Death Warrant of Ancient Christianity

If American liberals and neo-cons get their way and America invades Syria, the Syrian Christians will be persecuted and forced out of their ancient homeland.

Source: Real Clear Politics | Philip Jenkins

Ever since the wave of popular movements started sweeping the Middle East, Western media have rarely found much good to say about the authoritarian regimes under attack. Few observers deny that the last generation or so of Arab rulers were indeed greedy despots, and it seems desirable for Western powers to intervene as forcefully as they can on behalf of what are commonly billed as pro-democracy movements. The arguments against intervention are obvious enough, most obviously that it is much easier to begin a military intervention than to end it, while we rarely have much idea about the political character of the supposed democrats we are trying to aid. But in one case above all, namely Syria, debates over intervention have missed one overwhelming argument, which is the likely religious catastrophe that would follow the overthrow of the admittedly dictatorial government. Any Western intervention in Syria would likely supply the death warrant for the ancient Christianity of the Middle East. For anyone concerned about Christians worldwide — even if you believe firmly in democracy and human rights — it’s hard to avoid this prayer: Lord, bring democracy to Syria, but not in my lifetime.

Why is Syria so critical to the religious geography of the region? From ancient times, the territory had a complex mixture of religious traditions, and one that was far too complex to reduce to a simple Christian-Muslim divide. Under the long centuries of Ottoman power, Syria retained its sizable Christian minority, but other minority populations also flourished, groups that originated within Islam, but which orthodox believers condemned as heretics and apostates. Particularly important were the Alawites, a group that certainly includes Christian and even Gnostic strands in its esoteric world view. In fact, they were long known locally as Nusayris, “Little Christians” The Druze are no less secretive in their beliefs, and are equally loathed by strict Islamists. Although estimates are shaky, a reasonable estimate is that Alawites make up around ten percent of Syria’s population of twenty million, with the Druze at another three percent.

Christian numbers are still harder to determine. Over the past century century, Syria regularly served as the last refuge for Christian communities who had been largely destroyed elsewhere in the Middle East — for Christians fleeing massacre in Turkey after 1915, or in Iraq after 2003. A standard figure for the number of Syrian Christians is ten percent, or around two million believers, but that omits an uncertain number of thinly disguised crypto-believers, not to mention the recent arrivals from the wreck of Saddam’s Iraq. A fifteen percent Christian minority is quite probable.

It’s one thing to catalogue the religious oddities of a particular country, but we also have to know that that diversity is the absolute foundation of Syrian politics. Basically, a large majority of Syria — officially, some 74 percent — is Sunni Muslim, and the nation’s politics for almost fifty years has been devoted to ensuring that this majority does not gain power. Ever since 1963, Syria has been ruled by variations of the Ba’ath Party, an Arab ultra-nationalist movement originally co-founded by the Syrian Christian intellectual, Michel Aflaq. Because of its devotion to absolute secularism, the Ba’ath cause appeals strongly to religious minorities who fear the overwhelming demographic power of Sunni Islam. Christians, Alawites and others all have a potent vested interest in drawing all Arab peoples, regardless of faith, into a shared passion for secular modernity and pan-Arab patriotism, in sharp contrast to Islamism.

Since the 1960s, Ba’ath rule in Syria has meant the dictatorship of a highly structured one-party system closely allied to the armed forces and the intelligence apparatus. But it has also meant the dominance of the nation’s religious minorities, who are so over-represented in the military-intelligence complex. This means above all the Alawites, in alliance with Christian elites. Hafez al-Assad (President from 1971 through 2000) was of course an Alawite, and by the 1990s, five of his seven closest advisers were Christian. The deadliest enemies of the al-Assad clan were the Sunni Islamists, organized in groups affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. But any effective Sunni opposition ended violently in 1982, when government forces suppressed a revolt in the city of Hama, killing possibly twenty-five thousand.

The evils of the Syrian regime are obvious enough: this is a classic police state with a penchant for assassination whenever it sees fit, and no compunction about supporting terrorist attacks at home or abroad. But just imagine that the Ba’ath regime fell. Whatever happened in the first few months of revolution, by far the most likely successor regime in the long term would be Islamist, led by activists anxious to avenge Hama. Alawites, Druze and Christians could all expect persecution at best, massacre at worst, a fate that could potentially befall five million residents. And this time, there would be no welcoming Middle Eastern refuge (Egypt has millions of its own Coptic Christians, but is not going to welcome a mass immigration of foreign Christian refugees). The only solution for these Syrian minorities would be exile from the region — to France or the US, Australia or Canada.

The West might like to see the Ba’ath regime crushed as thoroughly as its counterpart in Iraq, but as on that earlier occasion, the religious consequences of intervention could be horrible. Before planning to intervene in Syria, Western nations had better start printing several million immigration visas to hand out to refugees seeking political asylum, and demanding protection from religious persecution.


  1. Michael Bauman :

    If American liberals and neo-cons get their way and America invades Syria, the Syrian Christians will be persecuted and forced out of their ancient homeland.

    These secular-nihlists want Chrisitanity and any sense of tradtional community destoryed almost, if not more, than the Islamists. The have a vision of world hegemony that is even more grandiose than the Islamic jihadists and even less moral.

    However, the Church in the middle east seems to have traded off authentic Chrisitan life for security as the EP demonstrates. The EP is more visible but the Patriarch of Antioch and of Jerusalem are no less compromised. How long will be be bound to these sinking ships?

    • Geo Michalopulos :

      a very good point Michael. As much as I fear for our Christian brethren, I believe that they have been ill-served by their dhimmi bishops, who long ago made their peace with Islamic overlordship and traded the message of the Gospel for a tenuous security.

