shot dead and the two archbishops were abducted at gunpoint. As of writing this article, the whereabouts and condition of the clerics remain unknown.
Unfortunately, this high-profile kidnapping is only the tip of the iceberg. Writing in The Huffington Post this April, Hieromonk Peter Preble observed that “Since the war began in March of 2011, more than 70,000 people have died. A February estimate places the internally displaced at 3.6 million, and an additional 1.3 million have been forced to flee Syria for neighboring countries as refugees, all the while the government of the United States continues to support the very people responsible for the killing.”
Rebels target monasteries
Ancient Christian monasteries are being regularly plundered in Syria by anti-government forces. In May of this year, rebels attacked the 1500-year-old monastery of the Prophet Elijah near the city of Al-Qusayr. They stole the sacramental vessels, destroyed the altar and the baptismal font, blew up the bell tower, and knocked down the sacred statue of Elijah.
On June 23, a Syrian Catholic priest was murdered in a monastery in Gassanieh, Idlib. François Murad, 49, was a member of the Franciscans and lived a life of prayer at the monastery. Gunmen entered the monastery, plundered it, burned the building and executed Murad. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the head of all Franciscans in the Holy Land, told the Vatican News Agency that “The world must know that the support of gunmen by the west is helping extremists in killing Syrians.”
Christian Villages Completely Destroyed
On 27 May this year, the ‘Free Syrian Army’ raided the Christian-populated village of al-Duvair in Syria’s Western province of Homs. Arriving in the village they proceeded to massacre all its civilian residents, including women and children. The army of the Syrian government intervened to protect the Christians, but only after most of the population had been slaughtered.
On 11 June, a massacre was reported in the town of Hatlah, close to Deir el-Zour city. An organisation of armed militants converged on the town to ‘cleanse’ it. At least 60 people were slaughtered.
In other Christian villages, rebels have suddenly appeared and declared, “Flee or be killed.” With nowhere to go and little hope of finding employment, thousands of Christian families face little prospect of a hopeful future. Many have fled to refugee camps, though conditions there are little better since they make “soft targets” for criminals and Islamic thugs.
London Mayor Warns of ‘ a terrifying Islamic state’The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, issued a stinging rebuke to David Cameron’s naïve support of Syrian rebels. He warned that as Britain supplies rebels with weaponry, they will have no means of preventing those weapons ending up in the hands of “al Qaida-affliated thugs” associated with government opposition. As an example of the radical Islam of the rebels, Mr Johnson described an incident in Aleppo where a 15-year-old boy was taken away and beaten and then summarily executed by Islamist rebels for making a joking reference to the Prophet Mohammed.
In an article for the Daily Telegraph, Mr Johnson joined other prominent spokespeople, including the Archbishop of York, in warning the British Government not to meddle in the Syrian crisis.
“Odious, twisted, hate-filled thugs; arrogant and inadequate creeps, intoxicated by the pathetic illusion of power that comes with guns; poisoned by a perversion of religion into a contempt for all norms of civilised behaviour,” the London Mayor wrote.
He continued “They are fighting not for freedom but for a terrifying Islamic state in which they would have the whip hand – and yet there is no dodging or fudging the matter: these are among the Syrian rebels who are hoping now to benefit from the flow of Western arms.
“How is it supposed to work? How are we meant to furnish machine guns and anti-tank weapons to one set of opposition forces, without them ending up in the hands of men like the al Qaida-affiliated thugs who executed a child for telling a joke?
“This is not the moment to send more arms. This is the moment for a total ceasefire, an end to the madness.
“We can’t use Syria as an arena for geopolitical point-scoring or muscle-flexing, and we won’t get a ceasefire by pressing weapons into the hands of maniacs.”
Boris Johnson is not alone. Tory backbencher Julian Lewis said that Britain’s involvement could be “suicidal” leading to extremist elements among the rebels gaining control of the regime’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has also warned that arming the rebels is “very, very naïve.”
Supporting the Wrong Side
A problem with American and Britain involving itself in Syria’s conflict, apart from the fact that it is none of their business, is the simple fact the Western powers have chosen to support the wrong side. No one is claiming that al-Assad’s authoritarian government has been godly; however, the prospect of what might emerge if his government is overthrown is almost unthinkable. Yonadam Kanna, a member of the Iraqi National Assembly and Secretary General for the Assyrian Democratic Movement warned that the collapse of the Syrian state would be a jihadist triumph and endanger Christians throughout the entire Middle East. We must pray that this does not happen and that the Lord would grant special protection to Christians living in Syria. We must also pray for those Syrian Christians who have had to flee to refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon.
Even those Syrian Christians who have not had to flee are suffering acutely from the conditions of the civil war. There is a shortage of basic supplies, including gas, electricity, food and many basic supermarket products. Moreover, dangerous criminals are always too ready to take advantage of the chaos and plunder the houses and shops of innocent people.
This article originally appeared in the monthly magazine of Christian Voice, a UK ministry whose website is http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/. The article is published here with permission of Christian Voice.