FOR generations, the Assad regime has led the ethno-religious minorities in Syria to believe that the regime protected them. It warned that, after him, there would be bloodshed.
Among the first acts of President Bashar al-Assad at the beginning of the uprising was to open the prison gates to let the imprisoned jihadi thugs out. He was creating the chaos which he had predicted, leading to the creation of Islamic State and many other violent groups who would target Christians.
On every Christian feast, for decades, the heads of the Churches in Syria have read out statements praising the Syrian government. They were written by the government. In my days in Damascus, between 1997 and 2002, I sometimes heard them read badly; but, as the State Security were in the church, no comment was possible.
The Churches of Syria are in captivity. Their leaders dare not criticise the government of Syria for fear of the consequences, both personally and for their communities.
Some people speak of the protection which the Syrian government has offered the minorities, especially the Christians. “Protection” is the right word, remembering that Syria’s rulers are a greedy mafia who use anything to enrich themselves and their friends and families. When the various Christian towns in the Qalamoun region fell to different jihadi groups, the Syrian army was nowhere to be seen and failed to protect the people.
My Syrian friends, especially the Muslim ones, insist that, before the Assad takeover in 1971, there were no sectarian tensions; and, certainly, I found that Muslims in Syria treated me as a “man of religion”, and Christians generally with respect.
The statement issued by the heads of the Churches, which condemns the “brutal aggression” of the United States, France, and the UK might represent the genuine belief of the prelates. At no point in their ministry, however, have they been allowed to make any negative comment about the bloody oppression of the Syrian government — to comment, for instance, on the United Nations report condemning the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on 21 August 2013.
The great Church where St Paul was converted is truly in captivity.
The Revd Stephen Griffith is a retired priest in York. From 1996 to 2002 he was the Anglican Chaplain in Damascus.