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The Captives In Syria

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Michael Peppard writes about his acquaintance Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit priest gone missing in Syria.  [2] Prior to the war, Fr. Paolo’s work there involved peacemaking between Muslims and Christians. Now, like two Orthodox bishops in Syria, Fr. Paolo has apparently been taken captive. Peppard goes on:

But I have been unexpectedly angry, disdainful, and plaintive in heart since hearing of his alleged kidnapping. Part of my response comes from my writing a book about early Christianity in Syria at the same time as its current civil war. Another part of it comes from having written scholarship about the art of the medieval monastery, Mar Musa al-Habashi, which is what Fr. Paolo refounded  [3]after centuries of abandonment and made into a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims who wanted to meet in peace and prayer.

But the most anguished part of my response comes from the despair that if Fr. Paolo couldn’t figure out the moral calculus in Syria — and he confessed that the complexity of the civil war precluded obvious moral imperatives — then who are we to do so? It’s true that Fr. Paolo ultimately joined the anti-Assad side, but having done so did not necessarily imply a particular course of military action.

Peppard wrote earlier this year a moving post [4] about Fr. Paolo and the extreme difficulty of what a monk (and, you might say, all faithful Christians) are to do when confronted by this terribly complex civil war in Syria.

Syria has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. It is being destroyed by this war, because so many Syrian Christians are going into exile. Assad is an evil man, but if the anti-Assad forces win, the Christians are doomed. The ancient Christian community in Iraq has been decimated by the war and its aftermath. In Egypt, the Arab Spring has brought terrible persecution of Egypt’s Christians by Islamists [5].

What can the rest of us do for them? Who can say? We can, at least, pray for them. In our little parish, we have been praying for John and Paul, the captive Orthodox bishops in Syria [6], in every service since they were seized. Last night, I saw Peppard’s piece about Fr. Paolo just before I left for Vespers. I lit a candle for Fr. Paolo (above) and prayed for him, and I’m going to add his name to the prayers I offer for the Syrian captives. Maybe you can do this at your church today as well.

Christians should remember that the Christian community of Syria is one of the oldest in the world, having been founded through the evangelical efforts of the Apostles. St. Paul was on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians when he had his miraculous conversion. In other words, there were Christians in Syria before Saul’s conversion. That’s how ancient their presence there is. And they are in danger of being wiped out. Pray.

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20 Comments To "The Captives In Syria"

#1 Comment By Jake Lukas On August 11, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

[7] mentions the recent destruction of an Antiochian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of Aleppo, possibly by al-Nusra. I’ve not seen this mentioned anywhere else, so I thought I’d share some of the essential details:

(AINA) — The Antiochian Orthodox church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus was a landmark of al-Thawrah (also known as al-Tabqah).

[…]

Moreover, not only did this church serve more than 250 Orthodox families, but it was also used by local Christian denominations which did not have their own places of worship, including the small Syriac Orthodox congregation.

This was also one of only two Christian places of worship in the town, the other being the small church of St. George, which belonged to the Assyrian Church of the East.

[…]

On February 11, rebel fighters from the Islamist Jihadist “al-Nusra Front” — designated by the USA, UN, Australia and UK as a terrorist organisation — took control of the city and its strategic hydroelectric dam, the largest of its kind in the country. They also seized control of the three quarters that housed dam workers and in which, of course, stood the Orthodox Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, and in which most of the Christians were settled.

Christian eyewitnesses who fled al-Thawrah, now displaced in other parts of Syria, as well as in Lebanon and Turkey, tell of religious discrimination by the rebels, as well as forced confiscation of Christian possessions and properties, with many items being sold on the black market in order to purchase weapons and ammunition. Even the churches weren’t spared.

“The ‘Free Syrian Army’ demolished the [Sts. Sergius and Bacchus] church,” lamented one refugee, “They tore up the sanctuary curtains, Bibles and other holy books, and broke all the crosses, chairs and icons of Jesus and the saints. They stole electrical appliances like fans, chandeliers and lights. They took whatever was in the church, and sold it all. There is nothing there now.”

