Originally published in The Economist
The travails of Aleppo, it is generally agreed, pose one of the great moral crises of our time. The city is also the location of some venerable Christian churches, going back to the faith’s earliest years, so you might expect that the world’s Christian leaders would have a lot to say about events in that unhappy place, and in Syria generally.
In fact, the reaction of global Christianity to the unfolding drama in northern Syria has been muffled and contradictory. There are good reasons for that. The leaders of Syria’s local churches have generally looked to President Bashar al-Assad as their protector; and their feeling that only Mr Assad guarantees their lives has deepened as the conflict has polarised, with fundamentalist Sunni fighters, murderously hostile to all other faiths, on one side and government forces backed by Shia militias and Russian air power on the other. In this state of affairs, only the latter coalition seems to offer Christian churches any chance of prolonging their precarious existence. Many would say Mr Assad is to blame for bringing about that polarisation; but to a bishop on Syria’s front-line, survival probably matters more than political analysis.
Christian churches receiving rebel shell-fire
The situation in Aleppo, as it existed until a few weeks ago, epitomised that dilemma; any still-functioning Christian churches in the city were by definition on the western, government-controlled side and therefore on the receiving end of rebel shell-fire, not Russian bombs. As groups affiliated with al-Qaeda or Islamic State came to dominate the anti-government camp, local Christian leaders felt their survival depended on the government’s victory. From their end of the telescope, the crushing of opposition forces in eastern Aleppo has made Christmas happier.
Just like Iraq, Syria hosts an array of Christian confessions, distinguished by the positions their forebears took in church councils of up to 15 centuries ago. Some are in communion with Rome, others with Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, still others have subtle doctrinal differences with all the above but keep friendly terms with their co-religionists elsewhere. Whatever they believe, virtually all have accepted Russia’s renewed claim, originally dating from the 19th century, to be the protector of Christians in the region. “Russia has given hope to the people of Syria,” according to Patriarch Ignatios Ephrem II, leader of the Syrian Orthodox church.
Western church leaders hesitate to comment
Given the situation of their co-religionists, Western church leaders have hesitated to make strong statements about Syria. To defend Mr Assad seems morally outrageous, but calls for his removal risk sounding like a death-knell for fellow Christians. The Vatican, both well-informed and well-connected in Syria, has acted with more subtlety than other Christian authorities. On December 11 it announced that its envoy in Damascus had delivered a letter to Mr Assad which, while condemning extremist violence from all quarters, urged him “to ensure that humanitarian law is fully respected with respect to the protection of civilians”. This was a way of signalling that Pope Francis knew the ghastly effects of Aleppo’s bombardment, but he also accepted that there were other bad guys in the arena.
A retired Anglican bishop, the Pakistani-born Michael Nazir-Ali, made waves in September by meeting Mr Assad along with a party of concerned Britons, including a couple of fellow peers. The encounter was condemned in Westminster for giving a propaganda coup to a war criminal, but the bishop defended the meeting in measured terms, insisting that he and his companions had put hard questions to the president about the barrel-bombing and torture of civilians. “I am sure there are abuses on all sides and the government cannot be excused from having committed atrocities,” he said.
Glowing accounts of Aleppo ‘liberation’
In recent days, one of the bishop’s party, an Anglican vicar called Andrew Ashdown, has returned to Syria and shown no such equilibrium in his glowing accounts of the “liberation” of Aleppo, delivered over social media and in an interview with RT (Russia Today) television. While insisting, perhaps rightly, that the world had paid insufficient attention to the atrocities of Sunni extremists, he had nothing but the warmest words for the Russian army and its disinterested humanitarianism.
Is it possible, then, for a Christian cleric to stand anywhere in Syria and speak with integrity about misdeeds, and suffering, on all sides? Two very brave ones have tried. Father Paolo dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit with long years of experience in Syria, voiced sympathy for the democratic opposition when it emerged in 2011 and was expelled by the government; he tried re-entering Syria via rebel-held territory in 2013 in the hope of bringing succour to friends there; he then disappeared. Another Jesuit, Frans van der Lugt, bore witness against the cruelty of the warring parties in a different way; against all prudent advice, he stayed in the city of Homs as it was under bombardment from government forces, and being defended mainly by Sunni extremists. He was assassinated in April 2014.
Pause for thought
So to rephrase the question, is it possible for a Christian cleric in Syria to speak out with integrity and remain alive? One awesomely courageous Syrian priest has managed to do so: Father Jacques Mourad, a member of a religious community founded by Father dall’Oglio who miraculously survived five months of captivity at the hands of Islamic State. Asked in October what he thought of outside powers intervening in his country, he began by saying (and on this point every single Christian in Syria would concur) that Saudi Arabia should be restrained from fomenting Sunni extremism. He went on to say something that should give all Assad-loving Christians pause for thought:
“The US has been bombing Syria and Iraq for years, and now the Russians are doing so, too. And what have they achieved? Have they stopped the terrorist violence? Absolutely not.”
More clearly than many Christians with a stake in Syria, Father Mourad seems to sense that jihadist extremism will not be buried under the rubble of eastern Aleppo; it will migrate and metastasise.