The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 15, 2013

Syrian Christians ignored in debate

By John Kass Chicago Tribune
The Mankato Free Press

---- — As President Barack Obama pushes to keep his military options open in Syria, we hear of many sides in that brutal war.

The Islamic factions, the Russians supporting dictator Bashar Assad, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. But one group is hardly mentioned.

Their houses of worship have been burned by Islamist rebels. Their clergy have been kidnapped. Their people have been killed.

And when radical Islamists take a village, the people say they are told they have three choices: renounce their faith, pay a tax or leave.

They are the Christians of Syria. And they’ve become refugees in their own land.

And if Assad’s government falls, will the Christians be purged by Islamic fundamentalists, as happened after the fall of strong central governments recently in Egypt and Iraq?

“In Washington, there is a very disturbing indifference toward the Christians of Syria,” said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

“Our political leaders don’t talk enough about them to make it an issue, and many of our American religious leaders find it inconvenient,” she told me in an interview. “It’s as if it is politically incorrect to talk of this problem. Orthodox Christians being attacked by radical Islamists, and few of our leaders are talking about what’s happening to them.”

Not all. Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, has publicly raised the question of what happens to the Christians if Assad falls. But Paul is in the minority.

As are the Christians of Syria. A few years ago, they made up almost 10 percent of the Syrian population. They were protected - some say favored - by the regime of the murderous Assad. But now their number is around 3 percent, according to estimates by Shea and others.

The indifference of the West could be due to church politics. Or it could be that the mere mention of the Christians in Syria - and how they are under threat by some Islamist groups - further complicates the already confusing landscape there and weighs down the simple arguments for war.

The ancient Syrian city of Maaloula, where Aramaic is still spoken, was taken by extremist Islamists the other day. The New York Times focused on the rebels’ awareness of their “public relations problem.”

“They filmed themselves talking politely with nuns, instructing fighters not to harm civilians or churches, and touring a monastery that appeared mostly intact,” the Times reported

When a powerful nation like ours prepares for war, what is not in the news, what is not included in the rhetoric, can often be as telling as the large bold type in the official statements.

And among the pro-war elites in Washington, the plight of the Syrian Christians, and their brethren throughout the Middle East, is often pointedly forgotten, and pointedly ignored.