There is no hope, however, for the Christians to return and rebuild after the conflict subsides — that’s if it indeed subsides. They were once considered better off than their relatives and friends who still lived in the villages they had migrated from, but are now destitute, having lost everything — their homes, businesses, and even personal belongings.

“Even though I have left,” recounted another Assyrian refugee, “the terrorists still call and text me from there, on my cell phone, to bother me. They recently called and told me: ‘If you attempt to return to al-Tabqah we will cut off your head and display it on the mosque so that all the Muslims there can see it and be proud of it.’ They say other things too, but what they say is so disturbing, that I keep my phone switched off unless I really need to use it.”

Whilst it may be easy to switch off a cell phone, and ignore such threats, it is not so easy to shake off the trauma of dispossession and loss. After spending up to 45 years in a town which became their home, many of these refugees managed to escape with nothing but the clothes on their backs. “We have lost everything,” said the head of an Assyrian household displaced from al-Thawrah, “There is nothing for us over there now, nothing to return to. We just need help to get out of here and settle in a country that’s safe.”

#2 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On August 11, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

if the anti-Assad forces win, the Christians are doomed

That depends on which anti-Assad forces you refer to. The campaign against Assad began as a peaceful multi-sect, multi-ethnic mass protest movement.

Unlike some other countries in the region, the Syrian government responded by shooting down unarmed protesters and rounding up suspects en masse for torture by the secret police.

Somewhere between the choices of capitulation or armed resistance, an inchoate armed resistance began to take shape. IF there were going to be any outside support for anyone or anything, that would have been the time for swift, decisive action. I’m not sure there was a viable course of action to take then, those voices who already were saying “No more Iraqs, no more Afghanistans” may well have been correct. But IF there was a time to intervene decisively, that was it, in which case, the “no more war” voices in the west MAY have been as out of step as those who protested no involvement in foreign wars in 1940 on the ground that WW I had been a senseless slaughter (which it was).

When fighting begins, those with the best capability to handle weapons and engage in military maneuvers come to the fore. When Bosnia declared independence, the government literally had to turn to the criminal underworld for arms and expertise, with the result that Bosnian crime bosses could e.g., rape at will, because the government couldn’t afford to prosecute them. In Syria, of course the jihadis were the ones with the guns (outside of the regular government forces), the experience in using them, and the access to foreign volunteers who, as Americans used to say, “Have gun — will travel.”

Now it is definitely too late to intervene meaningfully in this quagmire, unless the world is prepared to send a million soldiers to quash all resistance and re-order the country on the scale we did with Germany and Japan after WW II.

But if there was a time to act, it was when Assad first started shooting unarmed protesters on a large scale. The Christian presence in Syria is certainly one of the good things at risk, but that is collateral damage. Its not really the point. I know to Christians who think that way, it is THE most moving concern… but that doesn’t have much to do with why the war is happening, or what the possible outcomes are.

If we had funneled arms early to the forces most likely to establish the kind of order we would want to support, the jihadis might not have gotten their foothold.

#3 Comment By Labropotes On August 11, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

Do we really know that Assad is evil? Do we know that those that oppose him are not? Many assertions made about Assad have seemed pretty flimsy, leading me to think our news intermediaries are biased. Anyway, I’ll bet in Syria the United States is called evil 100,000 times a day, by both the rebels and the loyalists. Let’s not be the mirror image of those we find ourselves in opposition to.

#4 Comment By Samn! On August 11, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

I don’t want to attack someone who may well have died for his faith in some sense, but Fr Dall’Oglio always disturbed me somewhat. His efforts at Mar Musa had a distinctly latter-day colonialist feel to them– he was always very critical of the local Syrian Christians for not pursuing his very philo-Islamic brand of interreligious dialogue and he gave off the vibe of a European who was out to teach the locals how to be authentic Christians in a rather tone-deaf way.

In recent months, he had given speaking engagements in the West where he was very harshly critical of Syrian Christian leaders for their failure to support the rebels (of which pretty much none are secular or non-Sunni)… So, in some ways his story is very much an allegory of the West’s useful idiots for Islamism….

#5 Comment By spite On August 11, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

At this point all the that can be done is to offer refuge to the Christians being persecuted, staying in Syria at this point is suicide.

