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Smash and squeeze

31 July 2015

IN THE early months of the conflict in Syria, now in its fourth year, the brutal suppression of opposition parties by the forces of President Bashar al Assad received almost universal condemnation in the West. On this day in 2011, for example, in the “Ramadan massacre”, government snipers fired on crowds in the town of Hama. Scores of people were killed, and hospitals were unable to cope with the number injured. If Christian Churches in Europe and North America were wary of advocating military involvement, they none the less joined in the anti-Assad protests, and approved efforts to resist government attacks on cities such as Homs.

Soon, however, a different view began to emerge from Christians in Syria. Although they had suffered the same privations as other citizens under President Assad, they were nevertheless encouraged to support his regime once they experienced life under the Islamist groups that were to form themselves into the Islamic State militia. More than a year ago, a delegation of Syrian Christian leaders travelled to the United States to tell stories of brutal persecution and to urge the administration to scale back its support for the rebel groups fighting President Assad.

It has been a similar story in Libya, where Islamic State units are creating a foothold, and were responsible for training the gunman who shot 38 tourists in Sousse, in neighbouring Tunisia. President Gaddafi was a brutal dictator, but, like Assad, he tolerated minorities as long as he perceived no political threat from them. Since his overthrow, large tracts of Libya have become virtually lawless: 30 Ethiopian Christians were murdered in April; 21 Egyptian Christians were beheaded in February. In Egypt itself, many Copts support the government of President El-Sisi, especially since the beheadings and the attacks on churches by supporters of the outlawed Islamic Brotherhood. “In general, persecution of Christians is increasing,” Lisa Pearce, chief executive of Open Doors UK and Ireland, told The Guardian on Monday. “And the rate of increase is accelerating.” She spoke of two sorts of oppression, the “smash” and the “squeeze”. Although the smash of extreme violence was on the increase, the squeeze — when Christians flee their homes because “life as a Christian becomes inexorably harder” — was causing the greater damage to the Church in the region.

The Middle East and North Africa, where Christians lament the demise of autocratic dictators, are places that demand the keenest moral acuity. Western nations have glimpsed the vast resources needed to be true peacemakers, and have shied away. And now the international community is being invited to support the military ambitions of Turkey, thinly disguised as action against Islamic State. As one commentator, John Hayward, wrote about Syria: “No one enjoys choosing sides in a conflict between villains and monsters.”

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