Tag Archives: Syria

Christians, the State Department, and Genocide

syrian christians

Photo from The Guardian

At USA Today, columnist Kirsten Powers writes about the State Department’s apparent reluctance to refer to ISIS’s persecution of Iraqi and Syrian Christians as a genocide. The reluctance is puzzling. According to press reports, the Department is poised to declare a genocide ISIS’s persecution of another religious minority, the Yazidis. If Yazidis are the victims of genocide, she asks, why not Christians? The situation of these two persecuted minorities is quite similar.

Powers makes a very good point. The 1948 Genocide Convention defines “genocide” as, among other things, “deliberately inflicting on” a religious group “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Obviously, what ISIS is doing to the Yazidis qualifies. So does what ISIS is doing to Christians. ISIS is driving Christians from their homes, seizing their property, and, quite often, killing them in the most horrible ways. How does that not qualify as a genocide?

Apparently, the State Department is hesitating because, unlike Yazidis, Christians have a way out. As “People of the Book” under classical Islamic law — which ISIS has purported to restore in its newly declared caliphate — Christians can choose to abide by the terms of the Dhimma, the notional contract that governs the treatment of Christians, Jews, and some other minorities. As dhimmis, Christians may remain in the new caliphate as long as they follow the rules – paying the jizya tax, for example, and accepting social subordination. (I detail the dhimmi restrictions ISIS has imposed on the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria here).

As Powers point out, however, on many occasions, ISIS has disregarded the dhimmi rules. Moreover, even at their best, the rules are punishing. The jizya is often set at a level where many Christians cannot pay it. These Christians have no choice but to leave. More fundamentally, how is it acceptable to tell religious minorities that things are comparatively good for them because they can “choose” to accept oppressive and demeaning treatment and manage to survive? Quite obviously, ISIS’s goal is to eliminate these ancient Christian communities. And it is largely succeeding: those Christians who can do so are fleeing. Some experts believe that Christianity will disappear from Iraq and Syria – places where Christians have lived the religion began – within one or two generations.

Last Friday, a group of Christian leaders, human rights advocates, and scholars sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking for a meeting on this question, at which they hope to persuade him that Iraqi and Syrian Christians, as well as Yazidis, should be included in any designation of a genocide. (Full disclosure: I am one of the signatories). Secretary Kerry has not yet responded.

Some persecuted minorities are funny

Take a look at this clip from a recent episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In the clip, Colbert mocks Republican presidential candidates who argue for admitting Syrian Christians as religious refugees. At least I think that’s what he’s doing. Unfortunately, in attacking the GOP, Colbert, who often speaks publicly of his devotion to Catholicism, uses Syrian Christians as a cheap prop.

Republican candidates want to admit Syrian Christians, but not Syrian Muslims, Colbert says, because they think Americans can “relate to average Syrian Christians.” After all, Syrian Christians are “basically Methodists.” For example, he continues, with the cutesy irony that has made him rich and famous, consider Syriac Orthodox Christians. They say something called the Ramsho Prayer every evening—“Ramsho Prayer,” incidentally, is how you say “Vespers” in Syriac—and read their Bibles in Aramaic. He continues with what he apparently thinks is a hilarious sendup of the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II. Flashing a picture of the patriarch in his liturgical robes, Colbert jokes that the vestments make Ignatius look like “Golden Snake Santa Pope,” a comic figure who would fit right in as King of Mardi Gras. Colbert’s piano-playing sidekick joins the audience in guffawing.

Now, I’m sure Colbert, who often makes jokes about his own church, thinks this is all good-natured fun. How clever! These GOP candidates know nothing about real Syrian Christians, and if they did, they’d be shocked, those ignoramuses. But it’s in very bad taste. The whole joke turns on showing how weird and unrelatable Syrian Christians are. That’s why the audience is laughing so hard. (You want us to admit these people?) The Syriac Orthodox have suffered for centuries and are enduring one of their worst trials right now, and Colbert is using them for a cheap gag. The joke is particularly unfortunate with respect to Ignatius himself. I’ve talked to people know him personally, and Ignatius is a saintly man. (But what about those silly clothes?). For many years, he was the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop in New Jersey. He could have continued to live a pleasant life here in the United States, but returned to the hellhole that is Syria last year in order to lead his flock.

Syrian Christians, and Mideast Christians more generally, have a public relations problem. The fact is, they are culturally different from Americans, and it is genuinely difficult for many American Christians to relate to them. That’s one reason why the United States has done so little to help them in the current crisis. Mocking them as weirdos doesn’t help. Those golden snakes on Ignatius’s staff are an ancient symbol of wisdom. Colbert should display some of it himself.

