Syrian Christians: Regime or Reform?
A Call to American Christians
In the Middle Eastern villages, churches bells are used to call people for worship on Sundays, to warn the villages of a danger (fire or thieves), or to announce the death of someone. More than 100 years ago Elias, my grandfather, was ringing the bell of the ancient Orthodox Church in our village in Syria. It was not Sunday and there were neither dangers nor death. When the villagers gathered around the church they asked, “Elias, what is going on?”
My grandfather replied, “Justice is dead. My right died today.”
A rich and powerful neighbor had taken part of the land of my poor grandfather.
On May 4, 2011 International Christian Concern (ICC), an advocacy Christian organization based in Washington, DC, reported that Christians in Syria are being threatened and even attacked by anti-government protesters who are demanding that they join in the anti-government protests.
I find myself now ringing the bell for my Christian sisters and brothers in the West inviting them to pay attention to what their Syrian Christian sisters and brothers are experiencing and saying. However, before I go on I am very saddened for the loss of lives of many Syrians in recent weeks regardless of their backgrounds. My heart goes with their families!
Surely, I do not claim to represent all the Christians in Syria, but I do believe that what I am presenting in this brief article is the majority opinion. Why am I writing now while the tragic events in Syria have been going on for more than two months? Due to the complicated political and social issues in Syria I did not want to write earlier to avoid jumping to conclusions while matters were still vague and dim.
Church leaders in Syria ranging from historic Christian churches to various evangelical groups have issued statements in support of the existing regime of Bashshar al-Asad. In several predominant Christian areas in Syria, Christians have demonstrated in support of the regime. As Facebook is permitted officially in Syria several months ago many Christians were active to show unequivocal support to the regime by depicting another side of the story of what is taking place in Syria. What is really happening in Syria?
Needless to say that the majority of Syrians, both Muslims and Christians, were hoping for real reforms to take place in Syria. This hope was rekindled by what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. These Syrians who watched well what took place in Iraq “in the name of democracy” and what is taking place now in Libya are well aware that violent change to exert reform is not the way forward. On the other hand, Syrian Christians in particular have observed what happened to the Christians in Iraq and their churches in the post-Saddam era. They also welcomed more than 500,000 Iraqi Christian refugees into their communities and churches. They are unwilling to see themselves becoming refugees perhaps in neighboring Lebanon. In fact, there were voices in Syria calling Christians “to go to Beirut”; as Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, historically represents the Christian presence in the Middle East. The majority of the Syrians were delighted to know about the unprecedented step that the president al-Asad and his government took to abolish the emergency law and to start the process of making genuine reforms. To me the highlight of al-Asad’s speech was his confession and apology that these reforms are long overdue and he will work hard on implementing them. I was also surprised to hear him legitimizing public and peaceful demonstrations. These things were unheard of in Syria in the past! However, my great surprise came when on the next day after announcing these changes and promising that more steps will follow, that the anti-government protesters continued to protest in several cities. It is becoming clear now that many, not all, of these protests were not peaceful but heavily armed protestors. This is seen clearly on June 6, 2011 where eighty Syrian policemen have died in attacks in the north-western town of Jisr al-Shughour.
The picture of Syria is a complicated and fuzzy one. But it is clear now that we have several groups in Syria. First, there are those who took advantage of the Arab uprising and wanted to overthrow the Syrian regime whether because of mistrust or vengeance. This group has been planning for this and is well prepared to use violent means to achieve this purpose. Second, there is a group that silently support the first group and are watching how things will turn out before expressing a public opinion. Third, there is a group that has legitimate concerns for reforms, but lost trust in the regime. Fourth, there is a group that has legitimate concerns for reforms and still look to the president al-Asad and his ability to execute these reforms. This group sees that gradual reforms that started timidly in Syria in recent years need to be accelerated. This will ensure stability and security. Definitely the majority of Syrian Christians fall within the last group. Syrian Christians aspire for a country where they can see the rule of law being practiced. They have contributed positively to the social, economic, religious, and political life in Syria. They have experienced a great deal of freedom to practice their faith. Such freedom is immeasurable to the persecution and equality that other Christians have experienced in the region. If there is a freedom scale for Christians in the whole Middle East and North Africa, Syria comes next after Lebanon.
In a nutshell, Syrian Christians desire to have both—the regime and the reforms.
My wife and I lived next to the Street called Straight in old Damascus. Literally and figuratively we walked in the footsteps of St. Paul. On our way from the church on Sunday we used to buy cheese from a shop owned by a smiling Syrian Jew, and to get our hummos from Abu Ali, a kind and generous Sunni Muslim. We all lived in peace and harmony and at the same time we kept and practiced our evangelical faith.
How are American Christians able to help? I would like to suggest four practical ways towards this. First, they need to understand well the complicated nature of the situation in Syria. We all rejoice when people are moved to seek freedom and to demand a better future for their children where corruption and justice are things of the past, but at the same time we need to see the unique nature and dynamics of each country in the region. American Christians should not rely heavily on the western media, but should balance this with what they hear from Syrian Christians who live in Syria. One way to facilitate such understanding is through communication with organizations like Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding. Second, the American tradition of nonviolence resistance could serve as a model to many people in a region that had more violence that one could imagine. American Christians are encouraged to find creative ways to disseminate this model. Third, American Christians could play and advocacy role with their Congressmen and Congresswoman by demanding that in addition to the US national interest the US administration should give priority to the Christian presence in Syria. It is crucial for the voice of Syrian Christians to be heard clearly in the White House. Perhaps one practical way in achieving this is for the US Department of State to ask the US Ambassador in Damascus to intentionally meet with Syrian Christian community and church leaders to communicate their voice to the US administration. Fourth, Syrian Christians now, more than any other time, need the understanding, prayers, and support of their fellows in the US to remain faithful to their calling as they proclaim in word and deed Christ and Him crucified in the land where the first disciples were called Christians (Antioch) and where Saul saw the real Light (Damascus) and became Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. Prayers are also needed for the Syrian government to be able to accelerate the process of reforms, to be able to discern genuine peaceful protesters from violent protestors, and to bring safety and security to the Syrian people.
Revd Riad Kassis, PhD