Siarlys Jenkins
There is no “we”, you want it one way, the majority of Americans do not. Your view that this was “multi-sect, multi-ethnic” uprising against a some kind of Tom Clancy villain is wrong. This is a civil war, made infinitely worse by misinformed and misguided foreign policy.

#6 Comment By Sands On August 11, 2013 @ 7:36 pm

“Do we really know that Assad is evil?”

He’s not someone I’d want leading my country, but he didn’t orchestrate a plot to fly airplanes into our buildings. But many of those fighting against him belong to an organization that did.

[NFR: Yes, I believe we know for sure that Assad is evil. His father was evil too. I don’t know what I believe about who should win in Syria, but I agree with Sands here, and I note that under Assad, the Christians of Syria were left alone. If the people working to overthrow Assad win, it’s open season on the Christians. Pick your poison: Assad or the Islamists. — RD]

#7 Comment By Scott McConnell On August 11, 2013 @ 8:32 pm

A valuable post. My knowledge of Syria is limited, but a church delegation on which I went seven years ago met with many Syrian Christians, both leaders and lay professinals, all of whom were at least favorable to Assad faute de mieux.

#8 Comment By Joseph D’Hippolito On August 11, 2013 @ 10:32 pm

In other words, there were Christians in Syria before Saul’s conversion. That’s how ancient their presence there is. And they are in danger of being wiped out. Pray.

God wants us to do more than pray, Rod. God wants us to demand that Christian leaders start giving a damn about persecuted Christians, even if it means risking those leaders’ cherished “ecumenical dialogue.” God want us to demand that Muslim leaders take practical action against such barbarians because if they fail to do so, they effectively support that barbarism.

[8]

#9 Comment By Joseph D’Hippolito On August 11, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

Fr Dall’Oglio…was always very critical of the local Syrian Christians for not pursuing his very philo-Islamic brand of interreligious dialogue and he gave off the vibe of a European who was out to teach the locals how to be authentic Christians in a rather tone-deaf way….(I)n some ways his story is very much an allegory of the West’s useful idiots for Islamism….

Catholicism, especially in Europe, is the most Islamophilic religion outside of Islam itself, thanks to the encyclical Nostra Aetate and JPII’s inter-religious activism.

Thanks for nothing.

#10 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On August 11, 2013 @ 11:04 pm

Spite, your name is well chosen. There is a “We” here, and it has nothing to do with your opinion, or mine. (Neither of us is authorized to speak for “the majority of the American people.”)

If “our” government commits “our” country to a course of action, then “we” have taken that action. A small minority, a substantial minority, a small majority, or a large majority may disagree, but “our” taxes pay for it, and “our” sons, fathers, brothers, cousins, neighbors, fellow citizens (and sisters, mothers, daughters) in some numbers will be risking their lives. So what “we” do matters. “We” might also throw out a lot of incumbents at the next election, to register our displeasure, or we might not, either because no majority really objects, or because other issues motivate enough voters to support the incumbents in spite of disagreement with foreign or military policy.

This is indeed a civil war, but it did not begin as a war. It degenerated into a war. You have a dangerously short memory. Not every civil war is without moral imperatives. I would have had no hesitation about which side I was on in “our” civil war. In the Syrian civil war, it is difficult, as many have pointed out, to discern any side worth supporting with any hope of a beneficial outcome. The old saw about intervention in civil wars is:

1) Don’t.
2) If you do, pick a side.
3) Make sure your side wins.

It’s difficult to identify a “side” worth supporting. Definitely not al-Nusra. In fact, if there were a way to fire off a few drones and eliminate al-Nusra, 100 percent, with no collateral damage, I’d be all for it. The reason for caution is, there would be collateral damage, and the damaged families might rally to al-Nusra for revenge on those who killed their children — people who might otherwise come to hate and despise al-Nusra.

Incidentally, Jake Lucas’s comment highlights that the persecution of Christians is in part opportunistic: al-Nusra needs to raise money fast to buy their weapons and ammo. If they can single out a group for disfavor, take all they have, and cast them out, they have less need to assess taxes at gunpoint across the board on the general population. That was a factor in Hitler’s initial moves against the Jews — you can provide some degree of short term prosperity to the majority by dispossessing and looting a disfavored minority. But then you need to find someone else to loot, and eventually you have to go to war so blatantly that even Britain and the United States can’t ignore you any more.

