Friday, September 20, 2013

Cassocks fly over Syria

When listening to many Syrian Christians, or their Lebanese brethren, you would think that only Christians are suffering from the Syrian conflict. These fears are understandable. Whatever happens to Christians takes on an existential turn: when they leave a country in the Middle East, they rarely return.

And yet communal survival should not mean giving up one’s principles or ignoring the teachings of one’s religion. It has been dismaying in the past two and a half years to see Christians, both in Syria and Lebanon, portraying Bashar al-Assad as a protector, even as he and his men have been engaged in mass murder. To place one’s future in such hands is not only reckless, it is suicidal.

Among the ecclesiastical chorus chanting Assad’s name has been, of course, the Maronite Patriarch Bishara al-Rai, who in his greed for travel, exposure, and extravagance has forgotten what the Assad family did to his own community. Alongside him is the Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Lahham, who has rarely missed an opportunity to pander to the Assad regime, helping ensure that his flock will file toward Syria’s borders when or if Assad is overthrown.

But the corruptions and stupidity of the Eastern clergy sometimes grate with their counterparts in the West, less agile in reconciling moral and political inconsistencies. Lately, a public row has broken out after the French bishop of Angouleme, Claude Dagens, criticized Patriarch Lahham’s attitude toward the Syrian conflict, provoking an agitated response from the Greek Catholic cleric.

What bothered Lahham was that in a radio interview Dagens accused him of coordinating closely with Assad during an October 2012 synod in Rome, after which a Vatican delegation was to visit Syria. The delegation was to be headed by the secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. However, the visit was ultimately cancelled.

Particularly galling to Lahham must have been Dagens’ cutting remark that while at the synod he “saw on numerous occasions the illustrious Patriarch Lahham, the leader of the Greek [Catholic] Melkites getting up.” Getting up for what? The implication was to communicate with the Syrian regime as decisions were being taken, implying that Lahham was acting as an agent for Damascus.

In response to a journalist asking him about whether Assad was a barrier to Islamization, Dagens was scathing: “Don’t go with this dramatization, which is a lie and serves the propaganda of Bashar al-Assad. We know that Christians are persecuted in the Middle East for multiple reasons, and we are in solidarity with them; we know what happened in Iraq, and we won’t forget Iraq. But let us not use this argument to defend a dictator who is preparing to commit the worst [crimes], and has already done so… We know that a civil war is taking place, that a bloody dictator is manipulating this bloody war, and that he is manipulating public opinion throughout the world.”

Dagens then dismantled the Assad regime’s misinformation, noting that even the Maalula fighting had been used as a propaganda tool to curry favor among Christians and the West. He was keen to remind listeners of the long Syrian hegemony over Lebanon and the Assad regime’s assassination of Rafiq Hariri, followed by its efforts to prevent the trial of Hariri’s killers. Dagens was equally mordant about the Russians: “Who supplied chemical weapons to the [Syrian] regime,” he asked, “they didn’t come down from heaven…”

Well in fact they did, but only in the moments before they landed on thousands of civilians, after being fired by the soldiers of a regime now somehow held up as a champion of the region’s Christians.

The bishop of Angouleme is one of the rare members of the clergy who understands the perilous stakes today for the Christians of Syria, and even Lebanon. But the reality is that his superiors in the Vatican have been embarrassingly ambiguous and duplicitous about the Syrian conflict and about Assad himself, allowing opportunists such as Rai to defend the Syrian regime with abandon.

And yet the Vatican’s attitude that the enemy of my enemy is my friend is not only irresponsible, it also happens to be historically false. For nearly three decades Syria did everything to weaken the power of the Christians in Lebanon, because it saw that the community was the main obstacle to Syrian control. Two Christian presidents, Bashir Gemayel and Rene Mouawad, were assassinated by the Syrians, while those who made it alive to the palace were humiliated and saw their powers routinely eroded, as did non-Christian politicians.

After the war, Syrian officials passed one electoral law after the other that marginalized Christian voters. In 1992, parliamentary elections took place even though most Christian voters boycotted them. No effort was made to reassure the community or address its anxieties.

As for Syria’s Christians, aside from making money what is their destiny in Syria? As in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, to be protected by a tyrant who will not hesitate to crush them if they ever step out of line. That Christians can take solace in this secondary status and interpret the Assad regime’s “tolerance” of them as commendable is odd. It is odd because a recurring Christian lament about Egypt’s Copts, a yardstick for Christian irrelevance in the region, is that they are second class citizens merely tolerated by Egypt’s regime.

So, what is condemnable in one country is praiseworthy in another. Credit Dagens for being true to himself, and for avoiding the mental acrobatics of speaking in the language of high principle only to hypocritically embrace its most repulsive contradiction. 

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