Leave Syria Alone

Lew Rockwell, CA
April 2 2004

Leave Syria Alone
by Glen Chancy

Every night of the year, pilgrims climb to the mountain-top Saidnaya
monastery church for a vespers service. Built 1,500 years ago, for
many in the Middle East it is a site second in importance only to
Jerusalem. Inside the ancient Orthodox church with its golden icons,
a priest monk blesses the pilgrims with a censor as the men bob up
and down on prayer carpets. The women kiss icons in veneration, and
light candles in prayer. This is a familiar scene, one played out in
Orthodox churches all around the world. Only here there is one
notable exception. At this church, located about 25 km north of
Damascus, most of the pilgrims on any given night are heavily-bearded
Muslim men, usually accompanied by their shrouded wives.

Syria – target of American sanctions, junior member of the “Axis of
Evil,” repressive dictatorship, and the best nation in the Middle
East in which to live if you are a Christian.

Christianity in Syria is ancient. A Christian community was already
firmly established in Damascus within a few decades of Christ’s
resurrection. St. Paul was traveling there to carry out persecution
of Christians when Jesus Himself appeared to him. Throughout
Byzantine times, and well into the era of Islam, Damascus was a
center of Christian learning and scholarship. The writings of such
Syrian divines as St. John of Damascus helped define the Christian
faith, and are still required reading in seminaries throughout the

Today, Christians in Syria comprise approximately 8-10% of the
population, an estimated 1.3 million people. The majority of them are
Eastern Orthodox Christians under the Patriarchate of Antioch. The
historic city of Antioch, where followers of Jesus Christ were first
called Christians, is actually physically located inside modern day
Turkey. However, the Patriarchate fled U.S. ally Turkey in the 1930’s
in order to find greater freedom in Syria, a nation the U.S.
considers its enemy.

Syria does not recognize Islam as the state religion, unlike almost
all other states of the Middle East. Proselytizing is not illegal.
The website, International Christian Concern, reports that no
government sponsored acts of religious persecution have been
witnessed in Syria, and that no prisoners are being held because of
their Christian beliefs. Syrian identity cards do not list religion,
a fact that makes Christians feel more secure here than elsewhere in
the Middle East. Major Christian celebrations such as Christmas and
Easter are official national holidays. State-run television channels
even run Christmas programs. Unlike other Middle Eastern nations in
which public Christian displays are banned, each Easter hundreds of
thousands of Christians take to the streets of Damascus for joyous
processions. On any given Sunday, more Christians are at worship in
Syria than in such formerly Christian nations as England.

Christian populations have been on the decline for decades throughout
the Middle East. In the last 20 years alone, discrimination and
persecution have driven two million Christians to seek new lives for
themselves in Europe and the United States. Many towns and villages
that were once overwhelmingly Christian within living memory are now
virtually Christian-free. Only Syria has bucked this trend. Syrian
Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Ibrahim, told
journalist William Dalrymple, “Christians are better off in Syria
than anywhere else in the Middle East. Other than Lebanon, this is
the only country in the region where a Christian can really feel the
equal of a Muslim. If Syria were not here, we would be finished. It
is a place of sanctuary, a haven for all Christians: for the
Nestorians driven out of Iraq, the Syrian Orthodox and the Armenians
driven out of Turkey, even the Palestinian Christians driven out by
the Israelis.”

Why Is Syria So Special?

The combination of two factors has created the relatively happy
situation for Christians in Syria. First, the ruling of party of
Syria is the Ba’ath. The ideological founder of this party, whose
name is Arabic for “rebirth,” was Michel Aflaq, a native of Syria and
a staunch Christian. The main objectives of the Ba’ath Movement, as
envisioned by such thinkers as Aflaq, were secularism, socialism, and
pan-Arab unionism. These objectives are summed up in the party
slogan, “Unity, Freedom, Socialism.”

Two regimes have made use of Aflaq’s ideology, one in Syria and the
other in Iraq. Neither has lived up to his dream. Aflaq was both a
strident defender of human rights and a tireless champion of the
poor. However, both wings of the Ba’ath Party have maintained his
relentlessly secularist orientation. It is that ideological umbrella
which provides the cover under which Syrian Christianity flourishes

In addition to Ba’ath ideology, the ethnic composition of Syria’s
ruling elite encourages policies of tolerance. General Hafez al-Assad
took control of Syria in a 1970 coup. Assad was an Alawite, a Muslim
minority that is despised by Sunni Muslims as heretical. Orthodox
Muslims often deride Alawites as “little Christians.” As the Alawite
liturgy seems to be at least partly Christian in origin, this barb
probably contains at least some truth.

