Will U.S. action in Syria hasten the extinction of Christianity in the Middle East?

Syria the home to some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, and its history offers an important counter example to the experience of Christianity elsewhere.

As a medieval historian, I’m struck by how similar the arguments being levied by U.S. politicians to argue for an assault on the Syrian government are to the arguments Pope Urban II used to justify the First Crusade at the close of the 11th century. And in drawing the parallels through to their conclusion, I’m concerned that if the U.S. continues to push for military action, it will lead to similar unintended consequences – namely, a hastening of the extinction of Christianity in the Middle East.

The marketing for the First Crusade had two components:  (1) that it was the moral obligation of European Christians to defend the defenseless (in this case Christians in the Holy Land who were suffering daily on account of their faith);  (2) that the Crusaders would prosper financially from their endeavor.  Not only was this propaganda campaign based upon a series of deliberate fictions, but the outcomes of the Crusades were the exact opposite of what was promised—the local Christian community suffered mightily and Europe exhausted its financial resources trying to control the region.  The current debate about American engagement eerily follows the same talking points.

Indeed, every advocate of Western strikes against the Syrian government predicates their argument on the basis of moral obligation.  We must strike the Assad regime, they argue, to send a clear message that particular forms of warfare are not acceptable to the global community.  Is the use of chemical weapons truly more “immoral” than what is being practiced by some factions of the Syrian resistance?  Given that the situation there is so fluid, I see no reliable way to evaluate which side is pursuing its struggle more ethically.  What is more, I fail to understand how a Western-led expansion of the cycle of violence will somehow bring moral justice to the situation.  The great hypocrisy of the West’s attempt to play moral policeman for the rest of the world is that its heralded democratic freedoms were historically purchased by and remain sustained by violence on a grand scale.  As a rule, Western governments rarely pursue the cause for human rights around the globe evenly.  Rather, like the protagonists for the First Crusade, they act only when there is an economic or political objective that can be rhetorically dressed in the clothes of moral justice.

Why Syria or Iraq and not Sudan?  Is there any doubt that the connection has something to do with an expectation of economic and political gain?  But this, too, is part of the mythmaking that has sustained violence in the region for the better part of the last century.  Since John Kerry first indicated that the U.S. was likely to strike the Syrian government a few weeks ago, oil has spiked and the global stock markets have fallen.  It is difficult to see how Western military engagement would simplify the situation, stabilize the region, or permanently aid the global economy.

One aspect that has received little attention in the media and has been categorically ignored in the American political debate is the impact that any Western military strike will have on the indigenous Christian population.  If there is anything that the disparate Christian communities of the Middle East can agree upon it is that they all suffer whenever Western armies make an appearance.  This was as true in the 11th century as it is now.  Scholars of the Middle Ages have written for generations about the negative impact that the Crusades had on the indigenous Christian community. The modern depopulation of Christians in the region has also been well documented.  In some cases, like that of Turkey, the disappearance of Christians stems from pressure applied by local governments that hope to eradicate minority populations. But more often the root cause is more directly linked to sectarian violence against local Christians who, in the eyes of their neighbors, are linked to Western aggression.  During the previous decade, violence against Christians in Iraq surpassed all historical measures—most Christians who survived the violence have since left the country.  More recently, supporters of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have disproportionately targeted the Christian minority in that country, in large part because they are falsely perceived by radicals to be in league with Western governments.

The potential extinction of Christianity in Syria is particularly troubling.  Not only is Syria the home to some of the oldest Christian communities in the world but its history offers an important counter example to the experience of Christianity elsewhere.  Unlike its counterparts in the West, the Christian communities of Syria were never connected to imperial power, were never in possession of significant material wealth, and were never a majority population.  Instead, they always existed as a minority religion in other cultures and they possessed no expectation of being otherwise.  What is more, the history of Christianity in Syria provides some of the earliest surviving evidence of the Christian encounter with Islam, which predates the Crusades by hundreds of years.  It was the Western colonization of the Near East that began during the Crusades and continued into the modern era that is largely responsible for the current Christian/Muslim discourse of mutual polemic.  That polemic grossly distorts the conceptual possibilities of Christian/Muslim cohabitation.  Syrian Christianity offers an alternative example.  But what example can it offer in the future if there are no Christians remaining in Syria?

Image courtesy of Jan Smith.

