Thanks a lot, Rupen, for your very hearty presentation of the grim situation of Christians in Syria.
You are contrasting in your text two views on what is tragically happening in that country. The view of the West – favouring the rebellion, and the view of Syrian Christians – who seem to prefer the past status quo, of which they were beneficiaries, along with a few others. With a price though.
It is mostly about this price, and its implications, that I want to talk to you and our readers here, by presenting, if I am allowed, a third possible view on this, as painful as it may be for Syrian Christians to hear this. And if somebody is tempted to ask what qualifies me to say what I am going to share with you, I can show you my ‘scars’.
Let me begin with a story. A number of years ago I was in Beirut, Lebanon, at Notre Dame du Mont Monastery, for a conference of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding. Among other invitees, there were four Christian leaders from Iraq, one of them being a general in the Syrian army, and head of the Protestant community there. In their speeches, these four men could not praise more the supposedly deep wisdom and good will towards Christians of their ‘great leader’, the late Saddam Hussein. Allow me not to repeat here their pathetic stories.
Coming from a former communist country, that got rid of its dictator not long before that meeting took place, I had the impression of a flash back, at the time when Romanian Christian leaders – Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants alike, were praising the ‘great leader, Ceausescu’, while we, committed Christians, were actively supervised and heavily persecuted by the communist secret police all over Romania. So, when I hear now Syrian Christians praising Assad, I have the same awkward feeling that something is just not OK in this picture.
First of all, there is a price for everything. Christian in Syria, too, paid a price for their relative peace under Assad, exactly like some Christians paid a price to be left in peace by the communist regime. Often, the price for them was to accept to sacrifice the call to openly witness to Jesus Christ, in exchange for peace. Was it worth it? I doubt it. Besides the fact that such a sacrifice is not without implications to the integrity of the Gospel.
Secondly, let us look at what they got in exchange. Would you call that liberty? If so, it is a very skewed kind of liberty. ‘Freedom’ on a leash, as long and as beautiful that may be, is in fact (almost voluntary) slavery. And Syrian Christians, as people freed by Jesus Christ, know that very well. This being the case, for them to call that freedom was the highest hypocrisy, and the ultimate justification for the dictator.
Thirdly, I think there is a fair degree of selfishness in the decision of the majority of Syrian Christians to support (for that is precisely what they did; we should not avoid speaking the truth about it), with the price mentioned above, the dictatorial regimes of the two Assads. It seems their key priority was how to get the best possible situation for themselves, even if that was going to happen at the expense of others. In other words, ‘to hell with the world, if it’s OK with us’. Would you see that as compatible with Christian love and the ethical values in the Sermon on the Mount? I doubt it. Now, those who have been oppressed under Assad, while Christians had a comparatively easier life, may come on top politically. It seems it is pay-back time; call it poetic justice. This in no way justifies the violence of the extremists. It only explains some of its roots.
Fourthly, let me give you a concrete example. How many years has the Syrian army occupied and has the fierce Syrian secret service, trained by the Russian KGB, oppressed Lebanon? You know better. Have there been any meaningful protests among Syrian Christians against the occupation of Lebanon and the related crimes during this long time? Not, to my knowledge, even when their Christian sisters and brothers were the victims. For them, it seems, in those instances, it was more important to be Syrians than to be Christian. Again, skewed loyalties. They were silent then; now the west is silent about their tragic fate.
So, what will the future hold for Christians in Syria? Of course, there is no way for us to know. But what we do know is that we are free in life to make any decisions we want, but we will have no control over the consequences. If we look at the general trends in the region, in the last hundred years, and at what happened more recently to Christians in Iraq, we may see in the next years only a tiny minority of Christians left in Syria and in the other Arab countries around. And that will be really tragic, not only for the Christians, and for the witness of the Gospel in the region, but, as the Palestinian Prime Minister, Dr. Salam Fayyad said countless times, for the chance of peace in the region. For, Jesus solemnly tells Christians, ‘you are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men’ (Mat. 5:13).
In light of the above, to the two words, ‘Betrayal’ and ‘Redemption’; suggested by Rupen Das, let me suggest two more: ‘Repentance’ and ‘Reconciliation’. I believe that, as hard as that may be, Syrian Christians should sincerely repent, first before God, and then towards their other Syrian sisters and brothers for their selfishness and for supporting the criminal regime of Assad. Furthermore, and that might be even more painful, then and only then will they have the moral authority to humbly extend their hand of reconciliation towards the rest of the Syrian society. Is that, you think, a utopian expectation? Humanly speaking, yes, but nothing is impossible in the power of the Spirit. Furthermore, I find these more compatible with Kingdom values than self-pity, as much as we could understand those feelings of our fellow Christians in Syria. May God have mercy on the great country!