Why Syria Matters to Us
- Wednesday, August 08, 2012
Syria has been in the news almost daily for the last 17 months. Over 18,000 people have lost their lives. And recent developments -- including the defection of the prime minister and the bombing deaths of both the country’s defense minister and President Assad’s brother-in-law, the deputy defense minister -- have caused the situation to deteriorate even further.
So what do we need to know about what is happening in Syria and why?
To understand the present, we must look at history. Christians have a special tie to Syria -- it was just outside Damascus that (then) Saul of Tarsus had his miraculous encounter with the risen Jesus and was subsequently converted from Christian persecutor to one of the most dynamic Christian evangelists who has ever lived. And it was on Straight Street in Damascus (which can still be seen today), that Paul’s sight was restored, he was baptized and he began to preach for the first time. Damascus -- first mentioned in Genesis and called the oldest capital city in the world -- has been continuously inhabited since around 2500 B.C.
Damascus is 'Holy Land' for Christians
Even today, between 10 and 20 percent of the people in Syria are Christians. But since the uprising is primarily a conflict regarding Muslim control of the country, many Christians in the Western world don’t understand the relevance to their own lives.
Father Nadim Nassar is the first and only Episcopal priest of Syrian descent in the Church of England. He is also the founder and director of The Awareness Foundation in London -- a Christian education agency seeking to help Christians be more confident in their own faith and still remain open to their neighbors of differing faiths in order to peacefully co-exist. Because of his nationality and his work, he has a unique perspective on the situation in Syria and recently spoke with me about why the outcome is so critical -- not only to the Arab world, but also to Christians and to the West.
He outlined several things that will help us to better understand:
1. First, Syria is a very diverse population of Christians, Jews and Muslims -- it is a mosaic of religious, cultural and ethnicities with dynamics that are as mixed as the country itself. And the Muslim sects are themselves quite diverse. Syria is home to a majority of Sunnis, but has been ruled by the minority Alawites since1970. The Alawites -- a mystical sect with closely guarded beliefs that seem to incorporate pagan and even some Christian traditions -- are not even considered to be Muslim by some Sunni clerics. That’s how deep the divide between them is.
2. The incredibly tumultuous past of Syria has brought the country to this point in history. Previously Christian, but ruled by the Ottoman Turks from 1516 to 1916, the country had 21 different governments in the 24 years prior to 1970 when French-trained Air Force general Hafiz al-Assad seized power after a series of coup d’etats. The current president, Bashar al-Assad, is his son.
3. This uprising is indicative of great unrest in the Middle East and is a continuation of the dissatisfaction represented by the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco and others. (For an interactive timeline of the protests, see "The path of protest" from The Guardian, Jan. 2012.)
4. Syria’s geographic location is crucial. Sandwiched between Turkey to the north, Iraq on the east, Jordan and Israel to the south, Lebanon to the west, and sharing the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, Syria is prime real estate. The situation in Syria is very delicate because it shares a large border with Israel. What happens here affects relations in not only the Middle East, but also reverberates all around the world.
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