Slighting Syria’s Christians

Take a look at the photo above, which appeared recently on Instagram. It’s the photo of a page from the New Testament — Acts 25, which recounts St. Paul’s trial before Festus. The page, seared into a bookshelf, is all that remains of the Bible that once contained it. ISIS recently burned the Bible, along with the Armenian Orthodox Church that held it, in Tal Abyad, Syria. The page is written in Armenian characters, but in the Turkish language, which suggests the Bible was once the possession of refugees from the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Survivors of that Genocide founded the town of Tal Abyad 100 years ag0.

I thought of this photograph while reading Nina Shea’s searing assessment, in yesterday’s National Review Online, of the US’s treatment of Syrian Christian refugees. In the past five years of the Syrian civil war, she writes, the United States has admitted a grand total of 53 Christian refugees from Syria. Fifty-three! When one considers that at the start of the conflict Christians made up 10% of the country’s population of 23 million, and that ISIS and other Islamist groups have made Christians special targets, the minuscule number of Christian refugees the US has admitted is truly shocking.

Shea says there are two explanations. First, the US has generally been reluctant to admit any refugees from Syria. Second, the US relies on the UN to process and refer applications for asylum from its own refugee and resettlement camps. But Christians and other religious minorities are reluctant to use the UN camps, which are infiltrated by ISIS operatives:

Like Iraqi Christians who opt for church-run camps over better-serviced U.N. ones, Syrian minorities fear hostility from majority groups inside the latter. According to British media, a terrorist defector asserted that militants enter U.N. camps to assassinate and kidnap Christians. An American Christian aid group reported that the U.N. camps are “dangerous” places where ISIS, militias, and gangs traffic in women and threaten men who refuse to swear allegiance to the caliphate. Such intimidation is also reportedly evident in migrant camps in Europe, leading the German police union to recommend separate shelters for Christian and Muslim migrant groups.

There are other explanations as well. The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, is reluctant to appear too solicitous of Christian refugees. The concern is that singling out Christians would cause our allies in the region to view our humanitarian efforts as sectarian. We should get over this concern. Our allies view us as sectarian, anyway. And it’s not like our strategy of projecting even-handedness has won us much support till now.

This is a complicated situation. Many Christian leaders do not want their flocks to leave their homes in Syria, where Christians have lived for many centuries. And other religious minorities are also dying in Syria, as well as Muslims. But, for many Christians, escape to the West is the only viable option. And Christians have suffered disproportionately in Syria and deserve more help from the US than they are receiving. Shea’s piece is worth reading in its entirety. You can find it here.

Zaman, “Islamic Traditions of Refuge in the Crises of Iraq and Syria”

In November, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Islamic Traditions of Refuge in the Crises of Iraq and Syria” by Tahir Zaman (Center for Research on Migration, Refugees & Belonging (CMRB) at the University of East London, UK, and SOAS, University of London, UK). The publisher’s description follows:

The intersection of migration and religion has received little systematic investigation in the social sciences with scant attention paid to the lived experiences of refugees. Weaving together narrative analysis within a Bourdieuian framework, this book addresses this shortcoming in the literature. The constraints and opportunities Iraqi refugees encounter in emplacing themselves indicate contesting notions of religion. The challenges of facing a protracted exile and a protection impasse in Syria mean Iraqi refugees are compelled to reflect upon their specific experiences of religion and to mobilize their understandings of religious traditions in innovative ways in order to construct inhabitable worlds – in the process refugees move beyond the management and care of institutional actors. The study has immediate relevance – contributing to our understanding of power relations in the humanitarian field. Continuities are drawn between the crises of Iraq and Syria to better illustrate the role of religion during displacement crises.

“The ‘Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant” (Kerr & Larkin, eds.)

In November, Oxford University Press will release “The ‘Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant” edited by Michael Kerr (King’s College London) and Craig Larkin (King’s College London). The publisher’s description follows:

Throughout the turbulent history of the Levant the ‘Alawis – a secretive, resilient and ancient Muslim sect – have aroused suspicion and animosity, including accusations of religious heresy. More recently they have been tarred with the brush of political separatism and complicity in the excesses of the Assad regime, claims that have gained greater traction since the onset of the Syrian uprising and subsequent devastating civil war.