Prior to Assad’s coup, Sunni Muslims had ruled Syria for 1,400 years.
The new dictator quickly reversed the long-standing pecking order
within Syrian society that had kept Sunnis at the top for so long. In
the new Syria, Assad organized the religious minorities, including
the Christians, into a bulwark against the Sunnis. The Sunnis, to say
the least, were somewhat disturbed by this. The Muslim Brotherhood, a
fundamentalist Sunni Muslim organization, actually declared a jihad
against the Assad regime in 1976, after Syria intervened in the
Lebanese Civil War on the side of the Christians. The Assad regime
eventually crushed the Brotherhood in 1982, killing over 10,000
Sunnis in their heartland of Hama. Ever since, Muslim fundamentalism
has been ruthlessly kept in check.

Hafez Assad died in 2000. Towards the end of his life, five of his
seven closest advisors were Christians. His successor and son,
34-year-old Bashar al-Assad, has largely continued his father’s
governing policies. Despite his relative youth, the junior Assad has
shown indications of being a talented man and good head of state. But
he is also an embattled leader who faces serious opposition from
abroad, fueled primarily by his regime’s continued support of
Palestinian resistance groups, and Syria’s continued occupation of

Syria in the Cross Hairs

Assad’s primary antagonists are the U.S. and Israel. In October 2003,
Israel staged an air attack on Syria in retaliation for a suicide
bombing in Haifa. At the end of 2003, the U.S. enacted a sanctions
protocol. The result of these moves, so the Bush and Sharon
Administrations hope, will be a great Jeffersonian democracy akin to
the success story unfolding in nearby Iraq. In an article published
by National Review Online, Oubai Shahbandar, the U.S. spokesman for
the Reform Party of Syria, stated exactly what the U.S. and Israel is
seeking, “American and European policymakers must make it clear to
the current Syrian dictatorship that there can be only two choices:
capitulate to the will of the Syrian people and let a new democratic,
free Syria emerge or face the humiliation suffered by your fellow
Baathist neighbors in Iraq.”

To further the Bush Administration goal of fostering “a change in
Syria,” The Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration
Act of 2003 was passed with overwhelming support in both the House
and the Senate. The officially stated goals of this law are: “To halt
Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, stop its
development of weapons of mass destruction, cease its illegal
importation of Iraqi oil and illegal shipments of weapons and other
military items to Iraq, and by so doing hold Syria accountable for
the serious international security problems it has caused in the
Middle East, and for other purposes.”

The act bans all transfers of “dual-use” technology to Syria. In
addition, the act recommends a wide range of sanctions against Syria,
including: reducing diplomatic contacts with Syria, banning U.S.
exports (except food and medicine) to Syria, prohibiting U.S.
businesses from investing or operating in Syria, restricting the
travel of Syrian diplomats in the United States, banning Syrian
aircraft from operating in the United States, and freezing Syrian
assets in the United States. The act obligates the executive branch
to enact at least two of the recommended sanctions, but does permit
the president to waive the sanctions if it is determined that they
would harm U.S. national security.

The act was hailed by hawks in both the U.S. and Israel. The
Christian Coalition ranked its passage as one of its major
legislative victories in the 108th Congress. There has also been, of
course, the inevitable talk of military action against Syria, should
the act fail to induce the desired effects. Richard Perle, for one,
has suggested that there are troops to spare in Iraq that can occupy
Syria in short order. So far, however, the Bush Administration has
downplayed the military option.

Revealingly, the remaining leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood,
living in exile for the past 20 years in London, are also calling for
a democratic Iraq. Prior to the visit of Pope John Paul II to Syria
in 2001, the group published a statement that proclaimed, “The utmost
that any political group can do is to take its place on the national
map according to the size it is given by its actual popularity
through the free and honest ballot boxes.” It seems that Muslim
fundamentalists have no objection to free elections they expect to

Calls for freedom and democracy sound innocent enough to Americans,
for whom these two words are practically synonyms. However, trying to
forcibly implant such notions in a religiously fractious society such
as Syria is a recipe for disaster, particularly for the Christians.
Under the Assad regime, Christians have enjoyed religious and
cultural freedom unparalleled in the Middle East. As critics charge,
Syria is indeed a one-party police state totally bereft of political
freedoms. However, it is precisely because of the strict control the
regime keeps over the political life of the country that it can
extend security and freedom of worship to religious minorities. A
democratic system would bring to power a Sunni-dominated government
that would be far less accommodating to Christians, and could usher
in a round of genocide unimaginable in scale.

