In September 2011, I traveled to Lebanon with members of my church to attend a Christian Conference there in Beirut. During that trip I had the opportunity to travel throughout the country visiting the ancient cities of Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon. I also had the chance to visit the city of Zahle, which is the largest, all Christian city in the Middle East. Zahle sits on the western slope of the infamous Bekaa Valley where many large battles in the Lebanese Civil War were fought. Today, it is a fertile region known for its great wineries. In Zahle, I had a chance to meet with dozens of Christian leaders that were in town from all across Syria and many other Lebanese who have deep familial connections to Syria. The first thing I learned from them was that the only two countries in the Middle East where Christians are completely free to worship openly are Lebanon and Syria. The second thing I learned was that Syrian Christians are key supporters of the Assad regime. That’s when my conversations became interesting…
At that time, the burgeoning insurgency in Syria was beginning to become a regular news item in the US, and I was desperate for some local perspective. I assumed that fellow Christians would be opposed to Assad for the same reasons I am; namely his support of terrorism, his affiliation with the repressive Iranian regime, and his family history of open warfare and conflict with Israel. As it turns out, while those high minded objections to Assad are perfectly rational and reasonable sitting in front of a computer in California, Syrian Christians have other things to be concerned about. For instance, surviving in a nation full of radicalized Sunnis that support Hamas, and Shia that support Hizb’allah. The Assad regime is of the Alawite branch of Islam, which is kind of a despised offshoot of the Shia sect and only accounts for about 10% of the population. The Christian community there is estimated to be 12-15% and so the Assads long ago forged a political alliance with them the basis of which pretty much boils down to, “If you support me, I’ll protect you from the angry Muslim hoards that surround you, and if not, well good luck with that.” This is not unlike the arrangement that Christians made in Iraq with Saddam Hussein. It’s not so much that the Christians support either Assad or Hussein as much as they don’t actively oppose them since neither dictator was particularly concerned about whether his actions were drawing much affirmative “support”.
The Syrian Christians to a man told me that the “freedom fighters” where nothing more than Sunni Jihadists looking to take advantage of the various “Arab Spring” movements that had been successfully overthrowing stable dictatorships throughout the region in favor of radicalized Muslim groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda. They told me at that time that these groups were not only the main aggressors in the conflict, but that they were specifically targeting Christians for both religious persecution and for political retaliation. Several told me that in Homs the graffiti left by the insurgents often stated, “Alawites to the grave, Christians to the cross.” They told me that rather than the Syrian Army crushing this resistance movement as the Iranians had in 2009, they were actually trying to protect their core constituents from a murder and intimidation campaign that was beginning to mirror what al Qaeda had perpetrated in Iraq during 05-06. The clear strategy of the “freedom fighters” was to attack civilian targets and local police as a way of drawing the Army into a campaign of suppression that they could use to fight the media battle in the western press. Funny, that strategy rings a bell doesn’t it?
Fast forward to today when I sent an email to one of these leaders to ask him again about his interpretation of events:
Greetings from Lebanon!
Glad to hear from you.
Izdihar is now in Damascus visiting her ill mother. I guess that she is in the process of preparing a full report for you and the church.
I am just sent you a prayer request in a separate message.
Violence has been escalating in Syria particularly in the last week. The media is playing a dirty game in this regard. Our relatives and friends in Homs are sharing with us that more than 200 Christians have been killed in the city. Most of them were shot by Islamiscts/Jihadists that claim to be “freedom fighters”. They committed unbelievable atrocities ranging from looting to rape and murder. Even our Presbyterian church in Homs was not spared as they control the street where the church is located. Many Christians and other minority groups left Homs if they were able. The army was playing a somehow passive role, but it seems that it decided now to act and face the so called Syrian Free Army. I surely do not quit the regime of committing big mistakes, but what is happening in Syria is far from being a revolt for democracy and human rights…
Please let me know if you have any questions.
With best regards,
Hope you are doing well.
My mother, sister and her family live in the hot area of Homs district in a predominant Christian area called “the Christian Valley.” They are less than 2 miles from the famous Crusaders castle, Krak des Chevaliers (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krak_des_Chevaliers)
I was on the phone yesterday with my mom and sister. I am sad to tell you that Jihadists armed groups have controlled the Krak des Chevaliers now. They are also issuing calls for Jihad from the mosque next to the Krak. I also just heard from the news that three police men from the town police station were slaughtered. All three police men are Muslims. I asked mom, sister and her family to come to Lebanon, but they insist of staying at home. People in the area are so worried and children are so scared. Your prayers are much appreciated. Thank you.
Today the Jihadists attacked the town church and kidnapped the priest. His destiny is still unknown.
The last days have seen unprecedented violence in Syria. Militant groups are using all means to force the UN security Council to intervene and it seems that the one way to do that is by raising up the level of bloodshed and chaos in Syria.
LORD, have mercy!
As you can see, all is not how it appears in the media. They are trying to create the same old binary conflict that they were wrong about in Egypt and Libya where the insurgents are good and the regime is evil. In reality it’s the devil you know vs. the devil you don’t. I hate to say this as an Iraq War veteran, but there is no avoiding the conclusion that our invasion into Iraq was the catalyst for a Christian holocaust there. That’s not what we intended to happen, but that is what happened. The once vibrant and always peaceful Iraqi Christian community was systematically hunted down and killed by both al Qaeda and JAM with the bulk of the survivors fleeing to…Syria.
Just like most people, my blood was up after 9/11 and I convinced myself that we had to go out and make a major impact on the dysfunctional Middle Eastern regimes that harbored and nurtured the scumbags that attacked us that day. 10+ years later, I’m not so sure that we have a whole lot to say that anybody over there cares to hear. As a born again realist, it seems to me that in the absence of a clear “freedom” movement to get behind, we really ought to be trying to avoid chaos rather than contributing to it. I would exempt the Iranian uprising of 2009 as that movement was clearly inspired by the desire for freedom and positive engagement with the west. However, engaging ANY kind of “military” option to include arming the opposition would be a grave mistake the consequences of which would redound to the extreme detriment to the Christian community in Syria and undoubtedly destabilize the entire area most notably Lebanon and Israel.
Do you know how when you read an article in the paper that you had some personal connection to or personally witnessed and you always find that the reporters got something wrong in the story or missed a key factor? That happens in all of the stories that you don’t have any personal knowledge about. I could probably speculate about the Obama administration’s generally submoronic foreign policy or its craven opportunism, but in the end it doesn’t matter which of these are at work in this situation. The first step is getting the truth out there whether it fits into the media’s narrative or not.