The contributors to this book provide a complex and nuanced reading of Syria’s ‘Alawi communities -from loyalist gangs (Shabiha) to outspoken critics of the regime. Drawing upon wide-ranging research that examines the historic, political and social dynamics of the ‘Alawi and the Syrian state, the current tensions are scrutinised and fresh insights offered. Among the themes addressed are religious practice, social identities, and relations to the Ba’ath party, the Syrian state and the military apparatus. The analysis also extends to Lebanon with a focus on the embattled ‘Alawi community of Jabal Mohsen in Tripoli and state relations with Hizballah amid the current crisis.

Atwan, “Islamic State”

In September, the University of California Press will release “Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate,” by Abdel Bari Atwan (editor of the Rai al-Youm news website).  The publisher’s description follows: 

Islamic State stunned the world when it overran an area the size of Great Britain on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border in a matter of weeks and proclaimed the birth of a new Caliphate. In this timely and important book, Abdel Bari Atwan draws on his unrivaled knowledge of the global jihadi movement and Middle Eastern geopolitics to reveal the origins and modus operandi of Islamic State.

Based on extensive field research and exclusive interviews with IS insiders, Islamic State outlines the group’s leadership structure, as well as its strategies, tactics, and diverse methods of recruitment. Atwan traces the Salafi-jihadi lineage of IS, its ideological differences with al Qaeda and the deadly rivalry that has emerged between their leaders. He also shows how the group’s rapid growth has been facilitated by its masterful command of social media platforms, the “dark web,” Hollywood blockbuster-style videos, and even jihadi computer games, producing a powerful paradox where the ambitions of the Middle Ages have reemerged in cyberspace.

As Islamic State continues to dominate the world’s media headlines with horrific acts of ruthless violence, Atwan considers the movement’s chances of survival and expansion and offers indispensable insights on potential government responses to contain the IS threat.

The NYT on the End of Mideast Christianity

Egyptian Copts, one holding a Coptic Christian cross, demonstrate against the overnight sectarian violence, in downtown Cairo, Egypt Sunday, May 8, 2011. Christians and Muslims throwing rocks clashed in downtown Cairo on Sunday, hours after ultraconservative Muslim mobs set fire overnight to a church and a Christian-owned apartment building in a frenzy of violence that killed 12 people and injured more than 200. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

 Photo from Christianity Today

Eliza Griswold’s major piece on Mideast Christians in the New York Times Magazine this past weekend is getting lots of well-deserved attention. The Times, more than almost any other media publication, can place items on the national agenda, and both it and Griswold deserve credit for covering the crisis facing Christianity in Syria and Iraq. Griswold makes a couple of mistakes in the article–she incorrectly describes the beliefs of Oriental Orthodox Christians and ascribes the Armenian Genocide to “nationalism, not religion,” when in fact the genocide resulted from both–but, on the whole, it’s a very impressive piece, and well worth reading.

As an American, I was particularly struck by Griswold’s description of how the United States has abandoned Mideast Christians. Really, we are doing next to nothing to help these poor people. “Wait a minute,” someone might object. “How has the US abandoned them? And why do we have to do anything? We’re not responsible for righting every wrong that occurs in the world, and anyway we were in Iraq, trying to help, for years. It didn’t work. Let Iraqis and other local populations settle this for themselves. It’s not worth more American lives.”

I understand the appeal of this objection, but it depends on not a little willful amnesia. Of course, the parties who bear principal responsibility for the persecution of Christians are local Islamists like ISIS. But the US itself bears indirect responsibility. The US invasion in 2003 led to this situation, by creating anarchy and unleashing long-repressed sectarian resentments. And by abruptly leaving Iraq, we have allowed the crisis to intensify. A Catholic bishop Griswold quotes says it well. “Americans and the West were telling us they came to bring democracy, freedom and prosperity. What we are living is anarchy, war, death and the plight of three million refugees.’’ Having helped to create this crisis, the US has a moral obligation to do something to help. We can’t simply abandon these people–and Griswold makes clear that both the Bush and Obama Administrations deserve blame in this–as though we had nothing to do with exposing them to danger in the first place.

As of now, Griswold reports, the US has done very little. (This morning’s announcement of a potential US-Turkish alliance to fight ISIS in northern Syria seems driven largely by Turkey’s desire to preempt Kurdish gains; I doubt most of the region’s Christians hope for much out of it). The US is doing nothing to speed up immigration applications from Mideast Christians, notwithstanding the obvious persecution they are suffering. Even humanitarian assistance has been lacking.

