Bitter Split Among Syria's Christians Over Loyalty to Assad

The Syrian conflict has also turned Christians against Christians

Adjunct Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom

After the dramatic U.S., British, and French air strikes against Syria’s chemical weapons sites on April 14, worldwide public opinion regarding Syria seems more divided than ever.

Since 2011, a devastating civil war has pitted Syrian, Russian, and Iranian armies against Sunni jihadis. Turkey has often weighed in as well.

At the same time, Western powers have quietly provided training to various militias, while heated disputes persisted on all sides.

The Syrian conflict has also turned Christians against Christians. Some churches faithfully support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Others condemn him as a ruthless killer who has brazenly attacked his own population with chemical weapons.

On April 8 in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, a deadly poison gas attack targeted the town’s civilians, reportedly killing 70 people, mostly women and children. Hundreds of others were injured.

Douma was the last stronghold of anti-Assad rebels, who had tenaciously weathered countless attacks by the regime while refusing to surrender and evacuate their war-torn community.

After the notorious “red line” incident, in which then-President Obama threatened to attack Assad for using chemical weapons, and then subsequently backed off, many observers expected that WMD would be used again by the distressed dictator.

After the April 8 Douma attack, accusations against the Assad government exploded.

The Guardian declared: “In Paris, London and Washington this week, intelligence agencies studied videos from the scene of most of the deaths. U.S. officials said they seemed similar to images taken in the aftermath of the two confirmed sarin strikes, both of which had generated widespread condemnation of the Syrian regime.”

But it wasn’t long before accusations of Assad were countered by allegations that Jaysh al-Islam, the resistance militia residing in Douma, had staged the chemical attack, hoping to bring the world’s powers into armed conflict against Assad.

In fact, since the war’s beginnings, desperation has increasingly afflicted all sides of the conflict; the death toll is roughly 500,000, displaced Syrians number some 11 million.

And from the beginning of the conflict, Christian communities that once comprised some 7 percent of Syria’s population have been caught between Assad’s iron fist and a laundry list of Sunni militias, including ISIS and other bloodthirsty terrorists.

Some of Syria’s Christians persistently defend Bashar Assad as their lifelong protector. Others believe he is not only a ruthless dictator, but a pawn of Iran — the radical Islamist Revolutionary Shiite regime that has no place for Christians in its ideology.

Not surprisingly, statements by Middle East Christians have been contradictory.

Catholic media outlet Asia News reported on April 10, “The tug of war between powers came to a head yesterday evening at the UN. Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia forcefully denied charges that chemical weapons were used, stating that ‘there is no evidence…’”

The Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo, Msgr. Georges Abou Khazen went on to say, "…What I cannot fathom is the sense of carrying out an attack with chemical weapons after having already freed almost all the territory of eastern Ghouta. It doesn’t seem very credible to me so I wonder to whose advantage all of this really is."

Indeed, accusations of a “faked” attacks from various sources, notably Russia, continue to spawn conspiracy theories and belligerent rhetoric.

Following the allied airstrikes on April 14, a joint statement issued by three Syrian patriarchs declared that they “condemn and denounce the brutal aggression that took place this morning (Saturday) in our precious country Syria by the USA, France, and the UK, under the allegations that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.”

John X, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East; Ignatius Aphrem II, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, and Joseph Absi, Melkite-Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem signed the declaration.

On the other hand, in a Providence Magazine article titled “Syrian Christians Face a Grim Dilemma,” Philippe Nassif, Executive Director of In Defense of Christians (IDC), presented his informed view of Syria’s Assad:

“Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator responsible his nation’s unraveling and the destruction of such an ancient and religiously diverse land, is central to the most tragic tale of the modern Middle East.

“His recent decision to once again deploy chemical weapons against a defenseless civilian population that his forces had already starved, diseased, and besieged is not only immoral, but a war crime that must be punished…

“The tyrant of Damascus is an abomination of humanity.”

Historically, both tyrannical kings and modern dictators have used Christian minorities as useful instruments in their political toolbox. Notably, Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq long included Tarik Aziz — a Christian who served as foreign minister, deputy prime minister, and was a close adviser to Saddam.

And indeed, even in Saddam’s brutal regime, most Christians lived in relative peace and enjoyed a modicum of protection. Their lives were tragically disrupted after the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq.

The case in Syria seems to be similar, and a comparably unhappy ending may lie ahead for Assad’s Christians.

I asked my colleague Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Hudson Institute, for her thoughts about the loyalty some Syrian Christians continue to hold for their controversial president.

“Assad's big attraction for a portion of Syria's Christian population is that he is a secularist who does not force them to ‘convert to Islam or die’ but permits them to worship in peace,” she explained.

“Moreover, he protects them — albeit through monstrously brutal means — from Sunni extremists who persecute and wage genocide against them.

“These Christians are not free to criticize his dictatorship. And, in the face of an existential threat from the jihadists, many are willfully blind to his atrocities. One Syrian bishop even adamantly insisted to me that no chemical gas attacks occurred there in 2013. Syria's Christians are in an untenable position and, since 2011, two-thirds of them have reportedly fled.”

Shea concludes, “Tragically, an ancient Christian community that has direct links to the first Pentecost and St. Paul is struggling to survive. A diplomatic solution to Syria's crisis that guarantees rights and protections for the Christians and other religious minorities must be found.”