Michael Coren
The persecution of Christians by radical Islamic groups in Syria over the past two years has been appalling—and largely ignored
Mourners carry the coffins of three men into a church for their funeral in Damascus, Syria, Sept. 10. The Christian men were killed during a raid by opposition fighters on Maloula village northeast of Damascus. (CNS photo/Khaled al-Hariri, Reuters)

I suppose I should wear it as a badge of honor. My first death threat over my new book, Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity (Signal, 2014)—was sent to me a couple of weeks ago. Apparently I am going to die. Thing is, I knew that, which is one of the many reasons I find my faith so comforting; death comes to us all—yes, even to authors of controversial books. The book in question covers the history of the relationship between Islam and Christianity, what the Koran and Hadith actually say about Christians and Christianity, and then analyzes the state of persecution within various Muslim nations. Syria, of course, is especially dangerous for Christians right now.

In March 2014 I interviewed Sister Hatune Dogan, a Turkish-born nun who is a member of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church under the Holy See of Antioch. She and her family were forced to leave Turkey when she was a young girl because of Islamic persecution and they found safety and refuge in Germany. She studied theology and psychotherapy in her adopted country and is now an accomplished, multi-lingual woman who has toured the world extensively and seen humanity at its finest as well as worst. She has traveled throughout the Islamic world, partly to expose the persecution of Christians and to try to ease their plights. She has spent particular time in recent years in Iraq and, most recently, in Syria. As many examples of atrocity and suffering as she has witnessed over the years, the situation of Syrian Christians has shocked her.

“I met with a man who had gone out one morning to tend his fields. He did so in all innocence, as part of his daily routine. He suddenly looked up and saw a body, then another, then another. All of them with their heads cut off. He looked to the next field and then to the next and realized there were hundreds of murdered and decapitated people, all of them Christians. He still shakes even now when he describes the experience because of the trauma.”

She pauses, trying to control the speed and clarity of her speech, English not being her first language. “There are slaughterhouses, many slaughterhouses, in Syria where Christians are taken to be tortured and slaughtered. People who are not political, who do not choose or take sides in the conflict, are taken from their families, kidnapped, forced to deny their faith and then—whether they have or not—are killed, often by beheading. This is not about siding with the government, not about siding with President Assad, but about sheer persecution of a peaceful but vulnerable minority.

“Yet the world says so little, and often nothing a tall. I have been lied about because I speak out, accused of being an Assad puppet. No, no, no! I simply want to tell the world of what Christians are having to suffer at the hands of radical Islam.”

What has occurred in Syria to Christians in particular over the past two years has been appalling. It is all the more horrifying because Syria has been for many years one of the few places in the Arab world where Christians enjoyed something approaching equality. Ruled by an Arab nationalist rather than an Islamic ideology, and by the Ba’ath party under Hafez al-Assad and then his British-educated son Bashar Hafez al-Assad, Syria and its more than 2.5 million Christians was a relatively modern and secular—if heavily controlled and policed—state. The Assads ruled despotically, were often oppressive, and not at all democratic or liberal in any genuine sense. But sharia law did not dominate the body politic and Assad, himself part of a Muslim minority sect, gave individual Christians positions of authority and responsibility, protected Christian communities, and tried to—at least within an Islamic context—achieve a relative separation of mosque and state.

This is not in any way to paint Assad’s Syria as some pluralistic paradise, but for Christians it was relatively speaking a place of freedom—to live, to work, and to worship. The largest Christian communities are in Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs, but Christians live—or lived—throughout the country. Syria claims not to have a state religion but the president has to be a Muslim and the various Christian churches—Eastern Orthodox, Eastern Catholic and various minority groups—are well aware of the limits to their rights and freedoms.

Writing in Britain’s Catholic Herald newspaper in June, 2013, Father Alexander Lucie-Smith summed up the situation rather well. “

When I visited Syria, Bashar’s father was still in power, and he and his two sons’ portraits were everywhere. (The elder of the sons, Basil, was dead by that time.) These triple portraits were referred to as ‘The Blessed Trinity’ by the people I knew. They did not care for the personality cult around the Assad family, but one had the impression that this was the price they had to pay, albeit with some reluctance, if they wanted to live in a peaceful and secular Syria.

