Threats to Syrian Christians Heighten Concerns in Congress About Aiding Rebels

Rep. Chris Van Hollen
©2011 Richard A. Bloom
Sara Sorcher
Sept. 22, 2013, 8:54 a.m.

Mem­bers of Con­gress know that Syr­i­an strong­man Bashar al-As­sad is the bad guy, but they’re in­creas­ingly wor­ried about top­pling him from power, after Chris­ti­an or­gan­iz­a­tions have gal­van­ized Amer­ica’s re­li­gious base.

Rep. Chris Van Hol­len, D-Md., wor­ries that the pres­ence of ex­trem­ist groups linked to al-Qaida with­in the frag­men­ted Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion poses a “dir­ect threat” to re­li­gious minor­it­ies there, in­clud­ing Chris­ti­ans, who make up about 10 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion in a coun­try home to an­cient bib­lic­al scenes such as the Dam­as­cus road on which Paul had his con­ver­sion ex­per­i­ence. Qaida-linked groups’ vis­ion of a “post-As­sad Syr­ia is one with no Chris­ti­ans in it,” Van Hol­len told Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily. “It’s an ex­trem­ist, in­tol­er­ant, fun­da­ment­al­ist Is­lam­ic state. So this is a very real factor in the whole ques­tion of U.S. sup­port for the rebels.”

Syr­ia’s bloody civil war changed Chris­ti­ans’ re­l­at­ively pro­tec­ted status un­der As­sad, a mem­ber of the minor­ity Alaw­ite sect, a Shia off­shoot. His primar­ily Sunni op­pos­i­tion largely sees Chris­ti­ans as As­sad’s al­lies. Ex­trem­ists seized the an­cient Chris­ti­an en­clave Maaloula where the lan­guage of Je­sus Christ is still spoken, killed a Cath­ol­ic priest, and two prom­in­ent Syr­i­an bish­ops were ab­duc­ted.

While Van Hol­len would sup­port giv­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion a very lim­ited au­thor­iz­a­tion for the use of force in Syr­ia if needed, he is against arm­ing the rebels be­cause of the risk that ex­trem­ists, who are the best fight­ers with­in the op­pos­i­tion, could get the up­per hand in the con­flict. “I’m not con­vinced we have clearly es­tab­lished whose hands these weapons will end up in,” Van Hol­len says. “People “¦ don’t want to be dragged more deeply in­to a civil war that could res­ult in these rad­ic­al ex­trem­ist groups tak­ing over.

“Yes, As­sad must go, but you don’t achieve your goal if you re­place him with some­body as bad or worse.”

Wor­ried about the fate of their Chris­ti­an brethren in Syr­ia, a swath of Chris­ti­an or­gan­iz­a­tions have launched grass­roots lob­by­ing cam­paigns to en­cour­age mem­bers of Con­gress to op­pose any U.S. mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion — ran­ging from a strike to arm­ing rebels — for fear of ex­acer­bat­ing the volat­ile situ­ation on the ground and put­ting minor­ity groups in danger — and per­haps on the road to ex­tinc­tion. Tens of thou­sands of phone calls and let­ters have flooded Cap­it­ol Hill of­fices in re­cent weeks.

“There are no good guys in this scen­ario,” said Tony Per­kins, pres­id­ent of the con­ser­vat­ive Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil. “Sid­ing against As­sad will only strengthen the hands of those who have dir­ect links to the at­tacks on Chris­ti­ans.” As mem­bers of Con­gress so­li­cited his group’s opin­ions on Syr­ia, Per­kins said, “we were very clear” that in­ter­ven­tion was not in Chris­ti­ans’ “best in­terest.”

Ar­meni­an Chris­ti­ans used to num­ber about 100,000 in Syr­ia; dur­ing the con­flict, their num­bers have been re­duced by half as they fled the coun­try or were tar­geted in at­tacks. Should the op­pos­i­tion come to power, the Ar­meni­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee of Amer­ica’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, Aram Ham­pari­an, said, “we have no as­sur­ances “¦ they would re­spect the rights of Chris­ti­ans.” That group alone, work­ing through loc­al chapters, spurred 9,000 act­iv­ists to con­tact law­makers.

Ham­pari­an’s con­cerns ap­pear to be shared by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who be­lieves the dwind­ling pop­u­la­tions of Jews and Chris­ti­ans in Egypt and Ir­aq could sig­nal a sim­il­ar fate for Syr­ia’s Chris­ti­ans. “First the Sat­urday people then the Sunday people,” Wolf la­ments. He op­poses in­ter­ven­tion. “You have to be very con­cerned, or else you’re go­ing to see the Chris­ti­an com­munity emp­tied.”

Some groups are look­ing ahead. Dar­rin Mitchell, pres­id­ent and chief lob­by­ist of the Amer­ic­an Chris­ti­an Lob­by­ists As­so­ci­ation, says his group is ur­ging his mem­bers to write and call their elec­ted of­fi­cials to draft le­gis­la­tion that would ask “all Is­lam­ic gov­ern­ments, in­clud­ing a new fu­ture Is­lam­ic gov­ern­ment in Syr­ia, to pro­tect and re­spect the rights of re­li­gious minor­it­ies in­clud­ing the Chris­ti­an pop­u­la­tion in their re­spect­ive coun­tries” amid fears “that if an al-Qaida backed Is­lam­ic gov­ern­ment takes over in Syr­ia “¦ that Chris­ti­an wor­ship would be severely re­stric­ted and that Chris­ti­ans in gen­er­al would ex­per­i­ence ex­treme per­se­cu­tion.”

The fate of Syr­ia’s Chris­ti­ans, said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., res­on­ates with the Amer­ic­an people. “When you talk about how there are Chris­ti­ans on the side of As­sad, it makes people say, ‘Oh, gosh, what are we go­ing to do now?” Paul said. “I don’t think many people would ar­gue As­sad had pro­tec­ted the Chris­ti­ans.”¦ When people hear that and they also hear al-Qaida’s on the oth­er side, al-Nusra’s on the oth­er side, and the Is­lam­ic rebels are com­mit­ting at­ro­cit­ies such as be­head­ings they put on video­tape to show the world, killing priests “¦ it shows it’s not Thomas Jef­fer­son and George Wash­ing­ton versus a tyr­ant. It’s a little more messy than that.”

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