The world is witnessing the destruction of Syria, a country with a rich history going back millennia. But there is one significant minority that faces total annihilation if the radical factions prevail: Syria’s Christian community.
Syria has played a crucial role in Christianity right from its very start. Paul is said to have been converted on the road to Damascus. There are important Christian landmarks there, some built by pious saints and daring knights over centuries. Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, can still be heard in some parts of the country.
Most importantly, there are 1.8 million people – 10% of the population – of various Christian denominations who now live in constant fear. That community has played a leading role in Syrian society and economy, which is why their (limited) civil rights had always been protected by the ruling dictators.
That is all changing now. In areas taken over by the Islamic State and other hardliners, Christian men have been murdered or abducted with their wives and children held hostage. What is left of their communities must convert to Islam, pay a religious levy or face execution. The same has happened to other unfortunate Christians in Iraq, so the outcome is highly predictable.
Even "moderate" rebel groups are rumored to have committed similar atrocities. Not much of this is reported by the Western media, as after all these are “our” guys. But an insightful episode reported by the New York Times last year should force us to reflect upon the wisdom of the West’s strategy here:
“On his eighth trip to fight with the rebels in Syria, in August, Abu Khattab saw something that troubled him: two dead children (…). He knew right away that his fellow rebels had killed them. Abu Khattab, a 43-year-old Saudi hospital administrator who was pursuing jihad on his holiday breaks, went to demand answers from his local commander, a notoriously brutal man named Abu Ayman al-Iraqi. The commander brushed him off, saying his men had killed the children “because they were not Muslims,” Abu Khattab recalled recently during an interview here.”
As a result of this persecution, since 2012 Syrian Christians have started to take a more active role in the war, forming militias which are now fighting alongside government and Kurdish forces. They have no other option. And this puts them in the firing line of Western-backed militants and their key ally in the region – Turkey.
The world is becoming increasingly aware of Turkey’s nefarious role in the Syrian conflict. It has been known for some time that fighters wanting to join the Islamic State move with great fluidity through its borders. Rather than placing embargoes, the Turkish government has turned a blind eye to its merchants buying oil seized by the fundamentalists, thus offering an important economic lifeline. And it is bombing Kurdish fighters in Syria, one of the few forces that have proven to be effective in stopping Islamic militants.
But even more disturbing allegations have emerged recently. Two deputies from the main opposition Republican People's Party claim that their government might have been involved in sending toxic sarin gas used in an attack on civilians in Syria in 2013 where over 1,300 died. The public will never know because the investigation they requested was blocked. And it is this event that justified the West’s intervention in the conflict.
Through these and other actions Turkey, an important NATO ally and aspiring European Union member, has become an accomplice of the worst crimes against humanity committed by the Islamic State and assorted fighters, all in the name of getting rid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Incoming US Presidents place their left hand on a Christian Bible while taking the oath of office. Prime Minister David Cameron recently declared that Britain is still a Christian country. And yet it is Russia's President Vladimir Putin who is coming to the aid of Syria’s beleaguered Christians.
Russia’s latest intervention in the Syrian conflict evokes a very nuanced yet interesting parallel with the Crimean War in the mid-19th century. Back then the Czar judged – incorrectly – that Western powers would not oppose a Christian country facing off against the very Muslim Ottoman Empire. What followed was a pointless brawl that left hundreds of thousands dead. Nobody was better off in the end.
We wonder if Putin and his Western counterparts have considered this outcome. Surely there must be a better way forward for Syria and its neighbors, especially if they don’t want to suffer the blowback effects from promoting extremism.
By condoning the destruction of its Christian, Jewish and other minorities while trying to appease their radical clerics, Muslim nations are shooting themselves in the foot. These have traditionally been the most educated and constructive communities among their ranks, without which a transition to more progressive, open and prosperous societies across the Middle East will be incredibly difficult.
One more reason why the fate of Syria’s Christians should concern us all.