As people of faith we learn to be bi-focal. We look through the eyes of secular newsflashes, and we look through the eyes of spiritual and theological discernment.
So Syria has been much in the news. But to the community of faith, Syria is not just a place. It is both a birthplace, and an end-place. Theologically, for Christians it is the birth place of the Church. It is the place where in Antioch, we first became known as Christians (Acts 11.26) ; for Muslims the place at the end of time, the apocalypse. This dual identity lies at the heart of the present secular conflict and how we understand it.
For faithful Muslims it is in Syria that the last apocalyptic battle signifying the end of time will take place. The prophecies derive mainly form the Hadith, collections of Mohammed’s sayings. The sources are many and varied, sometimes contradictory, but point in the main to Syria as the place of final apocalyptic conflict. The prophecies converge on the town of Dabiq in northern Syria, where the great battle between the forces of good and evil will be fought.
When this is understood, the anxieties of many people that the tensions that are being ratcheted up by unwary politicians could lead to World War 3, become a secular mirroring of Islamic apocalyptic theology.
Conspiracy theories are bad for one’s mental health. Zbigniew Brezezinski insisted wisely that “History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy.” But there are times when conscious convergence of interest and agenda cut through the chaos with purpose, and this seems to be one of them.
One of the most serious sources of alarm for Christians ought to be the way in which Western governments, presiding over democracies that were formed on the foundations of Christian values have begun to follow foreign policies which have been so damaging to Christians in the Middle East.
It’s not as if the lesson has not been learnt. The removal of Saddam Hussein from Iraq, whilst it might initially have brought some relief to the Kurds, produced first anarchy and then Islamic terrorism which drove the Christian community from their country; a place where they had lived and worshipped since the 1st century. The vast majority are or rather were indigenous Eastern Aramaic-speaking ethnic Chaldeans. There were also small communities of Syriacs, Assyrians, Armenians and populations of Kurdish, Arab and Iraqi Turkmens.
Their numbers have been reduced from 1.5 million in 2003 to something like only 400,000 today.
You might have thought that even if our Governments are not ‘Christian’ having Christians in them they would have given thought to hesitate before they offered the weight of their Foreign Policy to serve Islamic interests?
There is no doubt that the regime in Syria is highly authoritarian and (as Saddam Hussein did) deals severely with its political opponents. But it is also true that this very authoritarianism provides a safe and stable environment in which Muslim and Christian communities, which again go back to the 1st century, live peaceably side by side.
And if one was to compare the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria in terms of human rights, there is no doubt that Syria is certainly no worse than the other two and, in many respects, much better.
And yet, it is clear in geo-political terms that what is taking place in Syria is a proxy war fought over future energy sources and types of Islamic hegemony between Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other. The opposition to Assad was not a plea for regime change by democratic Syrians, but an attempt to remove a non-Muslim ruler and replace him with a Muslim regime by Saudi backed terrorist groups.
The opponents or rebels in Syria consisted of a host of warring Islamic terrorist factions united only by their determination to destroy the stability of the Assad regime and replace with one of the various competing Islamic factions.
Without any apparent concern that the West was repeating the mistakes of the Iraq where there had been no agreed strategy on what would fill the vacuum, the Western Governments, particularly the UK, seemed determined to clear away a multicultural and inter-religious regime with authoritarian tendencies, and replace it with a hard line Islamic one of one kind or another.
It then began to emerge that the Russia, and to some extent Iran were lining up to support the Assad’s regime continuation in existence, while the UK, the USA and the EU were working with Saudi Arabia to remove him.
Twice now chemical attacks have been attributed to the Assad regime with the immediate effect of inducing in the West a moral indignation that led to a call for bombing the Assad regime. But though the video footage was provocatively emotive, the hard evidence that laid a trail back to Assad was always just missing.
The strange thing about the more recent occasion during the last few weeks was the way in which it became clear that there was no clear proof that the regime itself had done it. Worse than that, several Western military advisors emerged to the surprise of commentators and said that it was impossible Assad had used chemicals, because he had everything to lose by doing so, and mothing at all to gain. And yet an enormously energised media campaign began to whip up fury in the West against the purported gassing of the children who had appeared to be the victims in the videos.
Critics began to point out that the Islamic terrorist factions had shown themselves to be highly sophisticated creators of fake news on YouTube, and at the same time, the media had shown itself inexplicably partisan. It had been wholly un-interested in the fate of the small children the Saudi Arabians had bombed to pieces in the Yemen, and disproportionately anxious about Syrian children who were casualties of one kind or another of Assad.
So, concerns began to emerge in the UK that some kind of secret Government agenda, that reached beyond the presented humanitarian concern, applied to foreign policy, and in particular one that favoured Saudi Arabian interests against Assad, (in contrast to Russia which favoured Syrian interests, supported by Iran, in favour of Assad).
The conspiracy theory that the UK and the USA were supporting one side of an Islamic conflict against another, grew when the media began to attack those voices raised asking awkward questions about the level of evidence that was available to prove chemical attacks had happened, and were the responsiobility of the government regime.
