The U.S. Christians Who Fear Assad’s Fall

Some religious groups fear regime change in Syria will lead to persecution of Christians in the war-torn state.

In this June 5, 2013 photo released, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a damaged church is seen in Qusair town, Syria. Syrian troops and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies captured a strategic border town Wednesday after a grueling three-week battle, dealing a severe blow to rebels and opening the door for President Bashar Assad's regime to seize back the country's central heartland. The regime triumph in Qusair, which Assad's forces had bombarded for months without success, demonstrates the potentially game-changing role of Hezbollah in Syria's civil war. 
AP2013
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Sept. 19, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

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.

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