A Bishop spoke to me about Bashar Al-Assad some years later. The Catholic bishops had had a meeting with the President on his accession and asked him about their pipe dream, opening a Catholic University in Damascus. Bashar was sympathetic, but said he could not allow it, on the grounds that if he were to allow a Catholic University, he would have to allow all religions to open confessional universities. Without anything being said, they all knew what that would mean: extremism and fragmentation.

“Yes, it was the stability of the graveyard; and it was an economic timewarp, full of American cars from the 1950s; but it was happy country as far as I could see, and a beautiful one, and a country at peace.

My friends in Aleppo who were so good to me when I visited them, are now praying and hoping for an Assad victory. Can you blame them? The Christians of Syria have no real choice in the matter. They have been a tolerated, indeed a privileged, minority under the Ba’athist regime (as they were in Iraq); if the regime falls, their fate will be that of Iraq’s Christians. They cannot understand, indeed are completely bewildered by, what I told them, namely that the British government is considering arming their enemies. They pray that this will not happen, and so do I.”

But now all of that has changed dramatically and disastrously. Civil unrest began in Syria in March 2011 and within months that unrest became full-scale civil war. There was certainly much in the Assad regime that was deserving of opposition, and there were elements within the coalition opposing the government that were secular, progressive, and accepting of Christianity’s place in Syrian society. Sadly, there were also many Islamic fundamentalists who were the precise opposite in beliefs and in aspiration. During the Syrian conflict some one thousand Christians have been killed and almost half-a-million displaced or exiled, many of them fleeing to Turkey and Lebanon where they are not welcomed but are at least not in immediate danger of massacre.

Part of the dark irony of all this is that many Iraqi Christians fled to Syria in the past decade to escape the Islamic persecution and violence that was rampant in their homeland. Their peripatetic existence now continues as they look to anywhere and anyone for safety. Syrian Christians have been killed, Syrian churches have been destroyed, Syrian Christian culture has been effectively ruined. Although estimates are difficult to establish, it seems that at least 85 churches have been burned to the ground, vandalized beyond use or bombed into rubble by Islamic militias and entire towns have been raided. Such as the town of Ma’loula.

It is entirely reasonable to argue that the town is historic and iconic in the Middle East and in the wider Christian world. Ma’loula has a large and ancient Christian population, one of the very few left in existence that speaks a western neo-Aramaic used by Jesus Christ. In other words, these people speak the language of their Messiah. By ethnicity they are Assyrian/Syriac, established in the area long before the birth of Islam and the Arab invasions, and even the Muslims with whom they live alongside are pre-Arab, indigenous, and local people who embraced Islam rather than immigrants or invaders who brought their Muslim faith with them. Built high and into the mountainside and a little less than 60 kilometers from Damascus, this unique town is a living memorial to the longevity and resilience of Middle Eastern Christianity and a thriving, living community in itself. For some months Islamic terrorists connected to Al-Qaeda and part of the Al-Nusra Front had been entrenched close by and had attacked local Christians when they came into contact with them or tried to prevent Christian farmers from working in nearby fields.

Then, on September 4, 2013, a concerted Jihadist attack began. It started when a suicide bomber from Jordan drove his truck into a Syrian army checkpoint guarding the village. This was not merely a lone attack on government forces but the pre-planned signal for a mass and concerted attack on the Christian town. Islamic militia quickly overran the checkpoint and killed eight soldiers, destroyed tanks and established a military headquarters in the Safit hotel in Ma’loula. They used the hotel as a base from which to fight against Syrian forces trying to re-capture Ma’loula but also poured down gunfire on the Christian community living close-by and around. The army counter-attacked but after initial successes was driven out by additional jihadist fighters. Once in control the Islamic groups killed many Christians, destroyed their homes, set fire to a church and tried to and sometimes forced local Christians to convert to Islam on fear of being beheaded if they refused.

And so on and so on. The slaughter continues, in Syria as well as almost every Muslim-dominated nation in the world. I am sure I will receive more death threats, but truth remains truth and those Christians who do not speak out about what is occurring should be ashamed.