  • tony55398

    Perhaps the president is using poison gas as an excuse to become involved before the more dangerous rebel factions take over completely. Just maybe the poison gas was supplied by the CIA to certain rebel factions, the dead will be the rebels Martyrs. We needed an excuse to become involved and there was no other excuse that could be used. The plight of Christians seem to be ignored here as well as in Iraq. Why? If this turns ultimately into a World War, and it just might, than God may be using the present situation to save as many Christians as possible by allowing the Muslims to force the Christians out of the Middle East. Enough said.

  • tony55398

    Perhaps the president is using poison gas as an excuse to become involved before the more dangerous rebel factions take over completely. Just maybe the poison gas was supplied by the CIA to certain rebel factions, the dead will be the rebels Martyrs. We needed an excuse to become involved and there was no other excuse that could be used. The plight of Christians seem to be ignored here as well as in Iraq. Why? If this turns ultimately into a World War, and it just might, than God may be using the present situation to save as many Christians as possible by allowing the Muslims to force the Christians out of the Middle East. Enough said.

  • Jay Bagley

    Our President and his minions don’t look at history, especially from the facts that a medieval historian could present before them. The Secretary of State can’t even remember his history. They are both political entities that will say and do anything to get elected. In their positions, they don’t see reality as their advisors and especially, Kerry’s boss doesn’t have history in their way of life.

    We should be grateful for historians to advise government leaders but political advantage doesn’t happen to include history.

    The leaders we have complained so much about the previous administration but have fallen into the same type of quicksand their predecessors stood in. They don’t realize they are making their own quagmire for others to discuss and decide an election for the other party.

    Pride of individuals overrides historical pasts. Rational behavior is thwarted as an individual’s image is what some think about and not that they will be historical failures without integrity.

    Presidents Clinton and Nixon lost integrity with their power and abilities. Clinton has used his wife to further his prowess. President Nixon lost his historical balance with his denial through impeachment. President Nixon didn’t have President Clinton’s historical definition of “is” nor a wife that was her own political entity that hasn’t given up.

  • Jay Bagley

    Our President and his minions don’t look at history, especially from the facts that a medieval historian could present before them. The Secretary of State can’t even remember his history. They are both political entities that will say and do anything to get elected. In their positions, they don’t see reality as their advisors and especially, Kerry’s boss doesn’t have history in their way of life.

    We should be grateful for historians to advise government leaders but political advantage doesn’t happen to include history.

    The leaders we have complained so much about the previous administration but have fallen into the same type of quicksand their predecessors stood in. They don’t realize they are making their own quagmire for others to discuss and decide an election for the other party.

    Pride of individuals overrides historical pasts. Rational behavior is thwarted as an individual’s image is what some think about and not that they will be historical failures without integrity.

    Presidents Clinton and Nixon lost integrity with their power and abilities. Clinton has used his wife to further his prowess. President Nixon lost his historical balance with his denial through impeachment. President Nixon didn’t have President Clinton’s historical definition of “is” nor a wife that was her own political entity that hasn’t given up.

  • LawyerTom1

    1. The extremists will attack anyone deemed apostate, whether Shia or Christian. 2. The circumstances in Syria are much more complex than most talking heads acknowledge, including this essay. 3. There are treaties that create obligations, so it is not just an argument about morality, though many talking heads make it so. 4. There are mass kilings in civil wars over time and throughout the globe. Truly truly sad. Some mechanism must be found to intervene. Picking one slaughter over another, looking only at the lives lost, is reprehensible. However, the cold logic of national interest focuses on Syria (given what and where it is) as opposed to some of the slaughters around the globe. Merely ignoring some slaughters over others is not reason to not try and stop some. In an ideal world we would try to stop them all — that is the long-range goal to be achieved.

  • LawyerTom1

    1. The extremists will attack anyone deemed apostate, whether Shia or Christian. 2. The circumstances in Syria are much more complex than most talking heads acknowledge, including this essay. 3. There are treaties that create obligations, so it is not just an argument about morality, though many talking heads make it so. 4. There are mass kilings in civil wars over time and throughout the globe. Truly truly sad. Some mechanism must be found to intervene. Picking one slaughter over another, looking only at the lives lost, is reprehensible. However, the cold logic of national interest focuses on Syria (given what and where it is) as opposed to some of the slaughters around the globe. Merely ignoring some slaughters over others is not reason to not try and stop some. In an ideal world we would try to stop them all — that is the long-range goal to be achieved.

  • Jay Bagley

    Having been stationed in Thailand and the Philippines while the Cambodia slaughter went on after the fall of Vietnam and my wife helping in Uganda. While all of the people dying in slaughters in those countries for various reasons, we pick Syria in only 1300 to 100,000 people dying while millions were probably wiped out in Africa.

