Now that Syria is in shambles—with an estimated 93,000 dead, 1.5 million refugees, and 4.5 million internally displaced; ancient churches torched, destroyed, or vandalized; Christians targeted for murder and kidnapping and even used as human shields—now the mainstream media is starting to admit that, yes, the rebel forces appear to include quite a few Islamist guerrillas. Now that even chemical warfare has made its appearance, with Carla Del Ponte, a member of the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, confirming that “the chemical weapons are being used by the rebels, not the men faithful to Bashar al Assad”; now that clergy are being kidnapped, with still no word of kidnapped bishops Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi and with the beheading of a cleric by Islamist rebels available on YouTube for all to see—now the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has started including some jihadist rebel atrocities in their reports.
Now that women are having to cover up with the abaya, or at least keep a veil handy when they venture out, just in case (something previously inconceivable in Syria), now the press is reporting the establishment of sharia courts which, according to the Washington Post, pass sentences “daily and indiscriminately” on Christians and anyone else who violates precepts of Wahhabi Islam.
Now that the economy has been brought to its knees by the widespread destruction and looting of stores and workshops; now that famine is at hand in the city of Aleppo, and foodstuffs are to be had only at enormous prices; now that the terrorists have reached Homs and Aleppo and the mountains above Damascus—now at last the press seems to have stopped describing the rebels’ fight as a high-minded struggle for “freedom.”
Syrian culture used to be distinctive among the lands of the Middle East for a coexistence between Christians and Muslims which went beyond mere tolerant forbearance, a reality of which Syrians were proud. Under the iron fist of the ruling Alawite dictators, who kept fundamentalists at bay, a good degree of religious freedom was preserved. Christians fleeing persecution in other Middle East countries found refuge in Assad’s Syria, including Iraqi Catholics fleeing post-Saddam persecution.
Yet today, after two years of “Arab Spring” rebellion, the 2,000-year-old community of Assyrian Christians—some of whom still pray in Jesus’ Aramaic tongue—is facing extinction, and the international media is complicit.
Since 2011, mainstream Western media, along with Al-Jazeera, has produced a steady stream of reports on the brutal suppression of liberty by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, ignoring the fact that the regime had long ensured that Syria’s nearly 2.5 million Christians—who include members of some 10 different faith traditions—were guaranteed the same rights as the Islamic majority. If the Assad regime, rather than being toppled, has become more popular with the passing of time and in the face of escalating violence, as many reports from the region indicate, it is because government tanks were the only thing standing between the people and sniper bullets from—or potential kidnapping by—rebel forces.
Nonetheless, as late as June—while the Vatican news agency Fides reported that the armed opposition was forcing Christians to leave the country, and PIME news agency AsiaNews identified Saudi Arabia and Qatar as the prime instigators of this move—the New York Times’ reporting on Syria persevered in laying the blame for the nation’s troubles largely upon on Assad and his supporters.
Yet Catholic authorities and Christian patriarchs of the different religious traditions in Syria have spoken up whenever possible.
“Eighty percent of the population is on the side of the government, like all Christians are,” was the assessment, months back, of the Catholic Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, SJ, one of the many to accuse the mainstream media, including the BBC, of slanted reporting.
Msgr. Giuseppe Nazzaro, OFM, apostolic vicar of Aleppo, said: “The papers take up only the news published by Al-Jazeera and other Arab media, which are financed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These countries are among the main supporters of the rebel forces whose only aim is to foment chaos in order to topple the Assad regime.”
Gregory III Laham, patriarch of Antioch and leader of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which is based in Damascus, revealed in an interview in June that Syrian Christians are being used as human shields in the armed battles between the Syrian army and the rebels. “The truce has been violated by the rebels, not Assad,” the patriarch said, contradicting UN envoy Kofi Annan, who had blamed the violation of the cease-fire on the government. “It is in the regime’s best interest that Kofi Annan’s peace plan succeed. There have been thousands of casualties among the soldiers, out of the ten thousand dead since the beginning of the revolt. On behalf of the other Syrian bishops, I can assure you that there has never been an unarmed demonstration that was attacked by the army. The government does not attack unless it is attacked.”
In June 2011 pro-government civilians carried a 60-foot wide, one-and-a-half-mile long Syrian flag through the streets of Damascus, hoping their demonstration would leave no uncertainty as to where the population stood, and that accounts of vast popular indignation against the government would be belied by the turnout. However, initial reports on the demonstration described it as being against the government rather than for it. To the camera a crowd is a crowd, their words are in Arabic, and any signs in English can be excised or spoken over.
