Back in April 2011, at the height of the so-called Arab Spring, I published an essay on realclearreligion that made me few friends. Under the title “Death Warrant of Ancient Christianity,” I pointed out that while it was proper to criticize despotic regimes in the Middle East, we should be very careful indeed about trying to destabilize them without thinking through the consequences.
Under the Ba’ath regime in Syria, especially, minorities of all shades found a home in a way that is no longer possible virtually anywhere else in the region. Apart from Egypt – a land in increasing turmoil – Syria is the last bastion of those ancient communities of Middle East Christians, so that overthrowing that unlovely regime might be a catastrophe for those two or three million believers. The ethical issue is agonizing: is it proper to support the continuation of a heavy-handed dictatorship if that regime is a safeguard against far worse successors? The events of the past year have made that dilemma even more acute, as extreme Islamist groups have emerged as the primary military foes of the Syrian regime.
Worse, Western groups now call overtly for military intervention against the Ba’athists, in the hope of establishing – what? – the kind of stable social order and Scandinavian-style liberal democracy that now thrives in neighboring Iraq? It was wonderful recently to see the leaders of Russia’s Orthodox Church speak out so powerfully against any talk of intervention, precisely because they realize so clearly the deadly threat to Christian minorities.
The West might like to see the Ba’ath regime crushed as thoroughly as its counterpart in Iraq, but as on that earlier occasion, the religious consequences of intervention could be horrible. Before planning to intervene in Syria, Western nations had better start printing several million immigration visas to hand out to refugees seeking political asylum, and demanding protection from religious persecution.
Just once in history, might it be possible for the West to act in such a way that acknowledges the existence of the Middle East’s Christian communities, and even tries to avoid ruining their interests? No, forgive me: the idea is too fantastic.
In light of this, I return even more forcefully to my original plea:
Any Western intervention in Syria would likely supply the death warrant for the ancient Christianity of the Middle East. For anyone concerned about Christians worldwide — even if you believe firmly in democracy and human rights — it’s hard to avoid this prayer: Lord, bring democracy to Syria, but not in my lifetime.