      • I have to respectfully disagree: I know that when I was in Syria in ’92, I saw more Christianity on display than is tolerated in the States.

      • Syria isn’t exactly ruled by Muslims……. In fact, it’s the only secular Arab state– much of the discontent with the Asad family goes back to Asad pere refusing to make any mention of Islam in the constitution….

  2. America must not invade Syria, not only because Syrian Christians will be persecuted and forced out of their ancient homeland, but also because America is already up to its eyeballs in its involvement in foreign conflicts. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the bombing of Libya — as well as a possible war that could break out between Israel and Iran at any time — illustrate why the United States should not get involved in a war in Syria.

    Moreover, the United States must not consider itself “the international police force of the world.” If the U.S wants to continue to play that role in international affairs, we might as well dissolve the United Nations and thus save ourselves billions of dollars in supporting its existence.

  3. Mark G@lliher :

    I am not aware that any significant public leader has advocated putting U.S. troops into Syria, a la Iraq. Am I missing something?

    I Syrian Christians are a key part of a murderous, torturing regieme, they will eventually reap the consequences when the oppressed masses rise up to overthrow the bloody tyrant — as the masses did in Tunisia, Lybia, and Egypt. The U.S. did not cause such mass uprisings and has limited ability to prevent them. The US cannot be held responsible for the misdeeds of Syrian Sunnis any more than the Koran-burning jerk in Florida is responsible for the ensuing murder of innocent Christian U.N. workers in Afghanistan.

    • Scott Pennington :

      I think the point is this: Americans tend to favor the side of the underdog in these proto-revolutions or real revolutions which we are seeing in Egypt, Libya and Syria. We want very much to believe that the forces opposing the “tyrants” are democratic.

      This is naive. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is implementing shariah even as we speak. In Libya, the area from which the insurgents arose is also the area that provided the most al-Qaida fighters to Afghanistan. In Syria, the Alawi Shiite al-Asad family rules. It is fairly correct to observe that Bashir al-Asad (as did his father) has imposed a rough sort of tolerance there. It is a tolerance of Christians as well as all manner of Muslims. Likely, the Sunni majority would not continue this imposed tolerance if the country were seized by a “democratic” revolution. The author’s point, although he is a Western liberal, is that we should be careful what we wish for – – we might actually get it and not enjoy the aftermath. In some of these countries, a moderate despot (at least moderate regarding internal religious tolerance) is probably the best case scenario for religious minorities – – especially if 74% of the population wouldn’t mind seeing the other 26% murdered or reduced to dhimmi status.

      • Mark G@lliher :

        I did not mean to imply any approval of new gangs that are rising to replace the old ones. In all of these countries, I think our position for the last dacade should have been to support the existing regiemes while urging them — even pressuring them — to find ways to transition to more stable (i.e., less tyrannical) arrangments. But again, short of overt military intervention, I think the U.S. cannot take more than a secondary role in influencing the outcomes in these countries.

        • Michael Bauman :

          Ah yes, and so here we are back to the debate as to whether democracy promotes anything other than licentiousness, heresy and apostasy. Hard for me to disagree with Scott on this point. I do not believe you’d find many committed Muslims who whould not also agree that democracy is fundamentally destructive to a community’s life of faith.

  4. I’m still trying to get past the idea offered in the lead sentence about ‘American liberals and neo cons getting their way’. They agree on, well, anything?

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

      That’s my sentence Harry. Neo-con foreign policy differs little from liberal foreign policy. True, the liberals hit on Bush a lot, but Bush’s foreign policy differed little from the his liberal predecessors. That’s why you see little change from Bush to Obama. Also, the notion that every revolution is democratic in spirit (small “d”) is a myth that captivates liberals and neo-cons in particular, as well as its corollary that any support of dictatorships is defacto immoral.

      Liberals believe that behind every dictator is a democratic movement waiting to emerge. Conservatives believe that democratic societies are rare, depend on particular religious precepts to emerge, are easily lost when religious sensibilities wane, and that a benign or even heavy-handed dictator is preferable to a totalitarian. The reference to Syria was drawn from a comment I heard William Kristol make on Fox News urging Obama to move into Syria (Kristol the dean of neo-cons, at least in the Washington pundit class). Jenkins thesis is that if Assad falls, the Islamic Caliphate is one step closer to reality. If that happens, the Christians of the mid-east would most likely face the deepest persecution. If Iraq is the model, Jenkins is right. The ancient Christians of Iraq have been largely vanquished from their country. Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

      The intellectual antecedents of the dictator-totalitarian argument as well as historical descriptions of the harm that liberal (and neo-con) idealism can generate is outlined here:

      Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Dictatorships and Double Standards.

      Philip Jenkins is perhaps the foremost credible authority on the Christianity emerging in the lower hemisphere writing today. He’s worth listening to.

  5. cynthia curran :

    Welll, some times christians suffer under regimes that are not as bas as other regimes. An example out of Roman history. The fame and phillosophical stoic emperor Marcus Aureliius christians suffered more than under him than his son who was a bit of a fool and more tyrantical -Commodius. Commodius as the movie Gladiator fought in the area. Between the two rulers many would prefer Marcus Aurelius who was philosophical but allowed some horriable suffering for christians in provinces like Gaul during his reign. So, the better ruler may not be always the best deal for christianss.


  1. […] is that all the hype and pressure from Western governments in support of the “democracy” movements in the Middle East  may have some unintended, but profound, consequences for the area’s Christians. Read more here. […]

Care to Comment?