Christians comprise about 10 percent of the population in Syria, home to ancient biblical scenes, including the Damascus road on which Paul had his conversion experience. But the civil war has changed Christians’ relatively protected status under President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, a Shia offshoot. Assad’s opposition, with a big Sunni presence, largely sees Christians as allies of the strongman. Militants linked to al-Qaida have seized the ancient Christian enclave Maaloula, where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken. Jihadists killed a Catholic priest. Two prominent Syrian bishops were abducted.
All of which complicates the domestic politics for the Obama administration and Congress as they weigh the appropriate level of U.S. involvement in Syria. A slew of Christian organizations are mobilizing lobbying campaigns to make the case that toppling Assad may put Syrian minorities, including their Christian brethren, in severe danger.
The conservative Family Research Council, for instance, is “very clear” with lawmakers that military intervention is not in the interests of Syria’s Christians, says President Tony Perkins. While Syrian Christians are “not fans of Assad,” Perkins says, “the rebels are directly linked to a number of the attacks perpetrated on Christians, and they’re very concerned about the destabilization of going after Assad.” The Rev. Michael Neuroth of the United Church of Christ says the church leadership has sent several letters to the Obama administration and lawmakers warning that military action would only worsen the volatile war. Similarly, the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, wants “the shooting to stop, period.”
Following Pope Francis’s day of prayer for Syria, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged a political solution to the conflict as its religious leaders lobbied the Hill. That effort continues, says Stephen Colecchi, director of the International Justice and Peace Office. “We hope the international community will pressure all sides to get to the table … and negotiate a political future for Syria inclusive of all its ethnic makeup and democratic in structure.” Some campaigns are more specific. Darrin Mitchell, president of the American Christian Lobbyists Association, says his group plans to “motivate our base” to contact Congress about the “future protection of the estimated 2.3 million Christian population in Syria should a regime change take place.”
Niche groups are having an impact as well. While the Armenian National Committee of America does not support Assad, “we have no assurances” that the opposition would respect the rights of Armenian Christians in Syria, says Executive Director Aram Hamparian. Working through local chapters, the ANCA galvanized 9,000 activists to contact lawmakers. The Armenian community’s influence was clear in an op-ed by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., in the Armenian-American newspaper Asbarez this week. “I, too, fear what could happen if the Syrian regime collapses precipitously,” Schiff wrote. “The prospect of American-supplied weapons falling into extremist hands, and then being used against Syrian Christians and later against the West, is at the heart of my steadfast and public opposition to providing lethal arms to the rebels.”
He’s not the only member of Congress speaking out. “The fact that you’ve got very strong al-Qaida-linked extremist groups among the rebels poses a direct threat to religious minorities in Syria, including the Christian population,” says Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. Their “vision of a post-Assad Syria,” he says, “is one with no Christians in it.” Van Hollen would support a “very narrow” authority to use military force to deter chemical-weapons use but opposes increased arming of the rebels “because of the risks of extremists getting the upper hand right now.”
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who opposes intervention, points to drastically shrinking Jewish and Christian communities in Iraq and Egypt in recent years as a harbinger of the Syrian Christian community’s fate. “First, the Saturday people [and] then the Sunday people will be forced out of the Middle East,” Wolf says. This argument to stay away from the bloody conflict resonates with many conservative Christians in America. “Within the evangelical Christian movement,” says Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., “people are not excited about helping Islamic radicals who are intolerant of Christians.” Evangelical Christians have been among Israel’s strongest supporters in recent years, but on the issue of intervention in Syria, Christian networks appear to be largely parting ways with influential Jewish organizations, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Not all Syrian Christians, however, feel Assad is the lesser of two evils. Ahed al-Hendi, a dissident and human-rights worker who supports the Syrian opposition, says Christians are treated as second-class citizens and fared better before Assad’s father took power in 1970. He wants Washington to side with the moderate opposition inside Syria so it can crack down on Qaida-linked groups. Assad is “using the Christian community as PR in the West, saying, ‘I protect the Christians,’ ” asserts Hendi, who complains that some members of Congress are oblivious to the fact that not all rebels are extremists. “They are very Islamaphobic in a way. The way they’re asking the questions, it’s all like, ‘Muslims are al-Qaida; did they kill you, did they slaughter you, did they rape your family?’ ... They need to get more educated.”
Indeed, some moderate opposition elements have promised to abstain from attacks on minority groups if Assad falls. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood made similar promises before it took power, but during the political turmoil the Copts became targets of broad-based attacks. Once Syria’s Baathist security infrastructure is removed—as it was in Iraq—there will be “an increase in reprisal attacks against sectarian minority communities,” predicts Ed Husain, an expert on Islamist movements at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Arab Spring so far, Husain says, “has been bad news for women’s rights and Christian and other minorities around the region.” Syria is not likely to be the exception.