As President Barack Obama tries to rally the world around a proposed attack on Syria, Arab Christian leaders have come out as strongly opposed, worried an attack could create a backlash against their communities.
At a conference of more than 50 regional Christian leaders and a handful of global Christians and Muslim scholars in Amman this week, the dangers of Western intervention to the region's Christian minorities emerged as one of the strongest themes. With political Islam on the rise after the Arab uprisings of 2011, the region's ancient Christian communities are already feeling under threat and have the recent example of the devastation of Iraq's Christian community following the US-led invasion of 2003 to make them worry about the consequences of action.
“We stress that we reject foreign interference in Syria,” said Ignatius Joseph III Younan, Patriarch of Antioch for the Syrian Catholic Church, in a statement read before the conference, which was sponsored by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan.
“We don’t accept any intervention by foreign powers … to protect minorities,” Pope Anba Tawadros II of Egypt’s Coptic church, who was unable to attend the conference due to the tense situation in Egypt, said in a statement. “It is basically a pretext … to advance their countries’ interest in the Middle East.”
The largest Christian community in the Middle East is found in Egypt, with approximately 9 million Coptic Christians, while the country with the highest percentage of Christians is Lebanon, where they constitute an estimated one-third of the country's 4 million residents. Iraq, Syria, Israel, and the Palestinian territories have traditionally had significant Christian populations as well, but political and economic troubles as well as military conflict has caused many to leave.
Many Christian minorities are afraid that their communities will suffer a similar fate to Iraq's, where the US-led war and subsequent sectarian fighting pushed roughly half of the country’s 1 million Christians into exile, many for good.
“[America’s] upcoming military strike in Syria will definitely detonate this situation and will definitely heighten sectarian divisions,” said Karim Pakradouni, a Lebanese Christian and former leader of the far-right Phalangist political party and militia, Hizb al-Kataeb.
Father Raymond Moussalli of the Chaldean Church, who has been ministering to Iraqi refugees in Amman for years, says the number of Iraqi Christian refugees here has decreased from 15,000 to 5,000 as many left for Europe, America, or Australia.
He worries about a similar exodus from his native Syria, where his family is still living, if the US were to strike.
“The Syrian Army is protecting the Christian community [in the Syrian city of Aleppo],” he says, estimating that about 10 percent of its 220,000 Christian residents have fled. “But if [the Army] leaves, they will be massacred.” Many share his concern, particular as reports emerge of some militant rebel groups in Syria targeting Christians, a trend that could become widespread if the Assad regime were to fall.
Father Raymond criticizes the West for supporting the Syrian opposition and rebel groups instead of peace and reconciliation efforts. “If we are bombing Syria now, where are all the Christians going? There are 2 million.”
Despite such fears, Arab Christian leaders at the conference rejected the idea of seeking help from other powers, emphasizing the need for dialogue instead.
“Do we run under the skirts of a warlord? Are we weak and persecuted and thus in a perpetual need of other Christians to rescue us?” asked Bishop Munib Younan of the evangelical Lutheran church in Jordan and the Holy Land. “No, we don’t need that. We seek justice, equality, dignity.”
Some leaders pointed to the teachings of Jesus Christ as a model for how to respond to persecution, even as Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church called for a day for prayer for Syria on Saturday, Sept. 7.
“Given all the enormous challenges, we remain steadfast and we call out the words of the Holy Book,” said Pope Tawadros's statement. “Jesus Christ says we will never respond to a curse with a curse.”