Syria, Christians, and Pluralism in the Middle East
The Christians of Syria—along with those in other troubled areas of the Middle East—have been forgotten. Because many have stayed in their homes or have become urban refugees outside of the UN camp system, they fall through the cracks, getting little aid and even less international attention.
Their situation is dire, and whether they will be able to survive at all depends on the events of the next several months. If Christianity—adhered to by 10 percent of Syria’s population before the war—disappears, so will any hope of pluralism. If ISIS’ theocratic intolerance takes hold, Christians will face an impossible choice: flee, or face death: physical, or spiritual in the form of forced conversion.
The security implications of this for the world should be self-evident. A Syria without Christians, the historical mediators in that country, will make Syria less safe, the region less safe, and the world less safe. It is time for the international community to take action, not only to ensure that genocide survivors in Syria get the aid they need, but also to make sure that when the dust settles, they have the same rights as every other Syrian, that they have equal protection under the law and are not reduced to some second class status.
Both Christians and Muslims alike often think of Christianity as a Western religion. Because Christianity flourished in its second millennium in greater numbers in Europe, this tends to shape our understanding. But by many measures, the Middle East was as—or more—Christian than Europe for the first millennium after Christ.
And the first decades of Christianity, were decidedly Middle Eastern, with Syria playing a central role in the New Testament. Syrians were Christian before Saint Paul was. Paul didn’t convert those living in Syria, he went there to persecute them and then having been knocked off his horse and converted, he was accepted into the Church by Ananias, a Syrian Christian.
For centuries thereafter, Christianity in this region was a major missionary force, spreading the faith not only to Europe, but to the Far East, to China, India and Tibet.
Six centuries after Christianity took root, came the advent of Islam. But Islam and Christianity often forged a common history. Islam—as well as Christianity—benefited greatly during times of relative Christian and Muslim harmony in the region, with Eastern Christianity contributing enormously to the scholarship of the Muslim world.
For instance, in his book The Lost History of Christianity, historian Philip Jenkins writes: “It was Christians… who preserved and translated the cultural inheritance of the ancient world—the science, philosophy, and medicine—and who transmitted it to centers like Baghdad and Damascus. Much of what we call Arab scholarship was in reality Syriac, Persian, and Coptic… Syriac-speaking Christian scholars brought the works of Aristotle to the Muslim world... Syriac Christians even make the first reference to the efficient Indian numbering system that we know today as ‘Arabic,’ and long before this technique gained currency among Muslim thinkers... Such were the Christian roots of the Arabic golden age.”
But despite having contributed enormously and for countless generations to the region they call home, these Christians are now being left with nothing—not even their lives. Given the area’s rich history, it is an outcome that serves no one: neither the Christians, nor their non-Christian neighbors.
Today, Middle Eastern Christians and their achievements have remained relatively unknown in both the Middle East and the West. But today, with more than 2 billion Christians and instant communication, there can be no excuse for those elsewhere to ignore what is occurring there.
If only scholarship can recover aspects of a “lost history.” Only the international community can prevent a lost future.
For 2,000 years, the Church has had an unbroken presence in this land that gave Saint Paul his faith, and from which Europe and Asia both learned the Gospel. Here, the Christian faith is indigenous to this region. It was born in this region. It is rooted in this region. And it has a right to continue to exist in this region.
Still, its rich past faces an uncertain future. Targeted for genocide by ISIS and related groups, the situation of Syrian Christians has become precarious. What happens in the next few months could well determine whether Syria remains a pluralistic society, or veers toward ISIS’ model of radical theocracy.
What is at stake is not one of the branches of Christianity, but its roots. And equally at stake is the pluralistic character of the Middle East.
On the road to Damascus, and in that city, Saint Paul had to choose whether to destroy Christianity in the region, or help it thrive. Today, Syria—with the help of the international community—faces the same choice. And as with the choice of Saint Paul, the decisions made today won’t just affect Syria, but the entire world.