Recent events in Syria have seriously jeopardized the future of Eastern Christian communities in the Levant. But not as much as the ill-conceived outbursts of the clergy in support of the brutal regime of President Bashar Assad and silence in the face of flagrant atrocities. The prophet Isaiah prophesied the destruction of Damascus – “Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap” – and the patriarchs and bishops seem eager to expedite the process. Blinded by the fear of Sunni extremists, Christian communities in Syria have adopted seriously flawed policies and attitudes. Wishful thinking and poor judgment have somehow aligned Eastern Christianity with a cruel regime and an anti-Western alliance headed by Iran.
As the Syrian uprising gained momentum, a majority of the Christian communities grew both critical and skeptical of the Arab Spring. The Greek Catholic patriarch, Gregory III Lahham, has repeatedly voiced support for Assad on religious occasions, totally oblivious to the fact that a majority of Catholics are in Aleppo, where there have been major advances by rebels, many of whom are Sunni radicals.
In Lebanon, too, churches have made questionable choices. Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai has both publicly and privately expressed his fear that radical Sunni jihadists may gain in Syria and regularly receives the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon.
The Armenian political and clerical leadership in Lebanon and Syria has turned a blind eye to Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. An evangelical pastor in Aleppo who staunchly defends the Syrian regime accused the opposition of using chemical weapons. Widespread human right abuses have been met with deafening silence by representatives of almost all the Christian denominations, with no hint of empathy for the displaced and the incarcerated.
Many pro-Syrian Christian groups in Lebanon such as Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Suleiman Franjieh’s Marada Movement regularly call for the closure of the Lebanese-Syrian border in the face of Syrian refugees and for expulsion of the displaced in Lebanon. Syrian refugees are regarded not as victims but as jihadist sympathizers. This sentiment against the opposition was reinforced by jihadist terrorist actions against the Syrian Christian population and institutions as well as the absence of genuine condemnation by the more moderate Sunni majority.
The Syrian regime and Iranian and Hezbollah propaganda have convinced large swathes of the Christian community in Syria and Lebanon that their fate is organically tied to survival of the Assad regime.
The Christian narrative of victimization and persecution is often laced with anti-Sunni sentiment, without any meaningful consideration that the Sunni community in Syria has suffered infinitely more than the Christian community. True, churches have been targeted and destroyed, but many more mosques have been targeted and destroyed. True, tens of thousands of Christians have been displaced, but millions of innocent Sunnis have been made refugees in and outside Syria.
Moral apathy reached its nadir with the gruesome chemical attack in the Ghouta area of Damascus recently. Instead of horror and condemnation, conspiracy theories were invoked to exonerate the perpetrators.
The Armenian churches, themselves the victims of genocide, remain unapologetic about the excesses of the Syrian regime. The Greek Orthodox church echoes Russia’s position of supporting the regime in the face of the so-called “takfiris,” with an added anti-Western and often anti-Semitic twist. Little attention is paid to the fact that Russia’s ruthless support of a despicable and barbarous regime is the cause and not the consequence of rising Sunni radicalism. Russia’s self-serving interest in Syria’s Christians has produced a false sense of security.
Western countries assisting Syrian Christian refugees are appalled by the prevalent pro-regime and anti-Western sentiment of Christians, often directed against those same countries trying to host them. This week, for instance, Rai attributed the current crisis to a “foreign agenda” designed to serve Israel’s interests. He also called on Arabs “to resolve their confessional disputes that were created by the West and Israel.”
Conspiracy theories and anti-Western rhetoric may appeal to popular sentiment but are hardly fitting for a cardinal in the Vatican and perhaps the leading cleric in Eastern Christianity. Eastern Christianity cannot antagonize the West yet call for its help in times of despair. The duplicity of siding with Russia and Iran, yet seeking refuge in France, Germany and Sweden has not been lost on the West, which has reacted by being slow in granting emigration visas to Syria’s Christians.
The Greek Orthodox church in Syria survived centuries of turbulence because of it’s symbiotic relationship with Sunni Islam. Should this relationship sour as it has, neither Russia nor Iran can save Syria’s Christians. Christians have not learned the lesson of Iraq. The fate of Christian communities cannot be tied to a decaying order, let alone to a brutal dictator who is likely to be overthrown.
The road to perdition has been paved with moral ambivalence, overt anti-Sunni sentiment and cultural detachment from the West. This course must be reversed before the coming onslaught against the regime, which may hasten its downfall, even if such a reversal is unlikely.
God forbid that after the dust settles in Syria, Eastern Christians will echo a haunting refrain from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.”
Basem Shabb is the Protestant representative from Beirut in the Lebanese Parliament. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.