For my first real post, I’m going to cover a topic that seems to be getting less coverage every day now: Syria. Rather than focusing on the overall scope of the conflict in Syria, however, I want to highlight one of the parties impacted by the conflict: our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Syrian Christians.
Syria has lots of Christians – 2.25 million, according to the CIA world fact book (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sy.html) – and it’s not clear what fate awaits them in the current civil war. Syrian President Assad has been a cruel dictator – as was his father – but the Assad family has protected the rights of the Syrian Christian minority, so Syrian Christians have historically coexisted peacefully with the Assad regime. Now that Assad’s time seems short, the best strategy for self-preservation on the part of Syrian Christians is unclear. Unless Syrian Christians back the ultimate winner of the struggle in Syria, they’re unlikely to escape post-Civil War reprisals. Unfortunately, the situation on the ground is reported to be fluid and prone to reversals in many cases, so backing the ultimate winner in Syria (almost certainly the rebels, but don’t bet your house on it) could prove a Pyrrhic victory, no matter who wins.
With so much uncertainty regarding the Syrian Christian community’s outlook, many Western commentators have simply stayed quiet or advocated a wait-and-see approach. Events in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen this week reveal at least one reason why the future of Syria’s Christians is less ambiguous than we’ve been told. In case you’ve missed the news, groups of people protesting a recent film (made in America) that depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light – any visual depictions of Muhammad are sacrilege to Muslims – have breached the security of American consulates or embassies in all three countries. This is arguably less shocking in Yemen, which is so heavily influenced by Al Qaeda that some regions of the country are essentially anarchic, but protestors were able to breach the walls of the American embassy even in the stable capital city of Sanaa.
In Egypt, the protestors scaled the wall of the American embassy in Cairo in order to rip down and burn the American flag. (For what it’s worth, they couldn’t get the flag to light so they tore it up instead – making them less accomplished if not less intelligent than Beavis and Butthead – and then replaced it with a pro-Islam flag.) Meanwhile, in Libya, the American ambassador to Libya was killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, apparently after a protest over the same movie. The most reliable news sources are reporting that the attack was a coordinated, two-part attack on the consulate culminating in the destruction of the vehicle in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens was riding, killing Stevens and 3 other American diplomats.
What do Yemen, Egypt, and Libya have in common? Apart from the protests over the movie in question, there’s another key factor: all three countries welcomed new governments in the Arab Spring. While all these governments appear to be charting moderate geopolitical courses – or at least what passes for moderate in the Islamic world – none has managed to restore anything resembling the level of civic order present under the previous dictatorships. Understand me: this isn’t all bad. Gaddhafi in Libya and Mubarak in Egypt did terrible things to preserve order, and it’s to be expected that the democratic regimes that follow such dictators will err, initially at least, on the side of permissiveness rather than authoritarianism. For Syrian Christians, however, that’s precisely the problem.
In both Libya and Egypt, the new governments have managed to keep Islamic extremism more or less suppressed, but only with great difficulty. And as the death of Ambassador Stevens proves, that suppression is susceptible to the risk of a catastrophic lapse, even in countries that don’t have a major problem with Islamic extremism (which Egypt and Libya do not, particularly when compared to Yemen). Obviously, this week’s violence was directed against Americans, and Syrian Christians are not Americans. But Islamist sectarian violence doesn’t seem likely to give Syrian Christians a pass for being Syrians; rather it will target them for being Christians rather than Muslims. And since the emerging pattern proves Arab Spring governments prone to security lapses, those of us who care about Christians everywhere should acknowledge the fact that Syrian Christians are likely in for a few “security lapses” if the rebels win – not because the rebels will endorse violence, but because there are elements in Syria who do and who will likely succeed, at least intermittently, in implementing their agenda.
This is the true picture for the church in Syria. They can continue to back Assad and make themselves enemies of the rebels. Alternately, they can turn on Assad now and be shelled by the Syrian government today, and hope for the future gratitude of the rebel government. In either case, however, the survivors can expect inadequate security and a few “incidents” when the rebels eventually win. They have myriad choices, but the end result is probably going to involve a lot of dead Christians, whether the media is ready to acknowledge this or not.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the probabilities are what they are. It’s not at all clear to me what North American Christians can do about it, but the first step has to be acknowledging the situation. If Syrian Christians are going to be safe, they’re going to need a miracle.