By Rick Plasterer
The upheavals of the Middle East, while advanced in the name of freedom, are generally destructive to the Christian communities there, and at the current time, this is most acutely the case with Syria, where a protracted civil war is occurring, according to Patrick Sookhdeo of the Westminster Institute. Sookhdeo presented the dire situation to attendees at a meeting concerning the plight of Christians in the Syrian civil war on Wednesday, Jan. 23.
Sookhdeo began by noting that Syria was once one of the most stable Middle Eastern societies, granting its Christian communities one of the greatest degrees of freedom in the Middle East. This situation has changed completely in the past two years, with a raging civil war in the wake of the “Arab Spring.” He indicated that the Christian presence in Syria is diffuse, both in terms of its geographical spread across the country, and in terms of the variety of ancient churches. “Many of us do not realize how much we owe Syriac Christianity,” he said. One particular tradition, the Syriac Orthodox, still holds the liturgy of St. James, which dates to the first century A.D. Another ancient church, the Church of the East (sometimes called “Nestorian”), had the largest missionary movement until modern times, extending to India, China, and the Philippines. While some Christians in contemporary Syria live in villages near Lebanon, many live in cities, and in those cities the part of the city designated “’the old city’ is the part of the city where the Christians often live.”
Western policies in the Middle East have often been to the detriment of Christians living there, Sookhdeo said. This fact is understood by many Middle Eastern Christians, and Sookhdeo supported it with examples from history. During the decline and collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the western powers were aware of the Turkish government’s actions to annihilate its Christian communities, but took no action; it did not fit into their plans to divide the empire among themselves. In the British government in particular, William Gladstone argued for intervention to defend the Christians, while Benjamin Disreali argued against it.
Later Hitler used the annihilation of Armenians in 1915, which the Allied powers chose not to address, as a model for his own Final Solution to eliminate Europe’s Jews.
In modern times, a new massacre of Christians has occurred about every thirty years, with the loss of Syria as a secure society being a “new reality,” so that as far as Christians are concerned, “perhaps we’re finished with the Middle East.” As an example of the devastation, Sookhdeo indicated that in the city of Homs, where 60,000 Christians had lived “all the churches have been destroyed,” while in the general area “120,000 Christians have moved out,” with others held by al-Qaeda rebels as human shields.
These persons are slowly dying. Aleppo, which had been the center of the Armenian Church in Syria, did see the successful extraction of 7,000 Armenians. When Syrian rebel forces seize an area, “they dispossess everyone … people do not know whether they will live or die … many Christians are now fleeing … to different parts of Syria.” Areas conquered by the rebels commonly have “all homes and churches destroyed.” 750,000 persons are externally displaced. The rebel forces, which include westerners, specialize in snipers, which target Christians. Clergymen in vestments are special targets, Sookhdeo said. 80% of hospitals in affected areas have been destroyed, “food hardly exists,” and children can be seen starving. Largely Kurd “people traffickers” will smuggle trapped Christians out of the country at the rate of $10,000 per person. Escape routes exist through Lebanon and Turkey, with Germany and Sweden ultimate destinations of safety. Christian girls are, however, in danger of abduction into forced marriages with Muslim men or becoming victims of sex trafficking.
The future is bleak for Syria’s Christians, Sookhdeo said, with the current civil war expected to be a “protracted campaign,” and a “long, slow death.” Europeans have suggested that Russia take Orthodox Christian refugees, and that Catholic and Protestant refugees be received by western Europe.
In spite of the fact that the Syrian Christian communities are being decimated, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France support the Saudi and Qatar backed Sunni rebels. While Sookhdeo recommended to former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan that Syria become a “confessional state,” like Lebanon, a proposal with which he agreed, the proposal has not found favor with the powers concerned. Instead they have made clear that they will continue to support the rebels, who are strongly influenced by Salafist ideas, and which threaten to transform in the Middle East in line with their doctrine. If Syria falls to these forces, Jordan and Lebanon may be next, in an offensive in which Saudi/Qatar/Salafi Islamism finally aims at the elimination of Iran as its principal opponent in the Middle East.
With respect to the behavior of the western powers to the crisis of the Christian communities in Syria “there comes a point when you have to stop betraying … If you continue to betray, you cease to be Christian,” Sookhdeo said. Additionally, he claimed that “the Christian leadership in America has no interest in Christians in Syria, and therefore Congress has no interest.” But “if you say you have no interest in it, you are rejecting Jesus Christ.”
Without calling for western military intervention, Sookhdeo seemed to be calling for an end to western support for the Saudi-backed rebels, for efforts to rescue Syrian Christians and ensure that they could continue to live as Christian communities in Syria, and for prayer. He indicated a firm belief in prayer, saying “I believe in the power of prayer.” God can intervene or give grace to bear the current situation, he said. “The church in America is super-rich,” and should support her suffering brothers and sisters. Currently the Barnabas Fund is endeavoring to find a way to rescue the Christians of Syria, and is providing substantial support on the ground there. He also urged more effort in social media to publicize the crisis. Part of the problem is that western mass media (CNN, BBC, Fox, and others) are generally positive about the policy of the western powers in supporting the Saudi-backed Sunni rebels, while ignoring what is happening with Syria’s Christians.
While the entrenched Saudi influence in the American government and with policy makers makes attention to the plight of Syrian Christians an uphill battle, Sookhdeo said that Christians in the West must act to support their brothers and sisters in Syria by publicity, financial support, and “even if on Sunday morning you can only say a prayer in church.”
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