Former President George W. Bush famously described Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address because of their support of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The Syrian delegation speaking on Jan. 27 repeatedly referenced the three countries they claim are sponsoring outside terrorist groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria—all longstanding U.S. allies.
Given the wide-ranging activities of the rebranded al-Qaeda umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), it’s fair to question whether the U.S. allies also are behind resurgent al-Qaeda activity across the region, despite more than a decade of U.S. military action to prevent it. Al-Qaeda’s Sunni Islam is lockstep with the Wahhabi movement that dominates Saudi Arabia and influences militants who want radical Islamist states (with zero-tolerance policies for Christians and other “unbelievers”) in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Leadership roles have not shielded the clergymen from direct contact with targeted attacks by such militants on Christians. Armenian Primate Almash Nalbandian lives in the Old City of Damascus and his office shares a wall with a school just inside the city walls. It has twice come under attack. Nalbandian was there last November when a mortar bomb killed four children and a bus driver just as school was dismissed. He said many of the elementary age children are “still too scarred” to return to school. “We never know if it is safe,” he said, adding that “some days 25 to 30 mortar bombs fall on the Old City.”
The panelists said at least 400,000 Christians are displaced within Syria and cannot return to their homes (of about 9 million Syrians the UN says are displaced or have left the country). They estimate 30-40 churches have been seriously damaged or completely destroyed in nearly three years of fighting. “If this continues the way it is, there will come a time when there will be no more Christians in Syria,” said Riad Jarjour, a Presbyterian pastor from Homs and past president of the Middle East Council of Churches.
Jarjour, who coordinates relief work in Homs, said all the people living in the Christian Quarter of Homs were forced to leave. Eight churches—among the oldest in Syria—were shelled and destroyed.
The issue of foreign fighters among rebels attacking Assad’s government forces is a hot-button one for the international debate over Syria. The government claims it is combating outsiders who want to take over the country, while Syrian opposition leaders say the government is using their presence to avoid negotiations toward a transition government.
The number of foreign fighters inside Syria spiked beginning in April last year to 11,000, according to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), a London-based think tank that surveys over 1,500 sources for its index. The center claims fighters come from 74 different countries, including a significant number from Western Europe (the panelists in Washington cited 83 countries). The ICSR revised its estimate in December, and said numbers of foreign fighters had doubled since April. It also noted that the rate of foreigners joining opposition forces in Syria far outstripped the rate in Iraq during its insurgency.
The clergymen made the difficult journey from Syria to the United States to meet with policymakers and officials at the State Department, to voice opposition to current U.S. policy. The trip was sponsored and paid for by Barnabas Fund and the Westminster Institute. President Barack Obama has called for Assad’s ouster, even making it a precondition for recent peace negotiations that convened near Geneva. The clergymen, like many Christians in Syria, fear the end of the Assad regime will mark the beginning of a radicalized Islamic state where they are forced out, or killed.
But Syrian-Americans in the audience cited Assad’s brutal record, including toward Christians, and voiced support for transition from the Assad regime. “We Syrian Christians inside and outside Syria are an intellectual power,” Fadi Shadid, pastor of the Arabic Baptist Church in Washington, told me after the event ended. “We should be included as part of the transition negotiations.” A coalition of Syrian Christians and Kurds did attend this month’s talks outside Geneva to press for a transition that includes minority rights. Shadid said Christians who fear what may come after Assad forget that Assad supported al-Qaeda when it was fighting U.S. forces in Iraq.
Adeeb Awad of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, said the panelists were “not here to beg aid for my country or our churches.” He instead read 1 Corinthians 4:9-13, where Paul writes of “apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena.”
“We accept to be marked for destruction, if it comes from Paul’s mouth,” Awad said. “But we do not accept to be marked for destruction by terrorists coming from 83 countries, sent, funded, and armed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. We cannot accept that.”