- (Photo: Reuters/Handout)
A Syrian church leader has accused Western powers of sacrificing Middle Eastern Christians for political and economic gain at a time of an increase in radical Islamism in the region. At issue, according to observers, is the wisdom of supporting pro-democracy protests as the U.S. has done, or the Syrian regime, as many Christians have done.
Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III, head of the Syriac Catholic Church, recently said that Christians of the Middle East are disappointed at the policies pursued by the European Union and the United States, who seem to solely be driven by politics and economics.
Western governments should not be supporting protesters' efforts to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad's regime, as a toppling of the current government could give way to persecution of Christians in Syria, Joseph implied in his statements.
The church leader appears convinced that, if such a scenario actually unfolds, the predominantly Muslim country could see a surge in radical Islam, and therefore, increase violence against Christians.
“They [Western governments that support the pro-democracy movements] have come to the conclusion that it is inevitable that Islamist religious fanatics will come to power in these countries and they have given up,” the church leader told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa), a German press agency, as quoted in Bikya Masr. “We Christians feel that we have been betrayed by them.”
The patriarch evoked the fate of Christians in Iraq, a majority of whom fled the country when faced with escalating persecution from Islamist groups after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Syria is majorly Sunni Muslim, with some 10 percent of the society being Christian -- a surprisingly large number for a Middle Eastern country, experts say. The government has thus far shown a relative amount of tolerance for Christianity, unlike in other countries in the region, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.
Many Christians fear that if al-Assad's regime -- which has held religious conflicts at bay -- is toppled, radical Islamist groups will try to eradicate Christianity in the country, as appears to be happening in Iraq, according to experts. In addition, many Christians and Sabean Mandaeans escaped from Iraq to seek refuge in Syria; another round of persecution could send them fleeing again.
In general, Christians in Syria are divided on whether to support protests calling for a democratic government. The Syriac Church has also attracted criticism from foreign observers for siding with the Syrian regime blamed for thousands of deaths of pro-democracy protesters.
However, although many fear that Muslim extremism will surge in their country if al-Assad's regime falls, a certain number of Christians support the protesters, according to reports.
Church authorities also reportedly fear a surge of radical Islam could occur if al-Assad falls, similar to such incidents in Egypt, where Coptic Christians faced increased persecution after the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak.
Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III has not been shy about Syriac Catholic Church's supporting the regime.
“In May, I met French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe in Paris, and I realized that France and the EU have a preconceived opinion of the Baath regime in Syria. They think this is a monstrous regime that kills its own citizens,” he said in the interview with dpa. “Yes, there have been and there are massacres. But nobody talks about the hundreds of thousands of deaths that took place in Iraq (after the U.S.-led invasion) or of the tens of thousands who died recently in Libya.”
The patriarch did, however, call for a dialogue between the regime and protesters as the means to ending the violence in the country.
“Why not have dialogue? Because 5,000 people have been killed? After World War II, which caused the death of millions, Germany and France also engaged in dialogue,” he reportedly said.
Another church official, Ignatius Joseph III Yonan, also called for resolving the crisis in Syria in a peaceful and civil manner. The U.S. archdiocese of the Syrian church, the New Jersey-based Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, has also called in a statement for a rejection of “all sorts of foreign intervention from any foreign party,” as well as “lifting up the sanctions which were imposed on Syria under any excuse.” It also rejected “resorting to the use of any type of violence.” The archdiocese called for peace and reconciliation between “all the people under the name of God and the nation.”
Jeff Walton, communications manager for the Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD), told The Christian Post recently that rising Islamist militancy will make it very difficult for Christian minorities not only in Nigeria and Egypt, but much of the Middle East, including Syria, in a post-revolutionary climate.
“In Syria especially, if the majority Sunni assert control following the expected downfall of the Assad regime, Syrian Christians who make up a surprisingly large percentage of the country, relative to neighboring states, will quickly find themselves emigrating,” Walton explained.
“If the Sunni population successfully overthrow the Assads, we can expect revenge actions against any group that was represented in the regime – including Alawites, Christians and Shi’a, among others,” he added. “The Assad regime is essentially stocked by representatives of any group in Syria that is non-Sunni.”
But some observers say standing against the democratic protests is unethical. Another expert on the issue, Elie Elhadj, a businessman who also edits a website on Middle Eastern issues, wrote in his an article on the issue:
“Those among Syria's Christian clerics and civic leaders who publicly support the Assad regime are short sighted. They are courting long-term disaster for themselves and their congregations. Why? Because, the Assad regime will not remain in power forever; it is immoral to support non-representative unjust rule; the Assad clan’s exploitation of Sunni Islam has emboldened Islamism and thwarted the development of secularism in Syria; and because scaremongering for blackmail legitimacy will not work forever.”