Griswold correctly diagnoses the problem. Mideast Christians have few allies in American politics. Conservatives don’t feel much affinity for Mideast Christians, who often favor Palestine in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and liberals have a hard time seeing any Christians as sympathetic victims. As someone once observed, Mideast Christians have the misfortune to be too foreign for the Right and too Christian for the Left.

I hope Griswold’s timely piece can do something to help change America’s response. You can read her whole essay here.

Mideast Christians and Authoritarian Regimes

2000px-Coptic_cross.svgLast week’s ruling in Obergefell took up a lot of attention, but I’ve been meaning to link a couple of good articles about Mideast Christians, specifically, their relationship with authoritarian regimes. Outsiders often criticize Mideast Christians for coming to terms with such regimes. But the regimes are often the best alternative in a terrible situation.

First, at Crux, John Allen has been writing a series on Egypt’s Copts, who are going through one of the worst periods of persecution in their long history. Yesterday, he posted an interesting piece on relations between Copts and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. El-Sisi has made a number of high-profile gestures of solidarity with Copts, including attending a Christmas Liturgy, and the vast majority view him very favorably. The Coptic Church is solidly behind him, and for most Christians, Allen writes, “it’s axiomatic that el-Sisi is the best thing that’s happened in a long time.”

But there are dissenting views. Allen interviews a few Copts who say El-Sisi’s warmth is just for show, and that his regime continues to oppress Copts, just as the Mubarak and Morsi governments did. Crimes against Copts continue to go unpunished, and there is still  “forced displacement, harassment under the country’s anti-blasphemy laws, kidnappings and physical assaults.” Indeed, one commentator reports that, “in virtually every category… the number of incidents today is going up rather than down.” Perhaps Christians’ support for el-Sisi is misplaced–or perhaps, as most Copts argue, el-Sisi is doing all he can to change traditional Egyptian attitudes, and is the best option in a very imperfect situation. My sense, from reading Western news accounts, is that the latter is the case. But I’ll admit Allen’s reporting makes me wonder a bit.

The second is this wide-ranging interview from La Stampa’s “Vatican Insider” with Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II. Aphrem–who previously served as his church’s archbishop in America, incidentally–discusses a number of topics, including Christians’ relations with the Assad regime. Here’s a snippet:

Some Western circles accuse the Christians of the East of submitting to authoritarian regimes.

“We have not submitted ourselves to Assad and the so-called authoritarian governments. We simply recognise legitimate governments. The majority of Syrian citizens support Assad’s government and have always supported it. We recognise legitimate rulers and pray for them, as the New Testament teaches us. We also see that on the other side there is no democratic opposition, only extremist groups. Above all, we see that in the past few years, these groups have been basing their actions on an ideology that comes from the outside, brought here by preachers of hatred who have come from and are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt. These groups receive arms through Turkey too, as the media have shown us.”

You have to read between the lines here. What he’s saying, it seems to me, is not that Assad is wonderful, but that the alternative for Christians is incomparably worse. Aphrem makes other allegations that seem dubious, for example, that the West is arming terrorist groups that are massacring Christians. I guess he’s referring to Turkey’s alleged links with ISIS. Anyway, it’s hard to argue with his basic point that the West should not judge Syria’s Christians for the choices they have to make. Like the Allen piece on Copts, the La Stampa interview is worth reading for a sense of the pressures Mideast Christians face every day.

Conversations: Christian Sahner

From 2008 to 2010, young scholar Christian Sahner (left) lived in Syria, studying Arabic. He learned a great deal about the country. particularly the relations among the different religious groups that made up Syrian society–including Christians, who accounted for perhaps 10% of the population. Last fall, he published an engaging account of his time in Syria, Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (Oxford). In the book, Sahner describes life in Syria before the Arab Spring. Notwithstanding a surface calm, he writes, sectarian tensions existed just below the surface.

This week, Sahner–who received a PhD in History this month from Princeton, and who will start a research fellowship at Cambridge in the fall–kindly answers some questions about his work. Our conversation covers topics such as the history of Christians in Syria, their experience under the Assad regime, the failure of the Arab Spring, and prospects for the future.

Christian, let’s start with some background. Your book is a reflection on the years you spent in Syria (2008-2010) and Lebanon (2011-2013). Why did you decide to live in these countries? What were you doing there?

