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Syria's Christians: A Population at Risk
by Martin E. Marty
Monday | Sept 16 2013
Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
“Buridan’s Ass” comes to mind as citizens ponder what to think and what to favor in the Syrian civil war. Look it up: this is the dilemma of Buridan’s ass (named after philosopher John Buridan). Poised equidistantly between two equally attractive bales of hay, the animal had no reason to choose one bale over the other. Unable to decide, he starved.
The recent, deadly use of chemical weapons on civilians by Syrian government forces finds the U.S. and its allies poised between—for the sake of argument let us say—two equally unattractive options. Threatening, and then acting on the threat to punish Syria's President Bashar al-Assad for his atrocities, risks terrible outcomes. Or, support the Syrian rebels he is fighting, and contribute to worse atrocities. (There are more bales of hay than those two metaphoric ones, as illustrated by the turn taken last week by Russia’s involvement, but…)
On the conscience of most Americans is the plight of the Syrian rebels, gassed and raped and tortured and wantonly killed as they have been. What to do?
Last Thursday’s Sightings by Galen Guengerich (Sept. 12, 2013) eloquently pricked consciences and quoted Michael Walzer’s “Argument about Humanitarian Intervention,” namely, “who can, should.” In a trauma like the present one among Syrian citizens, Guengerich adds, “Who, when and how should always be up for debate. Whether should not.”
Still, what is the situation? Why do so many Americans, religious Americans, Christian Americans hesitate to act or oppose U.S. action against Assad? I italicized the word Christian because, from many angles, the “rebels’” story includes a major Christian component. It happens that, for all their suffering from all directions, great numbers of Syrian Christians are siding with the Assad terrorizers.
As for fellow-Christians at a distance, don’t their Scriptures say that, while they should do good to all people, they should do good especially to those of the household of faith. And Syrian Christians, whose churches have been destroyed and lives taken by the rebels against Assad are certainly of the “household of faith.”
One recent headline reads, “Syrian Christians Pack Passports Fearing Islamist Onslaught” as the Syrian uprising continues against the Assad regime. Christians fear that a U.S. military action, however defined and restrained it might be, would make the violence worse, and they fear “becoming a lighting rod for Muslim radicals” who have targeted them even pre-escalation.
Kamran Bokhari, the Austin, Texas-based commentator, says Syrian Christians “are right in their fears because under the present order, it was authoritarian and secular,” and they were spared. Other experts point out that many Christians have tried to avoid taking sides, but they suffer and die, among the 100,000 Syrians who have been killed already.
Another headline reads, “The Devil They Know,” and under it, Gabriel Said Reynolds in Commonweal (Sept. 2, 2013) explains further “Why Most Syrian Christians Support Bashar al-Assad. His must-read story (see Reference section below) documents the horrors being inflicted by the radical elements among the rebels: “For its part, the Assad regime has consistently claimed that it is the only hope of protection for religious minorities in Syria—not only for Alawites, but also for Christians, Druze, and others.”
Yet the cost of that protection is continuing evil action by Assad and his regime. So?
The recent Russian-brokered proposal to eliminate the regime’s chemical weapons buys time. Meanwhile as the dilemma over horrible options endure, those opinion-makers and commentators who are too sure about what should be done, shouldn’t be.  
Abu-Nasr, Donna. “Syrian Christians Pack Passports Fearing Islamist Onslaught.” Bloomberg, Sept. 10, 2013. Accessed Sept. 14, 2013.
Reynolds, Gabriel Said. “The Devil They Know: Why Most Syrian Christians Support Bashar al-Assad.” Commonweal Magazine, Sept. 2, 2013. Accessed Sept. 14, 2013.
Walzer, Michael. “The Argument about Humanitarian Intervention.” Originally published in Dissent (Winter 2002), 29-37. Republished in polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 5 (2004). Accessed Sept. 11, 2013.
Guengerich, Galen. “A New Yorker’s Reflections on 9/11/2001.” Sightings, Sept. 12, 2013.[UNIQID].

Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Marty Center Junior Fellow.

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