    Russia will maybe come out looking as the good guy due to their KGB and military trained President that just came back as President.

    We are almost in the reformation of the crusades of the past. Hopefully, King Richard will not be replaced by our King on the battlefront. King John is not necessarily what we want in 2016.

  • Jay Bagley

    Having been stationed in Thailand and the Philippines while the Cambodia slaughter went on after the fall of Vietnam and my wife helping in Uganda. While all of the people dying in slaughters in those countries for various reasons, we pick Syria in only 1300 to 100,000 people dying while millions were probably wiped out in Africa.

    Russia will maybe come out looking as the good guy due to their KGB and military trained President that just came back as President.

    We are almost in the reformation of the crusades of the past. Hopefully, King Richard will not be replaced by our King on the battlefront. King John is not necessarily what we want in 2016.

  • tony55398

    To stop the slaughter we should look to the United Nations, why should one country, our country, be the nation that always jumps into the fray. If anything it should be Middle Eastern countries supplying the money and the troops, they seem intent on dying and killing for Allah, that is if there are any left that are neutral, otherwise the United Nations was created for just this type of conflict, it’s time to use their resources.

  • tony55398

    To stop the slaughter we should look to the United Nations, why should one country, our country, be the nation that always jumps into the fray. If anything it should be Middle Eastern countries supplying the money and the troops, they seem intent on dying and killing for Allah, that is if there are any left that are neutral, otherwise the United Nations was created for just this type of conflict, it’s time to use their resources.

  • theological-pundit

    This incoherent, rambling political commentary adds nothing of substance to a discussion that demands serious treatment. The presentation of the First Crusade is shallow and misleading. The rhetorical questions obscure more than they clarify. The ethical analysis is trivial and uninformed. I am familiar with Prof Demacopoulos’s professional publications and none of his expertise is relevant to this topic. It is genuinely startling that a major newspaper would print an opinion piece that has so little merit.

  • theological-pundit

    This incoherent, rambling political commentary adds nothing of substance to a discussion that demands serious treatment. The presentation of the First Crusade is shallow and misleading. The rhetorical questions obscure more than they clarify. The ethical analysis is trivial and uninformed. I am familiar with Prof Demacopoulos’s professional publications and none of his expertise is relevant to this topic. It is genuinely startling that a major newspaper would print an opinion piece that has so little merit.

  • JohnnyZs

    Everyone keeps saying Syria is so complicated, it’s so complicated. What armed conflict is complicated? And what political debate isn’t saturated with overlapping concerns and a great deal of self-interest. It’s nice to see some historical perspective, even if it had to be jammed into an 800-word format. It’s too bad that so few people seem to be thinking in terms of how most of the disaster we otherwise call the Middle East is the result of European and now American colonial exploitation.

  • JohnnyZs

    Everyone keeps saying Syria is so complicated, it’s so complicated. What armed conflict is complicated? And what political debate isn’t saturated with overlapping concerns and a great deal of self-interest. It’s nice to see some historical perspective, even if it had to be jammed into an 800-word format. It’s too bad that so few people seem to be thinking in terms of how most of the disaster we otherwise call the Middle East is the result of European and now American colonial exploitation.

  • MGreenberg

    Praise to Professor Demacopoulos for bringing thoughtful insight to this complex situation! It is imperative that our foreign policy makers try to understand the history and culture of the region so they can offer alternatives to escalated military action. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

  • MGreenberg

    Praise to Professor Demacopoulos for bringing thoughtful insight to this complex situation! It is imperative that our foreign policy makers try to understand the history and culture of the region so they can offer alternatives to escalated military action. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

  • alnium

    What we do (or don’t do) in Syria is completely irrelevant. Muslim have been, are and will be forever barbarians. Is the barbarism of Muslin for the past 14 centuries the fault of the US? As long as there is one Muslim left alive there will be a Jihad against anyone that is not a Muslim.

  • alnium

    What we do (or don’t do) in Syria is completely irrelevant. Muslim have been, are and will be forever barbarians. Is the barbarism of Muslin for the past 14 centuries the fault of the US? As long as there is one Muslim left alive there will be a Jihad against anyone that is not a Muslim.

  • 3vandrum

    “Why Syria or Iraq and not Sudan?”
    Oil is not the only issue. How about Israel? There is no Israel next to Sudan. If similar incidents ( using chemicals as weapons) happen in Sudan or Tibet, America will be happy to wait for the UN response or international response. America cannot be the moral policeman for the entire planet.