Sahner: I first came to Syria for language study. Before the tumult of the Arab Spring, it was common wisdom among students that Cairo and Damascus were the best places to master Arabic. It was more or less dumb luck that led me to Syria and not to Egypt, and in hindsight, I’m immensely grateful the cards fell the way they did. By the beginning of 2011, Syria was no longer a safe place for an American student. Therefore, it was to Beirut that I relocated to carry on my language work and research. I’ve been returning to Lebanon ever since.

A main theme in your book is the power of sectarianism, which you define as the “activation of religious identity as one of the main principles of social and political life.” You believe this is a key fact of Syrian and Lebanese societies. What do you think explains it?

Sahner: Among the different countries of the Arab and Muslim world, Syria and Lebanon stand out for the terrific variety of peoples who live there, and always have. This includes not just Sunni Muslims, who form an absolute majority between the two countries, but also smaller Muslim sects, such as Shi‘is, Alawis, Isma‘ilis, and Druze, along with non-Muslims, including numerous Christian denominations, and until recently, large populations of Jews. The existence of religious diversity does not in and of itself entail the existence of sectarianism. And yet, I think it’s safe to say that sectarianism depends on and cannot exist without a sense of religious difference in a society. In the Levant, we face a world in which, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, political systems emerged that explicitly assigned power on the basis of sect (as in Lebanon), or which saw informal imbalances of power arise among sects (as in Syria). Because these systems thrust religious identity into the center of political life in this way, they tended to stoke resentments between communities, and under certain circumstances, spark violence.

You have a great interest in the Christian communities of Syria. Many Westerners are very unfamiliar with these communities. Could you give us a brief description of them? Who are they, what are their numbers?

Sahner: We tend to think of Syria as a Muslim-majority country, but for centuries after the rise of Islam, its population was majority Christian. The roots of these Christian communities are very ancient. In fact, as the Acts of the Apostles tells us, it was in the Syrian city of Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” Over the centuries, Syrian Christianity became splintered into different denominations, which were divided over Continue reading

Kobani, Then and Now

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Kobani, Syria, Last Weekend

For the past several weeks, the world has been watching Kobani (in Kurdish, Kobanê), a small city on the Syrian-Turkish border. In September, militants from ISIS, the Sunni Islamist group that has declared a restored caliphate in the Middle East, laid siege to the city, which is mostly Kurdish and currently in the hands of the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish group that opposes the Assad government. Kobani’s strategic significance is debatable, but the city has symbolic importance, and its fall would be a huge morale boost for ISIS. Consequently, the US has instituted a bombing campaign to push ISIS back. As of this weekend, the siege was at a standstill.

A bewildering set of parties is involved. In addition to the two main antagonists, ISIS and the YPG, there are the Iraqi Kurds – who, unlike the YPG, do not have good relations with the PKK, the Kurdish militants who seek to establish a homeland in Turkey – the Free Syrian Army, part of the “moderate” secular opposition to Assad; the Assad regime itself; the Iraqi government; regional powers like Turkey and Iran; and the international anti-ISIS coalition, led by the US. Each of these parties has its own interests to protect, which makes cooperation very difficult. Most observers think the city will fall unless outsiders supply substantial ground troops. That seems unlikely. Although Turkey last week said it would open its border and allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters, as well as members of the Free Syrian Army, to reinforce Kobani, it’s not clear whether that will occur.

One group that does not have a significant representation in Kobani is Christians. This is ironic, because Kobani was in fact founded by Christians during the last great wave of persecution in the region, about 100 years ago. In the wake of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an ethnic-cleansing campaign that killed millions of Armenians and other Christians in the Ottoman Empire, Armenian refugees established a village near a recently-built train station on the Baghdad Railway, at a place called Ayn al-Arab in the Aleppo Province. The Kurds came later and called the village “Kobani,” apparently after the German company that had built the railway.

The Turks pushed many of Kobani’s Armenians further south. Those who avoided deportation built churches and schools in Kobani, but most eventually decided to move on, to other cities in Syria or to Soviet Armenia. Doubtless, many of them wished to leave a place with so many bad memories. According to political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Center, the area surrounding Kobani is known as “‘the Armenian cemetery’ because of the thousands of Armenians who died there during the deportations. It was a terrible place when the Armenians arrived back then, and the area has a tragic history. It is being repeated now.”

Hardly anyone today remembers the Christian presence in Kobani. I didn’t know the story, myself, until a friend said his grandfather, one of the refugees, once had a shop there. The churches are gone. New humanitarian disasters succeed the ones of 100 years ago; history moves on. Still, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the great suffering that led to Kobani’s foundation, and the great suffering that continues there now. It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.

Photo from CNN