In this week’s paper we report on the persecution of Christians, a subject that the prime minister finally addressed last week in Downing St. We also quote Maronite Archbishop Samir Nassar of Damascus’s Palm Sunday letter, in which he wrote: “This Holy Week was introduced by the murder of Fr Frans from Homs in the fourth year of war and violence. Shells raining down on our neighbourhoods, schools closed, we cannot give an account of the victims. We are abandoned to Providence.”
I met the archbishop once, during a press trip organised by the Syrian tourist board, an organisation that is presumably going through a slow patch right now. We were at an old Christian site outside Damascus where various religious dignatories talked and celebrated and large numbers of young Christians got together, played some traditional music and had soft drinks.
It was a nice evening, with the sun coming down in the distance across the scrub. Archbishop Nassar, when told where I worked, politely told me off for Pope Benedict’s comments at Regensburg, which had sparked violence across the Middle East, including half a dozen church attacks in the Palestinian territories and far worse in Iraq.
Christians in Syria had escaped such terror largely because of the same network of moustachioed men we saw around us in Damascus, keeping a watchful eye on the beards. I disagreed with the bishop; as far as I was concerned Pope Benedict had said nothing wrong and the only people who had anything to apologise for were those bigots who had purposely misconstrued his speech as an excuse to whip up sectarian violence. I felt sorry for eastern Christians being at the mercy of their more numerical Muslim neighbours, but as far as I was concerned people in the west have the freedom to criticise other religions. In the case of Islam, where our voluntary censorship empowers the most hard line elements and weakens reformers, we almost have a duty to do so.
But I was a guest of the churchmen and I wasn’t going to press the point.
The event concluded with an imam giving a speech that began conventionally about how wonderful inter-faith relations were in Syria, before getting onto the subject of the “Zionists” who were, he reflected, the source of the “fire” engulfing the region. Getting louder and louder and more irrational-sounding, he called on the Zionists to stop this fire across the region, repeatedly using that word.
That year there were 1043 deaths in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the vast majority Palestinians, most killed in Operation Cast Lead; the following year the death toll in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was 89. Last month nearly three thousand people were killed in the Syrian conflict.
Syria was a beautiful country with warm, kind people, but it was clearly one with huge economic and social problems, none of which had the slightest thing to do with the Zionists. Such was the necessity of this bogeyman that all the run-down economically-crushed villages we drove through had little Palestinian flags, a sense of solidarity that must have made them feel better.
I had my qualms about the trip, seeing as ultimately it was paid for by the regime. I suppose I could justify it in my head because the Americans had recently re-established diplomatic relations with Damascus and there was hope at the time that the secular Assad regime could be separated from Iran’s theocracy.
Also I felt, and still do feel, that what the country needed was not regime change or democracy but economic liberalisation and more contact with westerners, which tourism would encourage, and a larger middle class. Christian tourism would also, by enriching both Christians and Muslims, help the latter to appreciate the former’s importance to the country. And it was clear even then that if Assad went, the situation for the religious minorities would become very perilous indeed (in Maaloula we met Iraqi Christians who had fled their country’s regime change and democracy – where those poor people are now I dread to think).
Yet from the start of the uprising our government has betted on the rebels potentially offering a better future for the country, recognising the opposition very early on, even though it was far from clear how the moderate rebels would be able to control Islamists, let alone create a stable government that could offer security. Some people remain convinced that if we had backed more moderate rebels with arms from 2011 we would now have a reasonably pleasant government in Damascus, yet that strikes as implausible almost to the extreme.
I suppose what interventionists and their opponents could probably agree on is that the current outcome is the worst of all worlds – a protracted civil war with outside powers flooding the country with arms, and volunteers from Crawley to Timbuktu flocking in. Didn’t the British and American governments see this coming?
Last week David Cameron spoke about Christian persecution for the first time, in itself quite a significant step, saying: “I hope we can do more to raise the profile of the persecution of Christians around the world. It is the case today that our religion is now the most persecuted religion around the world. I think Britain can play a leading role in this.”
I’m afraid we already do, Mr Cameron, but not in the way you meant.
Ed West is the author of The Silence of Our Friends
The Catholic Herald comment guidelines
•Do not make personal attacks on writers or fellow commenters – respond only to their arguments.