In the UK, the London Times, through one of its leaders, mounted a vicious attack on a small innocuous group of academics who had convened a group looking at Syrian news and the use of propaganda.
They had in fact produced only one research paper. But they were lambasted and vilified as if they were traitors and enemies of the state.
The attack was so disproportionate that it inevitable provoked questions as to why such a weighty hammer had been wheeled out to crush a nut of such insignificance? Unless it was to frighten off any other would-be critics, who like academics, thought that questions ought to be asked when the stakes were so high.
Days later, a group of Christian politicians and clergy made a visit to Syria to engage in talks with the Syriac Orthodox Church. Their visit had been organised months ago, and involved as is usual on these ecumenical occasions, meetings with a variety of Christians and some state officials.
This visit attracted considerable opprobrium from the press. The group said that it was highly unfortunate that the UK & US governments had decided to bomb Syria days before their visit but having given thought to cancellation decided that it would have created as many other problems as it would have solved.
The Times, once again, set one of their commentators up to write a lengthy character assassination of one of the Anglican clergy, the Rev’d Giles Fraser, who went.
In the background of one group photo was as picture of Assad hanging on the wall. David Aaronovitch, the columnist wrote a long assassination of Giles Fraser’s character ending with, “when the portrait on the wall is of a bloody dictator and you instead choose to look out of the window, that odd smell is not apple tea, it’s your own moral decay.”
This was a pretty vicious attack by any normal standards, let alone pone of the most reputable newspapers at the high end of the journalistic spectrum. Why set an attack-dog on a single clergyman with such venom?
The stakes were of course high. The Syrian Christian leaders complained vigorously and publicly about the Western bombing campaign
A joint statement was signed by 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.
The Patriarchates of Antioch and all the East for the Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Greek-Melkite Catholic Churches condemned the attacks as pre-emptive and unjust, noting that there was not “sufficient and clear evidence” for the suspected chemical warfare attacks.
Furthermore, the patriarchs noted that the timing of “this unjustified aggression against Syria, when the independent International Commission for Inquiry was about to start its work in Syria, undermines of the work of this commission.”
The church leaders also noted that the attacks were uncalled for from countries that have not been attacked by Syria, constituting a “clear violation of the international laws and the U.N. Charter, because it is an unjustified assault on a sovereign country, a member of the U.N.”
The patriarchs said that it was unlikely that the airstrikes will have the desired effect, and that they will only serve to encourage terrorists in the country and further delay a peaceful solution to the war.
They called on the U.N. to advocate for peaceful solutions in Syria, and asked for the prayers of all churchgoers in the United States, France and the U.K.
“We offer our prayers for the safety, victory, and deliverance of Syria from all kinds of wars and terrorism. We also pray for peace in Syria and throughout the world and call for strengthening the efforts of the national reconciliation for the sake of protecting the country and preserving the dignity of all Syrians.”
This was responded to by the Middle East Christian Committee (MECHRIC) which took the view that the statement had been influenced by the political regime and the bishops had not been speaking freely and honestly.
It’s exactly at this point that only face to face conversations between people can cut through the misrepresentations.
At a meeting with one of Assad’s advisors, Andrew Ashdown, the group’s leader wrote “the group heard that she was highly critical of the biased international media representation of realities in Syria (a criticism echoed by everyone we met throughout the country); and asked why the West claims to be fighting terrorism whilst allying with countries who are funding and supporting terrorists. Dr Shaaban acknowledged that there had been mistakes in dealing with political unrest, but like other ordinary citizens we spoke with, she said that the war had stifled the development of the active civil society that was beginning to emerge prior to the conflict. Reforms and the development of democratic processes could only take place in a peaceful context.”
No one is required to take the spin of a government spokeswoman as gospel truth, but in talking to her face to face she does raise some important questions that Christians around the world will care deeply about.
Why are our governments backing the same Islamic terrorist groups whose other members are committing murder and mayhem in European cities in the name of Islam? Why are they bombing one of the few societies in the Middle East where Christians have been protected and allowed to live in peace? Why has the suspicion arisen that they are pressurising the media to silence people asking questions and looking for hard evidence. During an interview with Sky news, one of our highest ranking army officers, Major General Jonathan Shaw was shut down mid-sentence when he questioned whether it would have been in Assad’s interests to resort to chemical weapons at that juncture.
Syria may have apocalyptic significance for Islamic jihadists. But it ought too to have significance for faithful Christians in the West as well. Our solidarity as the body of Christ across the world ought to provide us with the courage and the inspiration to make representations to our governments to give some weight to the protection and the integrity of Christian communities in the Middle East. They have lived and worshipped there since the dawn of the Church, and have some claim on our affections, respect and energies.
We should not let secular preoccupation with energy and the injections of Saudi money into our economies threaten the death of Christian communities and churches in the heart of the middle east, as Islamic political ambition and apocalyptic theology drive a conflict which sucks in our governments and media.