Michael Young

Cassocks fly over Syria

Maalula, a Christian town in Syria.

When listening to many Syrian Christians, or their Lebanese brethren, you would think that only Christians are suffering from the Syrian conflict. These fears are understandable. Whatever happens to Christians takes on an existential turn: when they leave a country in the Middle East, they rarely return.


And yet communal survival should not mean giving up one’s principles or ignoring the teachings of one’s religion. It has been dismaying in the past two and a half years to see Christians, both in Syria and Lebanon, portraying Bashar al-Assad as a protector, even as he and his men have been engaged in mass murder. To place one’s future in such hands is not only reckless, it is suicidal.


Among the ecclesiastical chorus chanting Assad’s name has been, of course, the Maronite Patriarch Bishara al-Rai, who in his greed for travel, exposure, and extravagance has forgotten what the Assad family did to his own community. Alongside him is the Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Lahham, who has rarely missed an opportunity to pander to the Assad regime, helping ensure that his flock will file toward Syria’s borders when or if Assad is overthrown.


But the corruptions and stupidity of the Eastern clergy sometimes grate with their counterparts in the West, less agile in reconciling moral and political inconsistencies. Lately, a public row has broken out after the French bishop of Angouleme, Claude Dagens, criticized Patriarch Lahham’s attitude toward the Syrian conflict, provoking an agitated response from the Greek Catholic cleric.


What bothered Lahham was that in a radio interview Dagens accused him of coordinating closely with Assad during an October 2012 synod in Rome, after which a Vatican delegation was to visit Syria. The delegation was to be headed by the secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. However, the visit was ultimately cancelled.


Particularly galling to Lahham must have been Dagens’ cutting remark that while at the synod he “saw on numerous occasions the illustrious Patriarch Lahham, the leader of the Greek [Catholic] Melkites getting up.” Getting up for what? The implication was to communicate with the Syrian regime as decisions were being taken, implying that Lahham was acting as an agent for Damascus.


In response to a journalist asking him about whether Assad was a barrier to Islamization, Dagens was scathing: “Don’t go with this dramatization, which is a lie and serves the propaganda of Bashar al-Assad. We know that Christians are persecuted in the Middle East for multiple reasons, and we are in solidarity with them; we know what happened in Iraq, and we won’t forget Iraq. But let us not use this argument to defend a dictator who is preparing to commit the worst [crimes], and has already done so… We know that a civil war is taking place, that a bloody dictator is manipulating this bloody war, and that he is manipulating public opinion throughout the world.”


Dagens then dismantled the Assad regime’s misinformation, noting that even the Maalula fighting had been used as a propaganda tool to curry favor among Christians and the West. He was keen to remind listeners of the long Syrian hegemony over Lebanon and the Assad regime’s assassination of Rafiq Hariri, followed by its efforts to prevent the trial of Hariri’s killers. Dagens was equally mordant about the Russians: “Who supplied chemical weapons to the [Syrian] regime,” he asked, “they didn’t come down from heaven…”


Well in fact they did, but only in the moments before they landed on thousands of civilians, after being fired by the soldiers of a regime now somehow held up as a champion of the region’s Christians.


The bishop of Angouleme is one of the rare members of the clergy who understands the perilous stakes today for the Christians of Syria, and even Lebanon. But the reality is that his superiors in the Vatican have been embarrassingly ambiguous and duplicitous about the Syrian conflict and about Assad himself, allowing opportunists such as Rai to defend the Syrian regime with abandon.


And yet the Vatican’s attitude that the enemy of my enemy is my friend is not only irresponsible, it also happens to be historically false. For nearly three decades Syria did everything to weaken the power of the Christians in Lebanon, because it saw that the community was the main obstacle to Syrian control. Two Christian presidents, Bashir Gemayel and Rene Mouawad, were assassinated by the Syrians, while those who made it alive to the palace were humiliated and saw their powers routinely eroded, as did non-Christian politicians.


After the war, Syrian officials passed one electoral law after the other that marginalized Christian voters. In 1992, parliamentary elections took place even though most Christian voters boycotted them. No effort was made to reassure the community or address its anxieties. 


As for Syria’s Christians, aside from making money what is their destiny in Syria? As in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, to be protected by a tyrant who will not hesitate to crush them if they ever step out of line. That Christians can take solace in this secondary status and interpret the Assad regime’s “tolerance” of them as commendable is odd. It is odd because a recurring Christian lament about Egypt’s Copts, a yardstick for Christian irrelevance in the region, is that they are second class citizens merely tolerated by Egypt’s regime. 


So, what is condemnable in one country is praiseworthy in another. Credit Dagens for being true to himself, and for avoiding the mental acrobatics of speaking in the language of high principle only to hypocritically embrace its most repulsive contradiction.  


Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

A Syrian army tank in the Christian town of Maalula, Syria, this September. (AFP photo)

"That Christians can take solace in this secondary status and interpret the Assad regime’s “tolerance” of them as commendable is odd."

  • RalphS.

    So true, Christians leaders of Lebanon (on both sides) do not miss an opportunity to call for the release of the two kidnapped priests and when the story of Maaloula's battle broke it was on the front page of every Christian newspaper, tv channel... What a shame!!! As if the whole civil war in Syria is about the lives of 2 priests when 110K have died already. As if Maaloula is the only town in Syria that must remain untouched because it has a couple of old churches...

