Syria and Lebanon are multicultural societies, but the American discourse about Syria tends to focus on the Muslim majority and to ignore the substantial Christian minorities. It is interesting that these Eastern Christians are solidly against an American missile strike on Syria. Many US congressional representatives discussing the possibility of military action against that country invoked God and prayer in their remarks, lending the discussion a Christian ambiance. But they didn’t refer to any statements on the crisis by actual Syrian or Lebanese Christians (the two are closely linked).
On Tuesday, the Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Gregorius III Lahham, said, “The military strike that is expected against Syria will increase the distress of the Christians and lead to the destruction of Syria, of both its Christians and its Muslims–no one will be spared.”
Gregorius added that 450,000 Syrian Christians had been displaced from their homes since 2011, either remaining inside Syria or fleeing abroad.
Christians may make up as many as 14% of the Syrian population of 22 million. That is, there may be as many as 3 million of them (about the population of Iowa or Kansas). The biggest denomination is Eastern Orthodoxy or Greek Orthodoxy, i.e. the same branch of Christianity as in Greece and Russia. The second biggest is the Greek Catholics, who had been Eastern Orthodox but who came into communion with Rome in the 1700s and recognized the Pope. The Christians of Syria for the most part are either neutral toward the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad or support the government in preference to the radical Sunni fundamentalists of Jabhat al-Nusra (The Succor Front). The Christians of Lebanon support the Christians of Syria and also tend to favor the Damascus government versus the al-Qaeda affiliates.
The Bishopric of Damascus praised the call of Pope Francis I to make Saturday a day of mourning and prayer on behalf of Syria. They said that the planned military strike was planned out by the enemies of the Syrian people.
(The US Catholic Bishops have decided against the war; but the Catholic clerics are only allowed to be seen on television in the US on such matters when they support the hawks; i.e., almost never).
Maronite Catholic patriarch of Lebanon, Bishara Butrus al-Ra’i, and the bishops warned against a US strike on Syria on Wednesday.
“The bishops denounce the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but they call for being aware of the risks of a potential military strike…
“We call for resolving the Syrian crisis through dialogue and peaceful diplomatic means; a political solution is the best option for Syria…”
About a quarter of Lebanese are Christian, and about 40% of the electorate is. The majority of Lebanese Christians belong to the Maronite Church, rooted in the teachings of a medieval saint. In the 1500s, the church came into decisive communion with Rome, though contacts went back to the 1100s. (Maronites claim always to have been Catholics, but I’m a historian, not a theologian). As with other Uniate churches, Maronites were permitted by Rome to retain their own liturgy (in Syriac, close to the language Jesus spoke) rather than being made to switch to Latin. The current Maronite Patriarch, al-Ra’i, was also appointed a cardinal by the Pope.
The prospect of the American attack comes at a time when Eastern Christians feel fragile and under the gun. In Egypt, the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government on July 3 was followed by widespread attacks on Coptic Christian churches by Muslim fundamentalists who blamed Copts for the coup/ revolution. (Actually the latter was made for the most part by secular Egyptian youth of Muslim heritage.)
Christians in the Levant are afraid that the Lebanese Shiite organization, the Hizbullah, will retaliate against Israel after an American strike on Damascus. Such an action could lead to a wider war.