Even as Secretary of State John Kerry explained his “unbelievably small” war plan—and President Barack Obama polished his speech derailing that small plan—a new and menacing front opened in Syria’s two-and-a-half-year war.
Rebels blasted through a government checkpoint Sept. 5 outside Maaloula, a town of about 2,000 people 35 miles northeast of Damascus. Maaloula is one of the oldest continually inhabited Christian villages in the world yet retains a vibrant connection to its past. In 2002 I spent a memorable morning there, listening to locals recite the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic inside the stone-walled chancel of Mar Sarkis monastery. (See video clip below.)
The town sits in the cleft of a cliff beneath the Qalamoun Mountains, and rebel fighters first stormed a hotel atop the cliff at about 6 a.m. As shelling began to rain down, residents who could fled by car to Damascus. Dozens more took refuge in nearby churches, including a convent where nuns hid 27 orphans in their care inside a cave. The Syrian army sent in warplanes to bomb rebel posts, reportedly forcing them to abandon control of Maaloula after several days.
Rima Tüzün of the Syriac Union told me that days after the attack 30 Christians were missing, and at least six had been killed. Mar Sarkis was bombed but the extent of damage wasn’t known.
Christians in Syria are increasingly targeted. What’s significant about the September confrontation in Maaloula is the rebels hit a protected Christian village, and Mar Sarkis—one of the oldest surviving monasteries and continuously used churches in the world—is a national landmark long treasured by Christian and Muslim Syrians alike.
What’s also significant is the attack began with a jihadist from the al Nusra Front blowing himself up at a government checkpoint, but the rebel onslaught included Free Syrian Army units, the so-called moderate rebel elements. Had the United States acted militarily in Syria just ahead of this attack, it would have acted in concert with this crossbreed of terrorists and so-called freedom fighters. And it would likely have suppressed the kind of air cover that allowed Syrian forces to come to Maaloula’s rescue.
It’s no surprise, then, that Suzan Johnson Cook, the State Department’s ambassador for international religious freedom, said she had no comment on Sept. 10 when asked at a UN briefing what the United States is doing to protect religious minorities in Syria. “Right now we will refer that to the White House and we respect our marching orders from the White House to comment on that.” With that silence the Obama administration dismisses Syria’s 10 million-plus Christians (as the Bush administration did in Iraq, and has happened in Egypt and elsewhere).
Beyond the pathos in the current decimation of Christianity in the land of Jesus’ birth, here’s why the destruction of the church in the Middle East should mobilize us:
• God calls Christians to be everywhere.
• The long-suffering in His church have much to teach the rest of us.
• It should be in the strategic interest of the United States to stand with groups in the Middle East that have refused, with cost, to embrace terrorism.
• Muslims need Christians to be their neighbors.
When it looked as though the United States would go to war with Syria, members of Congress received thousands of calls from their constituents. The calls ran 99 to 1 against action, and higher. Could any of those thousands be mobilized to call on behalf of Syria’s Christians? Or to join already organized petition drives (a detailed list is below) and aid campaigns on their behalf? Apart from the political and diplomatic theatrics, won’t Christians stand up for Christians?