Mideast Christians and America’s Moral Duties
How should America respond to the plight of the Mideast Christian amid persecution and civil war?
Earlier this month at a Canadian press conference, several Mideast Catholic bishops argued the USA was mistaken to have overthrown Saddam Hussein, and would be mistaken to remove Bashar al-Assad. Crux reported:
[Patriarch Joseph Ignatius III Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church] said that local dictators will try to succeed in governing their country “in a much better way” than any Western-exported democracy. He also believes that countries such as Syria and Iraq don’t have the basis for a Western-style democracy, the first being a concept of separation between religion and public life.
“In the Middle East, all the countries except Lebanon, have an amalgam of religion and government: Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Shiites in Iran, Sunni Muslims in others,” he said.
Younan said that less than two months ago he and other bishops visited Assad, who told them to ask the Christians to remain in the country, because without them, it wouldn’t be the same. Today, they represent close to six percent of the Syrian population, with most living as internally displaced refugees.
“Over a million Iraqis were killed by the US invasion [in Iraq] … and Assad is the monster?” he asked.
“We’re not siding with him, his party or his government. We side with the people,” Younan said.
Jean-Clément Jeanbart, Greek Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, is quoted saying:
Even though the [Assad] government has a lot of defects, it also has virtues: pluralism, equality between citizens and a kind of democracy which has helped many people to get up and take position. And this is very important.
The bishops have much about which to be aggrieved. The sectarian wars following Saddam Hussein’s overthrow decimated Iraq’s small and vulnerable Christian minority, most of whom have left Iraq. In the Syrian civil war the more numerous Syrian Christian communities have been devastated, along with much of the country. ISIS has targeted Christians in its conquests within Syria and Iraq with special threats and torments.
But supporting or abetting vicious dictators like Saddam and Assad, both Baathists, is not an appealing or viable policy for USA interests, even if local Christians understandably preferred them to chaos or other unsavory alternatives.
Saddam murdered hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and was literally starving the inhabitants of his own country as he exploited UN sanctions to further enrich his own cronies. He invaded neighbors, funded terrorism, fomented assassinations, and presided over decades of mass torture and rape. The USA was forced for over a decade after the Persian Gulf War to maintain large troop presences in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, as well as the no fly zones over southern and northern Iraq to protect Shiites and Kurds from further mass slaughter. None of these operations were indefinitely sustainable, and the troop occupations were destabilizing, especially to Saudi Arabia.
The US Response, Then and Now
So what was the US to do about Saddam? War critics rarely answer this question. Bishop Younan said “over a million Iraqis were killed by the US invasion.” While the US can be faulted for failing to effectively secure Iraq, leaving a vacuum filled by a cauldron of seething ethnic and religious resentments, most Iraqis died in the sectarian conflicts after Saddam’s removal, not at the hands of US forces. And absent US intervention, when Saddam eventually died or was overthrown by the majority that despised him, it’s likely these long suppressed hatreds would have surged forth with even more violent force.
In other words, what has happened to Assad would eventually have happened to Saddam. The US bears no responsibility for the revolution and civil war in Syria, except arguably for failing to intervene decisively. Assad’s minority regime could not indefinitely sustain its police state against the majority who hate him. He stoked initially peaceful protests into a years long murderous conflagration. And he will never fully regain authority over all of Syria (although he might retain Damascus and his Alawite areas of strength, thanks to Russian and Iranian intervention). No peaceful eventual settlement that reconciles the whole country can leave him in power. At best, the old structures of state can transfer intact, shorn of their most repressive aspects, to a new authority with broader support. That dream for Syria, now divided in a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, seems at this point like a distant one.
Western democracy clearly does not settle easily in the Mideast outside Israel. But what are the viable options? Harsh police states, led by psychopaths like Saddam or Qaddafi, do not generate long term stability or facilitate peaceful transitions. Instead, they are volcanos waiting to erupt. It’s foolish to regard them as the stable alternatives to chaos. Restrained authoritarianism seems to sort of work in Egypt and Algeria, thanks to strong militaries and relatively religiously and ethnically homogenous populations. Ethnically and religiously bifurcated countries like Iraq and Syria likely require, if not Western democracy, then some more indigenous form of widely consensual participatory regime. Perhaps monarchies are not viable for them or Libya, but monarchies in the region, which offer a symbol of nationhood to otherwise discordant peoples, seem almost always preferable to the alternatives.
Mideast Christians’ Hope
The Christians of the Mideast and North Africa have been in political, demographic and cultural retreat since the earliest days of Muslim conquest. European colonialism sometimes sporadically offered partial protection in the 19th and 20th centuries. France and Britain have long retreated from that service. The USA did for a time offer alliance with Lebanon’s Christians, a collaboration that effectively ended with the 1982 assassination of Bachir Gemayel and the 1983 Beirut bombing of U.S. Marines, which led to precipitous USA withdrawal. Lebanon’s Christians have since had to align with Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Mideast Christians, those that are left, have survived by their own pluck and faith, including acceptance of relative protection by odious regimes and alliances. The West has done and likely will do little for them. American Christians are spiritually obligated to advocate on their behalf, but the temporal results of these pleadings aren’t likely to be encouraging.
In the end, the US government must pursue America’s interests. German Christians, including the anti-Nazi ones, didn’t fare well by the US Eighth Air Force. Nor did the Japanese Christians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. North Korean communists self-servingly point out that Pyongyang’s once many churches were destroyed by American bombs. Russian Christians would not have done well by the US had the Cold War gone hot.
America should offer at least as much to fleeing Christian Mideast migrants as it has to non-Christians. The Catholic bishops at the Canadian press conference pleaded for Western aid for their charities, which help people of all faiths, and no doubt are deserving. It’s in America’s interests, and morally right, to advocate a more tolerant Mideast where Christians and other minorities have some hope for survival and prosperity. The results of such advocacy will at best be mixed.
The earthly prospects for Christians who remain in the Mideast do not seem very bright. But they know they have a Protector who offers a more solid eternal refuge than any earthly government can provide. May He shelter them when others refuse or fail.