    September 23, 2013

  • Beiruti

    Hanibaal, I like the way you think. You have said it exactly. Lebanon will not become a modern state until the demographic vehicle that will birth such a state has assumed its proper role as free citizens, rather than as dhimmi. A dhimmi is a feudal state that Christians lived under centuries ago. By the Lebanese Christians reversion to such a state, the Christians are taking their country backwards from modernity to feudalism. There is no need. Both the Shia and the Sunni parties need the Christian parties in order to form a governing majority. The Christians have the proper environment in Lebanon to stand upright as co-equals with anyone. In Syria, maybe it is different. The Sunni parties can govern with no one else. This is why it is more necessary in Syria for political affiliation to be based on something other than confessional identity. The Syrian Christians must spearhead the effort to end confessional identity politics and move to economic identity. Those who share ecomomic interests should coalsce together into political parties. The religious lines are meaningless to a modern state and serve only to perpetutate the power and influence of muftis, imams, sheikhs and bishops, none of which belong in political power.

    September 23, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Lahham and Rai and those who follow them are the perfect Dhimmis. The so-called protection they get from a tyrant like Assad is the equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome that the Islamic conquerors instituted for minorities in their midst during the bloody Islamic Conquista - Al-Fath Al-ISlami: We agree not to kill you, but you agree to be second class citizens. This incestuous relationship is exactly what the Christians of Syria have engaged in with the Assad regime, and the Christians of Lebanon have followed suit thanks to Rai and Aoun (and their dhimmitude to Hezbollah and the Shiites), and Gemayel and Geagea (with their dhimmitude to Hariri and the Sunnis). The Christians of Lebanon, long a spear of true freedom, have succumbed to the status of dhimmis because of their divisions and the lack of leadership among their feudal leaders. Long gone are the days of a Pierre Gemayel, Camille Chamoun, and Raymond Edde, when Christian leaders spoke their minds without fear. Today, the leaders of the Christian community in Lebanon are dwarfs and puppets, and like poodles on a leash they march behind their Muslim "allies because that is how they are "protecting" their community.

    September 23, 2013

  • Beiruti

    The Christians of Syria are sowing what they have reaped. They had leverage with the Assads because they were a necessary part of his minority regime. But rather than use the leverage to moderate the Regime so that this day would not have come, they did nothing and allowed conditions to fester. When the Assads were repressing the Christians of Lebanon in an attempt to take control of Lebanon, the Christians of Syria did nothing to stay Assad's hand. In fact, they participated. Is it no wonder that now that the crows have come home to roost that the Syrian Christians are ambivilant as to which course to take. Stay with Assad the Protector, or join forces with the FSA and participate in creating the type of regime that should have existed in Syria all along with such a large Christian constituency that would have supported moderation. It is a dilemma. We know that staying with Assad is the wrong choice. How do we know? Because it is the choice of Michel Aoun. He never chooses the right course.

    September 20, 2013

  • حفيدُ الغساسنة

    Agree, especially with the last 4 sentences "We know that staying with Assad is the wrong choice. How do we know? Because it is the choice of Michel Aoun. He never chooses the right course." He has NEVER supported the right person or the right policy, and has sold the Christians and the country for "[3000000] pieces of ['clean'] silver" to reach what he'll NEVER see even in his wildest dreams. A traitor par excellence, but unlike Judas, he does not have the balls to announce repentance, let alone hang himself - and rid the Christians & Lebanon of this cancerous entity

    September 23, 2013

  • fadi c

    Michael, all the Christian Syrians I know (and I know a few) agree that Bashar and his regime are an immoral and dangerous crew. But you blow-out of proportion the attitude of the Christian Syrians and your opinion is totally one-sided. The fears of the Christians in Syria are justified in the light of what we know about the opposition. You must surely see that were the regime to fall the future of the community would look bleak, and this, regardless of the stand the community takes. I would like to see you try and reason with one of those radical takfirsts. There are too many indications that those who would take over are far from the democratic humanists one romantically hopes. If I were Syrian I would probably also stand by those whom I consider the lesser evil for my community, not because of my love for them, but because I'm truly and justifiably terrorized of the alternative. I blame your article for making it sound like the choice of the community is incomprehensible and wrong. I challenge your view. The world is not "black or white", grey also exists.

    September 20, 2013

  • JamesKeane

    Yes all accurate, Christians are unfortunately choosing wrong side of history, but if we were to play devil's advocate for a second, the argument to be made is what is the alternative? Perhaps when the Syrian revolution started, a secular government was indeed a possibility, we all know the majority of the Syrian opposition are secular/liberal/nationalists in one way or another. Even the Islamists are moderate, educated and genuinely care about Syria's unity and the preservation of it's rich multi-faceted heritage and culture. Now however, things are different on many levels and no one can hand on heart say what the future of Syria is going to be or who will rule the new Syria. What will happen in that Syria is that even if a strong secular nationalist and moderately Islamist government takes the helm, it will face a brutal violent insurgency from the angry radical elements. These wont disappear. It is so hard writing this, because I believe that a strong powerful Syria is bound to emerge and freedom for the Syrian people is inevitable. But the proximity to Iraq and the colossal failure of the US to defeat AQ and their affiliates means the new Syria might be just as volatile as it is now, for ALL Syrians, Christians are right to be afraid.

    September 20, 2013