Meet Syria's Christians — and Learn What the West Gets Wrong About Them

For years there has been a discussion at the highest and the lowest levels of Western society about "saving Middle Eastern Christians." This discussion has left out the actual Christians of the region, who are busy charting their own political future. Particularly in the northern Middle Eastern nations of Syria, Lebanon, and Armenia, there appears to be an increasing conflict of interest brewing between Western interests and local Christian communities.

In the ancient Syrian Christian village of Maaloula, Syrian army soldiers kiss their crucifixes and spout anti-Western rhetoric as they battle opposition fighters for control. Pro-government Christian militiamen have been battling the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo for a full year. In Lebanon, the largest Christian party's alliance with Hezbollah has been intact since 2006. And Armenia's long relationship with Iran has been deepening lately.

The clearly paternalistic views of both former French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and the infamous Islamophobe Pamela Geller, linked at the beginning of the article, blind them (and like-minded individuals) to the course of action taken by Christians in these countries. In an increasingly polarized region, Middle Eastern Christians are shifting their view to the east, where fellow regional minorities rule in Iran and Iraq; and to the north, where a newly assertive and increasingly Orthodox Russian voice rolls over the Caucasus mountains.

These shifts are largely due to the changing nature of the Syrian opposition, the growth of Sunni Islamism in the wake of the Arab Spring, and in the case of Armenia, oil pipelines. Armenia is still smarting from its exclusion in the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which deepened "its political and economic isolation." This exclusion occurred due to the Nagaro-Karabakh conflict with neighboring Turkish-supported Azerbaijan and a joint Turkish-Azeri blockade of Armenia.

Pipelines are a backdrop to the Syrian Civil War as well. A gasline from the South Pars/Northfield on the Iran/Qatar maritime border will be built. The proposed lines are Iran-Iraq-Syria and Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Jordan-Syria-Turkey. The Assad government chose the Iran-Iraq route, perhaps explaining the particularly high levels of support Turkey and Qatar are giving the Syrian opposition. Yerevan is looking to prevent further Turkish gains by supporting the Syrian government's attempt to block the Qatar-Turkey route.

However, one cannot talk in absolutes when discussing entire groups of people. Of course there are Christians in these countries who take a different view. George Sabra, from a Christian family, was president of the opposition Syrian National Committee until recently. The smaller Phalangist Kataeb and Lebanese Forces parties both hold anti-Hezbollah and pro-Syrian opposition positions.

These are not signs of a slowly dying, apolitical group with little power sitting on the sidelines — the caricature often trotted out by the mainstream media. These are the ways of a community determined to protect itself, its future, and its interests at any cost. The idea of a regional Christian decline is true only in proportional terms. But even proportionally, the Christian communities are still large — the percentages of Christians in Syria and African-Americans in the United States are roughly equal. As respected Middle East historian Juan Cole points out, "they [Mideastern Christians] are arguably more numerous in absolute terms than ever before." And this important community is looking to save itself.

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Brendan Behrmann

I acquired an interest in both politics and religion at a young age. With degrees in History, Middle East Studies (focus on Sufism and Shi'ism), and Information Studies, my work is focused on the Middle East, new technology, and the ways information is used and abused. I was born in the US and am currently based in Toronto.

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