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
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
LOFTY GOALS
White House Proposes New Tax Plan
16 hours ago
BREAKING

The White House on Wednesday laid out its plan for tax reform, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin saying it would be "the biggest tax cut and the largest tax reform in the history of our country." The tax code would be broken down into just three tax brackets, with the highest personal income tax rate cut from 39.6 percent to 35 percent. The plan would also slash the tax rate on corporations and small businesses from 35 percent to 15 percent. "The White House plan is a set of principles with few details, but it’s designed to be the starting point of a major push to urge Congress to pass a comprehensive tax reform package this year," said National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.

Source:
EMERGING BUDGET FRAMEWORK?
Dems Proposes Obamacare-for-Defense Deal
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"An emerging government funding deal would see Democrats agree to $15 billion in additional military funding in exchange for the GOP agreeing to fund healthcare subsidies, according to two congressional officials briefed on the talks. Facing a Friday deadline to pass a spending bill and avert a shutdown, Democrats are willing to go halfway to President Trump’s initial request of $30 billion in supplemental military funding."

Source:
WHITE HOUSE BLOCKING DOC REQUEST
Michael Flynn Remains A Russian-Sized Problem
1 days ago
BREAKING

The Michael Flynn story is not going away for the White House as it tries to refocus its attention. The White House has denied requests from the House Oversight Committee for information and documents regarding payments that the former national security adviser received from Russian state television station RT and Russian firms. House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz and ranking member Elijah Cummings also said that Flynn failed to report these payments on his security clearance application. White House legislative director Marc Short argued that the documents requested are either not in the possession of the White House or contain sensitive information he believes is not applicable to the committee's stated investigation.

Source:
SENATE JUDICIARY HEARING
Sally Yates to Testify on May 8
1 days ago
THE LATEST
MESSAGE TO PUTIN
U.S. To Conduct Exercises In Estonia
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

The U.S. deployed "F-35 joint strike fighters" to Estonia on Tuesday. The "jets will stay in Estonia for several weeks and will be a part of training flights with U.S. and other NATO air forces." The move comes at a time of high tension between the U.S. and Estonia's neighbor, Russia. The two nations have been at odds over a number of issues recently, most of all being Vladimir Putin's support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in light of Assad's chemical weapons attack on his own people in the midst of a civil war.

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login