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Syrian Christians Ignored In Intervention Debate

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    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
    September 16, 2013 Monday

    by JOHN KASS

    As President Barack Obama pushes to keep his military options open
    in Syria, we hear of many sides in that brutal war.

    The Islamic factions, the Russians supporting dictator Bashar Assad,
    Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

    But one group is hardly mentioned.

    Their houses of worship have been burned by Islamist rebels. Their
    clergy have been kidnapped. Their people have been killed.

    And when radical Islamists take a village, the people say they are
    told they have three choices: renounce their faith, pay a tax or leave.

    They are the Christians of Syria. And they've become refugees in
    their own land.

    And if Assad's government falls, will the Christians be purged by
    Islamic fundamentalists, as happened after the fall of strong central
    governments recently in Egypt and Iraq?

    "In Washington, there is a very disturbing indifference toward the
    Christians of Syria," said Nina Shea, director of the Center for
    Religious Freedom and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

    "Our political leaders don't talk enough about them to make it
    an issue, and many of our American religious leaders find it
    inconvenient," she told me in an interview. "It's as if it is
    politically incorrect to talk of this problem. Orthodox Christians
    being attacked by radical Islamists, and few of our leaders are
    talking about what's happening to them."

    Not all. Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, has publicly
    raised the question of what happens to the Christians if Assad falls.

    But Mr. Paul is in the minority.

    As are the Christians of Syria. A few years ago, they made up almost
    10 percent of the Syrian population. They were protected - some say
    favored - by the regime of the murderous Assad. But now their number
    is around 3 percent, according to estimates by Ms. Shea and others.

    The other day I met with several Syrian Christians at St. George
    Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cicero, Ill. I wanted to hear their

    "When they come into Christian villages that still speak the same
    Aramaic language spoken by Jesus Christ, the rebels scream, 'It is
    time for the crusaders to leave!'" said the Rev. Nicholas Dahdal. "And
    by crusaders, they mean Christians."

    But don't they know that the Christians were there long before the
    crusaders arrived from Western Europe?

    "No. They don't know over there, and people here ([in America]) don't
    know," said Rev. Dahdal. "And what worries me is that they don't want
    to know."

    As an Orthodox Christian, I've always wondered about this
    all-but-willful indifference of the West, and I must admit I have
    had some difficulty dealing with it.

    Is the blindness caused by the fact that there is no blue-eyed,
    blond-haired Jesus to be found in Syria?

    The carpenter wasn't some lanky Anglo.

    He was swarthy, as are the people of the Middle East, and his followers
    in Syria and throughout the region worship as they have for centuries,
    from the earliest days of Christianity, from the time that St. Paul
    traveled on that road to Damascus.

    The indifference of the West could be due to church politics. Or it
    could be that the mere mention of the Christians in Syria - and how
    they are under threat by some Islamist groups - further complicates
    the already confusing landscape there and weighs down the simple
    arguments for war.

    I met with parishioners in a conference room at the beautiful
    Antiochian church. They are highly educated men and women, mostly
    Syrian-born physicians and academics.

    They are not supportive of Assad's reported cruelty, such as the
    alleged chemical attacks. But they also want President Obama to
    know this:

    "If the president drops missiles and destabilizes the government,
    the Christians left in Syria will be destroyed," said Marwan Baghdan.

    "They will have no protection. And they're very scared."?

    "My uncle was 80 years old and was shot by a sniper in the stomach in
    his bed," she said. "Many people have come to Wadi al-Nasara. Entire
    families are crowded into one room. They're afraid to worship."

    Gassan Mohama talked of his youth in Damascus years ago.

    "Most of my friends are Muslims," he said. "We lived together as
    brothers. We played together and studied together. And some have
    turned to another way. And there is misery."

    The ancient Syrian city of Maaloula, where Aramaic is still spoken,
    was taken by extremist Islamists the other day. The New York Times
    focused on the rebels' awareness of their "public relations problem."

    "They filmed themselves talking politely with nuns, instructing
    fighters not to harm civilians or churches, and touring a monastery
    that appeared mostly intact," the Times reported

    Obviously, you can find Syrian Christians who will paint a much
    different picture.

    "There is a purification campaign and jihadist elements among the
    rebels who see Christianity as blasphemy," Shea told me. "History has
    shown what happens to Christians in the Middle East during times of
    chaos. It happened during the Armenian genocide, and most recently
    in Iraq and Egypt, with churches burned to the ground."

    And now it is happening in Syria.

    When a powerful nation like ours prepares for war, what is not in the
    news, what is not included in the rhetoric, can often be as telling
    as the large bold type in the official statements.

    And among the pro-war elites in Washington, the plight of the Syrian
    Christians, and their brethren throughout the Middle East, is often
    pointedly forgotten, and pointedly ignored.

    John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.