#11 Comment By Dimitry Aleksandrovich On August 11, 2013 @ 11:29 pm

A pox upon the neocon chickenhawks, liberal interventionistsand and Military Industrial complex prostitutes in DC who are funding these FSA/Al Nusra terrorists. A few months ago a good friend of mine (who is also Orthodox) said to me he thought our government had become a tool for complete evil. I think he was and is right. With every headline I read and with the knowledge of my governments involvement in Syria and elsewhere I cannot do anything but agree with that statement.

#12 Comment By BillWAF On August 12, 2013 @ 1:51 am

I agree that the success of the anti-Assad forces probably means the destruction of the various Christian communities in Syria, much as the US invasion of Iraq doomed Christians there.

This next remark is harsh, but it is warranted. You might think about that Rod the next time you praise someone who actively agitated for that invasion and other awful policies.

I also have an academic question: were there Christians in Damascus when Paul arrived, or were there Jews who belonged to the Jesus movement?

#13 Comment By Lesley On August 12, 2013 @ 2:29 am

with due respect to all who commented including Mr. Dreher article, I feel most of your concern about the life of Christians in Syria while ignoring the people hundreds of thousands of people who were killed, MIA, or injured. Not to forget the major destruction of the country by it’s own army.

in Mr. Mr. Dreher article, he said that ” Christians should remember that the Christian community of Syria is one of the oldest in the world, having been founded through the evangelical efforts of the Apostles. St. Paul was on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians when he had his miraculous conversion. In other words, there were Christians in Syria before Saul’s conversion. That’s how ancient their presence there is. And they are in danger of being wiped out. Pray.”

This means that the Christians survived during the highest of 1400 years of Muslim rules up till now and will continue to survive and be part of the Syrian cultures.

The small Allaowite minority that Assad comes from is trying very hard to strengthen itself and it’s fighting ranks by buying favors from other minorities such as Christians and Druz and some Muslims too. The fight is really against the government who are destroying everything and killing anybody in order to stay in power.

Therefore, we should look at the civil war as right vs. wrong instead of looking at it from one small religious angle only.

#14 Comment By Joseph D’Hippolito On August 12, 2013 @ 2:40 am

So Dimitry, I’ll expect you’ll be contacting your Russian or Serbian Orthodox leaders about why they’re not doing more to help persecuted Christians?

I don’t expect secular governments to protect Christians as policy. I do, however, expect Christian “leaders” to make a fuss about this. So far, Christian leaders across the board have failed miserably to do so.

[NFR: Actually, the Russian Orthodox leadership has been pretty good on this. It may be for political reasons — Syria is Russia’s only ally in the Middle East — but they’ve not done badly. — RD]

#15 Comment By Labropotes On August 12, 2013 @ 8:02 am

Rod, with respect, I disagree with you in this case. Satan is evil. Assad is a bad man. If we label someone evil, our thinking stops. When is the last time anyone has had a conversation about what motivated the Holocaust? No need because we know, right? It was evil. Now people talk like Hitler everyday, but no one notices because although they know the name, they know nothing of the man behind it. Because he’s just evil.

Did Bush advance our foreign policy with the phrase Axis of Evil? Or did it fog our thoughts and lower the chances of peaceful resolutions? The original writing of that would have been more productive, “Axis of Anger.”

Job wasn’t satisfied with the pat explanations for his sufferings offered by his stupid friends (no analog to you, friend!) He doesn’t seem to have found a satisfactory explanation, but we are enriched by his exploration.

Touching on an earlier post, I wonder if the seeming shortage of Christian creativity isn’t connected somehow to a willingness to accept answers that we don’t understand.

#16 Comment By spite On August 12, 2013 @ 11:55 am

Siarlys Jenkins
Unless you are over 150 years old, YOU were on neither side in the civil war. Your long winded semantic nonsense defending your royal “we”, still ignores the fact that most Americans DO NOT want to fight in Syria.