It is precisely for this reason that religious minorities in Syria,
the Christians above all, fear that current U.S. policy in the Middle
East will bring down the Assad regime. The founding of a de facto
Kurdistan in Northern Iraq has already rocked the Assad regime by
encouraging riots among Syria’s Kurds. Many analysts suspect that
these riots may have even been actively organized by outside forces.
In addition, international isolation is likely to only increase the
pressure on an already weak Syrian economy. If things continue in
this vein, Assad’s grip on power could lessen, paving the way for his
acceding to hard-line Sunni demands for a more religious state, or
even his outright ouster.

It is true that problems with Syria do exist. In contrast to its
tolerance of minorities at home, the record of the Syrian regime in
its occupation of Lebanon has been decidedly mixed. Since intervening
to stop the Lebanese Civil War in 1976, Syria has pursued a strategy
of “divide and conqueror” as a method of control. Thus, Syria has, at
some point, cultivated alliances with almost every faction in that
tortured country’s religious conflict. This has caused a great deal
of pain among Lebanese Christians, many of whom chafe under continued
Syrian dominance of their country. It is also true that Syria
provides some measure of assistance to groups, such as Hezbollah and
Hamas, who are currently fighting Israel. (Syria has no link to any
organization that has ever attacked the United States. Osama Bin
Laden will get no support from Damascus.)

Even given the shortcoming of the Assad regime, it is impossible at
this time to envision how imposing democracy on Syria could improved
the situation. After all, if one wishes to know how a more
“democratic” Syria would turn out, one only has to look next door to
Iraq for the answer.

Inside “Liberated” Iraq

At Basra University, menacing groups of men have been stopping cars
at the university gates and haranguing women whose heads are
uncovered, accusing them of violating Islamic law. Even Christians
have started wearing headscarves out of fear, something that never
happened under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Organized into armed
militias, Muslim fanatics roam the streets of Basra, waging a
campaign of fear to enforce Muslim law. Christian alcohol vendors
have been gunned down in their shops, and others have had their shops
destroyed. Christians throughout Iraq report confiscations of
property, kidnapping of family members for ransom, and violent
attacks on homes. Christian churches operate only during daylight
hours out of fear, and many Christians stay away altogether.

To make matters worse, the compromise Transitional Administrative Law
has actually gone far towards officially establishing Islamic rule in
what was once a secular country. Article 7 states, in part, that
“Islam is the official religion of the State and is to be considered
a source of legislation. No law that contradicts the universally
agreed tenets of Islam, the principles of democracy, or the rights
cited in Chapter Two of this Law may be enacted during the
transitional period. This Law respects the Islamic identity of the
majority of the Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights
of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice.”
Given the fact that many of these requirements are contradictory,
most Christians fear that Islamic law will become the source of power
in the new Iraq.

Iraqi Christian groups have characterized the Bush Administration’s
policies in Iraq as a “treacherous conspiracy.” It is very possible
that this treachery will lead to the extinction of one of the world’s
oldest Christian nations in its own homeland. Despite repeated calls
for help by Iraqi Christians, loyalty to the Bush Administration and
devotion to Israel have kept the Christian community within the
United States largely silent.

Summing up the situation, one Christian merchant told an AP reporter,
“No one can say things under Saddam Hussein were good in Iraq, but
now with the situation we are in now, we look back on them as

A Call to Action and Prayer

A newly “liberated” Syria would look no prettier than does the newly
“liberated” Iraq. For this reason, it is imperative that Americans,
particularly Christian Americans, take notice of the plight of our
brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq. First, we must pray fervently
for the safety of Syrian and Iraqi Christians. Second, the Bush
Administration must hear from us loudly and clearly. We must find our
voices to cry out on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.

The reckless bluster directed at Syria must end immediately along
with all U.S. sanctions. At the same time, the Bush Administration
must stop building the Islamic Republic of Iraq, and immediately find
a way to provide for the security of Christians living in that badly
destabilized country. The consequences of failing to hold George Bush
accountable for his catastrophic policies could be dire. Christians
in United States cannot remain silent. If we do, then we are guilty
of shedding the Blood of Christ just as surely as if we had hammered
the nails ourselves.

April 2, 2004

Glen Chancy [send him mail] is a graduate of the University of
Florida with a degree in Political Science, and a certificate in
Eastern European Studies. A former University lecturer in Poland, he
currently holds an MBA in Finance and works in Orlando, Florida as a
business analyst for an international software developer.