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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Questions About Christian Community in Syria

In the past two weeks I have received a number of emails regarding the status of the Syrian Christian community.  Roughly a tenth of the population of Syria is Christian, with the majority being adherents of the Greek Orthodox Church (formerly known as the Melkite Church or Melkites).  During the days of the crusades, the important Christian community of Edessa was located in Syria, as was the Principality of Antioch.  Following the end of the French United Nations Mandate (1946), Syria has suffered through one political crisis after another.  In 1966, the Syrian Ba'ath Party took control of the government, and in 1970 Hafez al-Assad, a former Air Force officer, became President (I'm disrespectfully running rampant over tons of Syrian history and I apologize).  At the time, the Soviet Union exerted tremendous influence over Syrian diplomacy and military affairs, a circumstance that Assad encouraged during his Presidency.  In 2000 Hafez al-Assad died, and his son Bashir won the subsequent presidential election (as the only candidate).  During the six decades since independence Syria has cultivated a reputation of non-repression towards religious minorities.  The Christian community in Damascus in particular has thrived, with allowances being made for Christian observance of the Sabbath and other traditions.  As Syria began its descent into civil war in 2011, many Christian leaders were concerned about the safety of the various communities in Syria.  In fact, organized Syrian Christian groups actually expressed support for the Assad regime and fear of the anti-government rebels.  What does the future hold for the Christians of Syria?

The Obama Administration has declared war on the Islamic State of the Levant, or simply the Islamic State (IS), which currently occupies most of eastern Syria.  The IS is a dedicated Sunni Islam fundamentalist group, which has a nasty habit of executing non-Muslims who do not convert.  The IS butchered many adherents of the Christian Chaldean and Yezidi sects in northern Iraq, and no doubt would do the same to the Assyrian and Greek Orthodox communities in Syria if they win the civil war.  Christians concerned about the welfare of Syrian Christian communities should welcome the Obama Administration's military campaign against the IS.  The real question mark continues to be the New Syrian Army (NSA) that the Administration is equipping and training to conduct the necessary ground campaign against the IS.  If the NSA is successful, will all sides (except the IS, of course) agree to some sort of armistice, to let the diplomats sort out the future of Syria?  No way.  The regular Syrian Army, which keeps a firm grip on Damascus, and President Bashir al-Assad will never agree to negotiations with the NSA.  Assad and the Ba'athists are convinced of their legitimacy, and Vladimir Putin will never agree to a new election monitored by the United Nations.  It astounds me how this argument in the media continues to ignore the Russian element.  Not to worry, because as far as I'm concerned, the NSA, if successful in dispatching the IS, will immediately turn its U.S.-supplied military hardware on Assad and the regular Syrian Army.  Keep in mind, the NSA was organized by disgruntled former elements of the Iraqi Armed Forces officer corps.  Their end goal is not the dismantling of the IS, but the occupation of the Presidential Palace in Damascus and Bashir al-Assad's head on the end of a stick.  They are happy to act as Obama's proxy for the moment, but what happens once the IS is destroyed?

The Christians of Syria have one real concern: the success of the IS.  If the regular Syrian Army and Russian stooge Assad keep power, then its business as usual and the Assyrians and Greek Orthodox Christians can breathe a sigh of relief.  Since the leaders of the NSA are former members of the Syrian military, I am comfortable assuming that if they come to power, they will adopt the same "laissez faire" attitude to the Syrian Christians.  The true enemy of Syrian Christians (and Christians everywhere, to be honest) is the IS, and the Khorasan, and the Al-Nusra Front.  The groups that are motivated by Sunni extremist ideology are the ones most likely to demand forced conversions.  A quick focus of this issue makes it even more apparent that the Sunni extremist groups who fall under different banners, are in fact part of one large, growing mass of hatred.  Al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri are at the heart of this evolving mass of evil.  The longer we continue to view the enemy as a handful of separate, distinct Sunni extremists, the more dangerous and powerful it becomes.  I am glad to address the concerns regarding Christians in the battle zone, but I am petrified that sooner rather than later we may discover that the battle zone has come to us.

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