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Caught in the Middle: The U.S. and Syrian Christians

This past Memorial Day weekend, while Americans were traveling to cookouts, U.N. officials were travelling to Houla, a cluster of villages north of Homs, the epicenter of the Syrian uprising.

The massacre of 108 civilians was only the most recent atrocity in a 15-month-old conflict that has killed between 13,000 and 19,000 people, most of them civilians.

In an epic understatement, the New York Times declared that the massacre “raised questions about the viability” of a peace plan being promoted by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

It’s tempting to mock the credulousness of those who, despite ample historical evidence to the contrary, still think that outsiders can impose their vision of a more just society on Syria. But that would be wrong if for no other reason than the “international community” seems intent on doing just that.

Instead, it’s the time for asking hard questions of those who are arguing for a greater American involvement in Syria. I say “American” because the simple truth is that, in matters like these, if the U.S. avoids getting involved, the rest of the world is neither willing nor able to intervene effectively: They’ll have to settle for harsh language.

One of the hardest questions is this: What will become of Syria’s substantial Christian population? The U.S. never asked this question about Iraq’s Christian population before it invaded that country and the result was catastrophic for people whose ancestors, in the words of an earlier broadcast, “worshipped Jesus Christ back when most of ours worshipped trees and practiced the occasional human sacrifice.”

Syrian Christians, who comprise 10 percent of the population and who can trace their roots back to the first people to be called “Christians” (see Acts 15), know that story all too well.

Their concerns and misgivings were the subject of a recent article in the New York Review of Books. An Orthodox Christian in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, called the Assad regime “very bad,” an opinion for which he was arrested.

At the same time, he pointed out that Syrian Christians are free to express their beliefs and practices under the current regime, a freedom he doubts the opposition would grant. As one woman put it, no one has called her a kafir — unbeliever — in more than 30 years. She’s convinced that this would change if the opposition came to power.

Even if this weren’t the case, the fact is that Christians, like their Iraqi brethren, would be caught in the middle if an all-out civil war broke out. And while Iraqi Christians could flee to Syria, where would Syrian Christians flee?

It’s easy for Westerners to insist on some ideal arrangement. We don’t face a possible choice between leaving our ancestral homes or covering ourselves when we go to the market.

What’s happening in Syria is tragic and outrageous. But we’ve already made life worse for the ancient Christian community in Iraq. Another one, the Copts in Egypt, is feeling increasingly vulnerable after the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

While what happened in Egypt was beyond our control, we do control whether or how we will intervene in Syria. And our leaders may determine that intervening to save innocent lives is the right thing to do. But this time, we cannot and must not forget to count Christians among the innocent lives worth saving.

Folks, we’ve got to care about our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world. What are we in the church doing to help them? As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” For more on this, please visit BreakPoint.org.

Publication date: June 4, 2012

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