#17 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On August 12, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

To anyone who thinks Christian should do more for the Christians of Syria than simply “pray,” what course of action should Christians be making a fuss about?

Should we send troops to protect the Christians of Syria? IF so, should it be a quick evacuation, the establishment of safe havens, or a total immersion of the entire land area under our complete control? (I have doubts anything less than the last could be successful, and I have doubts we could even pull that off — not to mention the price in blood and treasure).

In any case, don’t cast broadsides as Islam, when the Christian community in Syria has survived rather well under 14 centuries of Muslim rule, only being threatened by a very modern political current within Islam that arose in the last few decades, initially with CIA support and encouragement to weaken leftist and secular nationalist influence.

[NFR: Did you not see that the main thrust of this post is about how difficult it is to know how to think about this civil war, much less what to do? The problem is, in fact, Islam — an Islam that does not want to live in peace with Christians, who, by the way, were there first. — RD]

#18 Comment By The Anti-Gnostic On August 12, 2013 @ 1:06 pm

How would US federal bureaucrats react to an existential threat to their ruling status, such as secession by one or more States? I think the indiscriminate bombing would start within the hour. I agree with Labropotes: using terms like “evil” prevents clear thinking.

If we had funneled arms early to the forces most likely to establish the kind of order we would want to support, the jihadis might not have gotten their foothold.

They don’t exist. Most Syrians, like most Arabs, are terrible, sloppy, unmotivated fighters. That’s why the French trained the Alawites instead of the Sunni rabble.

#19 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On August 12, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

When I drafted my earlier comment, I counted our gracious host among those who advocated prayer, not among those who implicitly advocated sending in the troops to save the Christians. Others seem to have less difficult cutting Gordian knots.

It is a terrible delusion to suggest that “the problem is, in fact, Islam,” particularly in the teeth of the fact that Christian communities have been doing rather nicely in Syria under 14 centuries of an Islamic majority, and Islamic monarchies. Has it not occurred to you to ask what is different NOW from those 14 centuries?

Islam is not new. A specific political current of military jihadism is VERY new. For all that its leaders prattle about an emirate or a caliphate, they have little in common with how any historical emirate or caliphate operated. They are not THE voice of Islam, but if you keep talking as if they are, it may motivate a larger number of Muslims to identify with and support them.

Its also rather foolish to say that Christians “were there first.” Pagans were there before Christians. Some of those pagans became Christians. Many who were Christians under Byzantine rule became Muslims — in addition to the various ways that people have moved around the Middle East. The Chaldean community of Iraq claims direct descent from the Assyrians, who were not exactly God’s People in Old Testament times.

There is no basis for those now living in Syria who are Christian to claim some kind of political primacy, and if they’re not doing that, who was there first is quite irrelevant. This kind of emotionalism is no basis for a coherent political or military policy.

#20 Comment By Lesley On August 12, 2013 @ 5:00 pm

to Anti-Gnostic,

You may need to know some historical facts, before saying

” They don’t exist. Most Syrians, likefor a o most Arabs, are terrible, sloppy, unmotivated fighters. That’s why the French trained the Alawites instead of the Sunni rabble. ”

You may need to know that the colonial powers like the French and the English, used divide and concur approach where they promoted the minorities to serve under them and fight for them in order to overpower and subdue the majorites. The US also recently did the samething in Iraq and Afaghinstan .

The allowite sect and some Christians regrettably, served under the French against the majority of Muslim Sunnis. Then naturally and just few years after the French left Syria, we saw the Allowite made a coup d’etat. They ruled the country with terror and oppression even way more than the French or Saddam Hussien did. Millions of Syrians left the country for the last 50 years.

It is natural then for an oppressed majority to wake up and try to take their country back. What the majority didn’t estimate is the strong support that regime recieved from Iran, Russia and the west too. The west did it in a clandestine and shameful way. The Syrians didn’t want the west to provide any support like we did in Libya, while they didn’t want them either to pressure the Arabic countries against supplying arms to the Syrians rebels. Because of the unbelievable amount of destructions and killings inflicted on the Syrians and because of the delay tactics by the west, the Jihadits come over. It was a big mistake by the west, because we look at the whole Islamic and middle east policy through the eyes of Israel.