  • 3vandrum

    “Why Syria or Iraq and not Sudan?”
    Oil is not the only issue. How about Israel? There is no Israel next to Sudan. If similar incidents ( using chemicals as weapons) happen in Sudan or Tibet, America will be happy to wait for the UN response or international response. America cannot be the moral policeman for the entire planet.

  • Rongoklunk

    It’s time God got involved. For that last two thousand years he hasn’t done a single thing. Tsunamis come and go, so do earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts and famines. And God does nothing. Even when Jewish people were being ethnically cleansed during the Holocaust – God totally ignored it. Why would a so-called ‘loving’ God
    never ever lift a finger to help anyone in distress? It’s obviously because he’s nothing but a character of the imagination – like the thousands of other gods our ancestors invented in ancient times. Religion makes no sense in the twenty-first century. We have science and commonsense now, and don’t need man-made gods anymore.

  • Rongoklunk

    It’s time God got involved. For that last two thousand years he hasn’t done a single thing. Tsunamis come and go, so do earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts and famines. And God does nothing. Even when Jewish people were being ethnically cleansed during the Holocaust – God totally ignored it. Why would a so-called ‘loving’ God
    never ever lift a finger to help anyone in distress? It’s obviously because he’s nothing but a character of the imagination – like the thousands of other gods our ancestors invented in ancient times. Religion makes no sense in the twenty-first century. We have science and commonsense now, and don’t need man-made gods anymore.

  • VirginiaJim

    God has helped me when I sought His help, in a way that the doctors at Bethesda could not explain from the point of medical science. I understand that those predisposed by choice or education to either accept or deny events as coming from the hand of God will tend to do so. I was predisposed to reject God moving in my life, He did so anyway.

    Beyond what God chooses to do, Jesus charges His servants to help others. This is done both individually and as an organized effort (World Vision, Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, etc.). There are numerous examples of where faith in God has caused believers to extend compassion beyond what seems to be the normal inclination of mankind. For example, the modern system of hospitals that we enjoy owes its existance to Christianity. The following is from Wikipedia:

    The declaration of Christianity as accepted religion in the Roman Empire drove an expansion of the provision of care. Following First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. construction of a hospital in every cathedral town was begun. Among the earliest were those built by the physician Saint Sampson in Constantinople and by Basil, bishop of Caesarea in modern-day Turkey. Called the “Basilias”, the latter resembled a city and included housing for doctors and nurses and separate buildings for various classes of patients.

    I agree we don’t need man-made gods, which Christians refer to as idols, rather we need to seek the real God.

  • VirginiaJim

    God has helped me when I sought His help, in a way that the doctors at Bethesda could not explain from the point of medical science. I understand that those predisposed by choice or education to either accept or deny events as coming from the hand of God will tend to do so. I was predisposed to reject God moving in my life, He did so anyway.

    Beyond what God chooses to do, Jesus charges His servants to help others. This is done both individually and as an organized effort (World Vision, Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, etc.). There are numerous examples of where faith in God has caused believers to extend compassion beyond what seems to be the normal inclination of mankind. For example, the modern system of hospitals that we enjoy owes its existance to Christianity. The following is from Wikipedia:

    The declaration of Christianity as accepted religion in the Roman Empire drove an expansion of the provision of care. Following First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. construction of a hospital in every cathedral town was begun. Among the earliest were those built by the physician Saint Sampson in Constantinople and by Basil, bishop of Caesarea in modern-day Turkey. Called the “Basilias”, the latter resembled a city and included housing for doctors and nurses and separate buildings for various classes of patients.

    I agree we don’t need man-made gods, which Christians refer to as idols, rather we need to seek the real God.

  • DRJJJ

    We don’t need man made gods is right, I agree! We’re idol making machines! The Holy Bible is inspired by God, written by the Holy spirit and feature the messiah, Jesus! It’s all we need! Loving God and loving others-what a horrible world view to promote huh?

  • DRJJJ

    We don’t need man made gods is right, I agree! We’re idol making machines! The Holy Bible is inspired by God, written by the Holy spirit and feature the messiah, Jesus! It’s all we need! Loving God and loving others-what a horrible world view to promote huh?

  • VirginiaJim

    The article ignores the historic fact that the Middle East was largely Christian prior to the conquering Islamic armies. By its theology, Christianity does not push for a physcial conquering body of believers, Islam does.

  • VirginiaJim

    The article ignores the historic fact that the Middle East was largely Christian prior to the conquering Islamic armies. By its theology, Christianity does not push for a physcial conquering body of believers, Islam does.