Syrian Christians face grim prospects while the West looks the other way
The Islamic State (IS)—that murderous regime famous for video-recorded beheadings—is on the verge of surrounding and ultimately occupying Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, one with a substantial Christian population. Evidently, the Islamic State is unaware that it is supposed to be daunted by an American air campaign which claims to have killed 10,000 IS fighters. Nowhere is the Islamic State in retreat.
We know what happens to Christians when the Islamic State captures a city; we watched it unfold in Mosul, Iraq. The Christians are forced to flee; there is no place for them under Islamic State rule. IS drove roughly 150,000 Christians—and hundreds of thousands of others—out of Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh plain when it occupied these areas last summer. So it will happen in Aleppo, where a Christian population of 250,000 before the civil war has already dwindled to an estimated 100,000. What is less clear is where the Christians of Aleppo will flee to; there is no neighboring safe haven of Kurdistan 50 miles away.
The Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, Jean-Clément Jeanbart, is literally under fire. His offices and residence have been hit by mortars and gunfire. His plaintive appeal today is, “What are the great nations waiting for before they put a halt to these monstrosities? May all of those who believe in … God and all those with compassion for the innocent raise their voice with us and call on civilized countries to take action to bring about peace.”
Aleppo is a city with an ancient and gloriously diverse Christian population. In addition to Archbishop Jeanbart, it is home to the Archbishop of the Armenian Catholic Archeparchy (Boutros Marayati), the Syrian Catholic Archeparchy (Denys Antoine Chahda), the Maronite Archeparchy (currently vacant), the Chaldean Eparchy (Antoine Audo), and the Roman Rite Apostolic Vicariate (Georges Abou Khazen). It was also home to two Orthodox bishops who were kidnapped in April 2013 and not yet heard from, Gregorios Ibrahim of the Syrian Orthodox Church and Paul Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church. And Aleppo is a see of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
In February 2013, Patriarch Gregorius III of the Melkite Church appealed “to the whole world to stop arms from being sent to Syria." Instead, the United States has pursued a different and decidedly ineffective policy. Goaded by Republican Senators John McCain (who famously snuck into Syria in May 2013 to meet with “moderate” insurgents) and Lindsey Graham, President Obama declared American policy to be the removal of Bashar al-Assad as president of Syria.
That was two years ago. To date, the anti-Assad coalition of nations has achieved neither the removal of Assad, nor the emergence of a “moderate” insurgency, nor the containment of the Islamic State, nor the protection of Christian minorities.
Now, the only non-miraculous hope for the Christians remaining in Aleppo is an immediate cease-fire across Syria. Of course the Islamic State will not honor such a cease-fire; buffer zones will need to be established, peacekeepers deployed. These are not insurmountable challenges.
Patriarch Gregorius may not be renowned as a geopolitical strategist (he is merely a man of God, after all), but there is great wisdom in what he advocates. He understands that a policy of regime change at the barrel of a gun is a failure of creative thinking. Would that the world had heeded his call two years ago. It may be just barely not too late to pursue alternatives.
So, President Obama, the time has come for you to earn that Nobel Peace Prize. Use it now, in Syria—or give it back.
Steven Wagneris co-founder and president of Solidarity with the Persecuted Church, which supports the local Christian Church in places where it confronts persecution.