In June 2012, the chief correspondent for Britain’s Channel 4, Alex Thomson, reported that his crew was led by the anti-government rebels into a sure ambush in “no-man’s land.” Why? Because their deaths by gunfire from government forces would have backed up the rebels’ accusations against the regime. “Dead journos are bad for Damascus,” Thomson pointed out.
The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, in a recent interview with Catholic weekly Tempi, summed up the situation: “Of course, it’s true that Syria needs reforms, who doesn’t? But this does not warrant destroying the entire country just because there are a few who want change. We religious leaders of the Middle East are all of the same opinion: I prefer an imperfect regime with a dictator to 80,000 dead and one and a half million refugees.”
“I thank the world’s solidarity,” the patriarch continued, “Italy’s and America’s, Caritas and the Muslim charity of the Gulf nations. But I would rather have not had to thank them.” On the subject of the two kidnapped bishops, the patriarch said: “Still no news. Under the Assads no bishops were ever kidnapped. But now we have change, we want to better our condition, and here we are.”
In the interview, which was given before President Obama decided to send arms to the rebel factions, Patriarch Twal worried that it might be the European nations who would do so: “All the Muslim radicals that were in Jordan have now gone to Syria. It is the utmost irony that we are now collaborating with them. Europe professes high values, yet collaborates with people who terrify them and their people, and terrify our Arab regimes. To think that Europe, and above all France and the UK, would even like to send arms to the rebels, in order to help defeat Assad! Aren’t 80,000 dead enough? Do we really want more victims and destruction, to change this famous Assad regime? Okay then, send in more weapons and the dead are bound to increase.”
Among the first cracks in the invisible iron curtain of mainstream media coverage was the testimony of the Trappist nuns of the Beata Maria Fons Pacis monastery, located in a small village near Aleppo. Of Tuscan origin, the sisters had come to Syria in 2005 to devote their lives to God and to their neighbors, Christians and Muslims alike. In an interview three years ago, with the uprisings already brewing, the community’s superior, Sister Martha, spoke about the demonstrations in support of Assad. “President Bashar was truly beloved by many people,” attested Sister Martha. “Today, of course, with the passing of time, there has been a growing awareness of a need for more justice and more liberty. But there is also a realization that among the rebels there is a violent faction that wants to exploit this situation to take over the country.”
Is there an international conspiracy? “I can’t say,” replied Sister Martha. “All we know is that the Saudis have bought land and houses, or lent money to people to buy land and houses. We know that weapons are pouring into Syria, along with money and soldiers. This can’t help but increase the instability.”
The sisters hoe their vegetable garden, pray, work, comfort the people. They never dreamed the situation would come to this when they came. “But where else would it make more sense for a monastery to be, than here?”
A well-known religious figure who has spoken out on the plight of Syrian Christians is Carmelite nun Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix. Of Lebanese origin, Mother Agnès-Mariam, 60, is the superior of a convent near Qara, about 50 miles from Damascus. In June 2012 she was warned of a plot to abduct her after she revealed that about 80,000 Christians had been “cleared out” of their homes in Homs province by rebel forces, and forced to flee the country. After the uprising began, Mother Agnès said she had noticed growing numbers of “aggressive, armed gangs which wished to paralyze community life, abducting people, beheading, bringing terror even to schools.” Slowly these gangs were identified: some were al-Qaeda recruits and affiliates, some had been involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, some were attached to other Islamist factions.
“Only about one in 20 of these fighters is Syrian,” Mother Agnès said in an interview with The Australian. The rest come from places ranging from Britain to Pakistan, from Chechnya to Indonesia, from Albania to North Africa, many fought in Iraq, some also in Afghanistan. “Now their cause is being recycled to kill Syrians,” Mother Agnès said.
In the beginning, the Carmelite nun explained, the uprising embraced freedom and democracy. “But it steadily became a violent Islamist expression against a liberal secular society.” As one of many examples of the disinformation made possible by the language barrier, Mother Agnès cited an al-Jazeera report about the murder of a child in Homs, which was blamed on Syrian security forces. The video shows Sari Saoud’s mother crying out in front of her dead son, with a caption in English quoting the woman as saying, “Security forces committed this crime”. But, “we know this woman,” said Mother Agnès. “[She] is the niece of a stone-cutter who works at the monastery. What the woman said in fact was, ‘If security forces had been here, my son would not have been killed.”
