The Syrian Church depends on Butcher Assad’s tyranny for safety. Should that matter to us?

According to the Westminster Confession of Faith (the revised American version, not the original), civil governments have a duty to protect all denominations of Christians.

as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger.

Presumably this requirement is consistent with the idea that government should protect the liberty of all people, whether religious or not, and there is no need for it to be interpreted as favoring Christians over those of other faiths. But there are clearly still some among us who insist that civil government is part of Christ’s kingdom and that therefore it is responsible to advance that kingdom in one way or another. At the very least this would seem to require supporting a regime that protects Christians over revolutionaries who would not protect them. Right?

Enter Case Study 1: Syria. The Economist tells us what happened in Syria exactly one week ago:

EYE-WITNESS testimony leaves little doubt about what happened on May 25th in Houla, a small farming town on Syria’s western plain. Two hours after the noon prayer, tank and mortar fire from nearby Syrian army positions began to rain down on Houla and an outlying hamlet called Taldou, perhaps in response to an attack by rebel forces on an army checkpoint. Just before sunset armed men, some in combat uniform and others in civilian clothes, swarmed in from neighbouring villages. Moving from house to house in Taldou, they herded families into single rooms and systematically gunned and hacked them down, sparing not a soul. Another wave of invaders arrived later at night, some in armoured vehicles, and continued the slaughter.

UN observers who surveyed the scene the next day counted 108 dead, including 49 children. The massacre was one of the bloodiest yet in a civil war that has cost an estimated 12,000 lives since unrest started in March last year. But similar assaults, on a smaller scale and often carried out by the shabiha, as the government’s paramilitary thugs are known, have been taking place across swathes of the stricken country.

This is a horrible story, and there is little reason to be comforted that things are going to change anytime soon. The Assad regime is butchering its own people. The instability is spilling over into Lebanon and threatening to plunge that country into civil war as well. The “protestors” in Syria are associated with the “democratic” movements that have spread across the Middle East in the Arab Spring, most notably in Egypt. Syria’s ally is Iran, the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East, and Syria’s strongest non-Muslim supporter is the Russia of authoritarian Vladimir Putin. Seems obvious what should happen right? The international community, for the sake of its own protection, needs to find a way to bring down the Assad regime, and replace it with something more peaceable, stable, and democratic.

Not so says the Russian Orthodox Church. According to the New York Times:

It is clear by now that Russia’s government has dug in against outside intervention in Syria, its longtime partner and last firm foothold in the Middle East. Less well known is the position taken by the Russian Orthodox Church, which fears that Christian minorities, many of them Orthodox, will be swept away by a wave of Islamic fundamentalism unleashed by the Arab Spring.

This argument for supporting sitting leaders has reached a peak around Syria, whose minority population of Christians, about 10 percent, has been reluctant to join the Sunni Muslim opposition against Mr. Assad, fearing persecution at those same hands if he were to fall. If the church’s advocacy cannot be said to guide Russia’s policy, it is one of the factors that make compromise with the West so elusive, especially at a time of domestic political uncertainty for the Kremlin.

When Putin came to power in Russia a few months ago the Orthodox Church had just one request.

The issue of “Christianophobia” shot to the top of the church’s agenda a year ago, with a statement warning that “they are killing our brothers and sisters, driving them from their homes, separating them from their near and dear, stripping them of the right to confess their religious beliefs.” The metropolitan asked Mr. Putin to promise to protect Christian minorities in the Middle East.

The request was one that plunged deep into geopolitics, since Christian minorities are aligned with several of the governments that have faced popular uprisings. The statements on “Christianophobia” amount to a denunciation of Western intervention, especially in Egypt and Iraq, which lost two-thirds of its 1.5 million Christians after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

As one Syrian Christian living in Russia argued, Russia may not exactly have pure motives in its handling of the Syria crisis, but the West has hardly demonstrated much concern for Christians in the Middle East either.

“The West is pursuing its own interests; they are indifferent to our fate,” he said. “I am not justifying the Assad regime — it is dictatorial, we know this, it is despotic, I understand. But these guys, they don’t even hide their intention to build an Islamic state and their methods of battle, where they just execute people on the streets. That’s the opposition, not just the authorities. And we are between two fires.”

So what does the lordship of Christ over all authorities and powers demand here? It is not as if intervention in Syria will bring about any straightforward solution. None of the options on the table look very attractive. But for Christians uncertain about the secular purpose of government – wondering whether or not it is part of Christ’s kingdom or is bound to demonstrate its support for Christians above all else – this dilemma is all the more tortuous.

Of course, we’ve been here before. The 16th and 17th Centuries are full of stories of churches and Christians who compromised justice or peace in the name of protecting (or establishing) a certain form of Christianity. Judging by centuries of Christian decline in Europe, however, sacrificing justice for the sake of an alliance between religion and power hardly does the gospel much good. Whatever we may think about the implications of Christ’s lordship over all of life, assuming that that lordship corresponds to the government’s promotion of Christianity is not the way to go. There is no easy way to fix Syria, but I cannot help but think that distinguishing between two kingdoms, and recognizing that Christians should suffer wrong at the hands of government rather than be allied with injustice, is a helpful place to start.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 1, 2012, in International Affairs, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Syrian Church depends on Butcher Assad’s tyranny for safety. Should that matter to us?.

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