Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Michael Weiss update and the Christian condition in Syria

Regarding my earlier post, Mr. Weiss was gracious enough to write a detailed reply to my letter. Essentially, he believes that the current self-designated leadership of the Syrian opposition is liberal and non-sectarian (which I don't disagree with, but doesn't assure me that Syria's future will be liberal and non-sectarian), and that most of the Christian expressions of support for Assad are coerced to some degree. He passed along this video made by someone in the Syrian revolution, which shows Christians standing with Muslim protestors in a number of Syrian cities. (The Arabic text at the beginning says, "Christians and Muslims: One Hand."

This morning, the Catholic News Agency carries commments by a Christian bishop from Aleppo, Syria: Antoine Audo of the Chaldean Catholic Church.

The "fanatics" behind the Syrian uprising, he says, "speak about freedom and democracy for Syria but this is not their goal. They want to divide the Arab countries, control them, seize petrol and sell arms."

Pointing to neighboring Iraq, where half of the Christian population has been killed or driven away, he said, “We do not want to become like Iraq. We don’t want insecurity and Islamization and (to) have the threat of Islamists coming to power."

But what about the crimes of the Assad regime? Audo claims that there is a "war of information" being waged agaisnt Syria by "BBC and Al Jazeera, there is an orchestration to deform the face of Syria to say the government does not respect human rights and so on."

So...the government really does respect human rights? Audo: “Syria has a secular orientation. There is freedom. We have a lot of positive things in our country.”

What do the people think? "Syria must resist – will resist. 80 percent of the people are behind the government, as are all the Christians."

Audo sums up his feelings this way: “We want peace and security ... we do not want war and violence and we very much hope that in the next few weeks the situation will be better.”

In all of this, Audo is parroting the line of the Syrian government perfectly. There's the Arab nationalism, the wild accusations against BBC and al Jazeera, the call to "resist" the lone "fanatics" who have somehow brought one of the world's premier police states to the brink of collapse without any popular support. And since this is Syria, the question is, did he mean it? Or does he understand that his job, and perhaps his life, would be worthless if he said anything different?

My best guess is: both.

I heard the same lines from most of my Christian friends in Damascus, in private conversation. I know those conversations were not coerced. The Christian support for Assad is real, and their fear of the Islamists is real.

Consider Audo's line: “Syria has a secular orientation. There is freedom. We have a lot of positive things in our country.” This isn't just crazy talk. Before the uprising started, I had never felt safer anywhere than in Syria. Syria is a country where you can walk alone in a big city in the middle of the night, without fear. There is no terrorism, no war, no food insecurity. Combine all that with protection from religious persecution, which Assad provides better than any other Arab leader, and it's easy to see why Christian feel they have everything to lose in this revolution.

One of my Christian friends once asked me, "Which is more important - freedom or security?" It wasn't a rhetorical question. He wasn't some pretentious American 20-something who's never faced a day of insecurity in his life grandstanding against the Patriot Act - he was a Middle Easterner. His country borders Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, and he meant it. I tried to answer with something trite like, "You can't have one without the other," but he wasn't buying it, and neither did I. Another Syrian friend told me, after he had to change his Easter travel plans due to the violence, "I was never scared in my life until the uprising started." Would you trade the ability to go visit your parents in a neighboring town without your van being shot at by snipers for the right to vote? Neither would I.

This is the dynamic I see in Syria. It's extremely corrosive to the church's role as a prophetic voice (e.g., "Do not shed innocent blood in this place!" - Jeremiah 22:3), but it's reality. And after all, the American church doesn't have a lot of room to talk.

Is Audo's claim that 80 percent of the people stand with the government true? I have no idea, and neither does anybody else. I'm fairly certain he's right about the Christians supporting Assad. He could very well also be correct about the 80 percent. A police state is far more susceptible to dissent and discontent than a democracy; 20 percent of the population can wreak a lot of havoc. This is not to say, of course, that 80 percent of the people love Bashar and want him to rule for the next thirty years, only that 80 percent of the people prefer that outcome to violent revolution.

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