Chemical warfare used, goes unreported
Another Christian voice out of Syria is Sister Marguerite of the Community of Sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition, stationed at St. Louis Hospital, Aleppo, who writes that the people are so impoverished that they cut down the trees of city parks to get wood to heat their houses: “People resort to anything to support their families,” she says. “Even middle-class, well-to-do people, lawyers, engineers, tradesmen…Along the roads there are innumerable improvised street vendors selling whatever. School buildings are no longer for teaching, but are filled with displaced families, so children are in the street all day long, in the cold and rain, selling cigarettes, biscuits, chewing gum for a few pennies… a famous Christian musician who is practically ruined can be seen living outside the house where he used to live, playing the violin with tears in his eyes.”
Sister Marguerite also describes the menace of chemical warfare: “On St Joseph’s feast day, in March, the terrorists launched a missile with a chemical warhead on the province of Aleppo, killing 25 people and wounding others. Why is it that no press organ has spoken of this crime or condemned this act of chemical warfare on civilians?”
Christians targeted; the West looks the other way
By all accounts, while many people are suffering and dying in the Syrian conflict, no group is suffering more than Christians, stranded in the middle of a brutal war in which each side—rebel and regime—fires rockets into civilian areas and carries out attacks on a daily basis.
The Christians are not, however, simply collateral damage. As Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, said at a subcommittee hearing at the US House of Representatives in June, “Christians are the targets of an ethno-religious cleansing by Islamist militants and courts. In addition, they have lost the protection of the Assad government, making them easy prey for criminals and fighters, whose affiliations are not always clear. Wherever they appear, Islamist militias have made life impossible for the Christians.”
Christians, peaceful and without anyone to protect them, are the first to be persecuted and harassed into leaving Syria. According to a report from last December of the UN Human Right Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria, although no religious community has been spared suffering, it is the Christians who face an “existential threat.” And in contrast to Syria’s Alawites, Shiites, and Sunnis, Syria’s ancient Christian community has no tribal system and no foreign power to defend it.
Shea’s detailed report cites numerous sources from within Syria, along with needed perspective on the foreign policies of Western nations with respect to the country’s imperiled religious minorities. She points to the attacks on religious freedom which took place in Afghanistan and Iraq under both Democratic and Republican administrations, which received no significant policy response from the United States. “For example,” relates Shea,
while there were 90,000 American and NATO troops on the ground in
Afghanistan, that country’s last remaining church, in Kabul, was razed in 2010 after its 99-year lease was cancelled. The US State Department knew of this, and even reported on it in September 2011, but no US official took any measure to stop or reverse it. The destruction of Afghanistan’s last church did not draw the international protest that accompanied the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhist statues in 2001, but it is equally emblematic and even more consequential, depriving a religious community of its only house of worship. While the American people supported President Karzai’s government, financially and militarily, Afghanistan joined the infamous company of hardline Saudi Arabia as a country that will not tolerate any churches. America’s own diplomats and contract workers in Afghanistan must now hide their worship services.
Other examples include Iraq in 2005-2008, when Christians, Mandaeans, and Yezidis experienced persecutions that ultimately led to a nationwide “religious cleansing” campaign against non-Muslims,under the noses of the US occupying power and more than 100,000 American troops. American foreign policy officials apparently believed that it would constitute “special pleading” to do anything to help when 20,000 Christians were violently driven from Baghdad by Islamists in 2006. Yet by then the US was involved “in intensive efforts to ensure that nonviolent Sunnis gained positions in the Iraqi government, which, thanks to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, was run largely by Shias, whom the administration had helped politically strengthen and unify,” according to Shea.
With these precedents, there is no use expecting a reaction to the July 2 report from Vatican news agency Fides that the jihadi faction known as Jabhat al-Nusra (which has heavily infiltrated the rebel forces in the area of the Latin Church of Saint Anthony, near Aleppo, where Father Francois Murad was murdered), have declared as their sole objective the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, under which the law will not allow even the mere presence of “kafir” (“infidels,” or, in other words, non-Muslims).
With Islamic regimes gradually replacing the hoped-for democracies and extending from Morocco to Iran, thanks to Western influence, one wonders, with Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix, what exactly is going on: “We are bewildered by the position of Western countries; we aren’t used to seeing France as a country that favors fundamentalism, and we are even more surprised at the United States: didn’t they invade Afghanistan to get rid of al-Qaeda? What is the West out to achieve here…: freedom or fundamentalism? Or is it freedom for fundamentalism?”