Facing possibly imminent Western strikes in response to a suspected nerve gas attack by the Syrian regime against its own people, Syrian Christians are sending us a clear message. In case you’ve missed it, this headline from «La Stampa» sums it up pretty well: “Christians in the Middle East unanimously oppose potential raid on Syria.” Given that the comments are coming from high ranking officials of the local church hierarchy, we would be well advised to listen. This piece seeks not so much to take a stand on what the Western response should be, but to propose a tool through which to read the warning messages from Christian clerics in the region.
Recently, I’ve been haunted by the similarities between the statements of these Christian churchmen and the words of Archbishop Óscar A. Romero of El Salvador shortly before he was martyred in 1980. Both are responding to the prospect of U.S. intervention in their countries, pleading with the U.S. not to get involved. When such objections are raised, must we listen? My first thought is: of course we should listen, these are Christian pastors and, often, fellow Catholics. I think of Romero, who would claim for the Church the authority that God the Father confers on Jesus to remind us of our moral obligation to listen (e.g., Matthew 17:5—“This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!”). I think of Pope Paul VI, who told the U.N. General Assembly in October 1965 that the Church is an “expert in humanity.” Of course, the Church also has expertise in the morality of the use of force, with its “Just War” theory continuing to hold sway in international law discussions of the subject. But, rather than discuss this at a philosophical, theoretical or theological level, let us analyze some discrete points.
It sounds political. First and foremost, I was struck by the discordant tenor of some of the discourse from Christian leaders in the region. Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregoire III Laham was quoted as saying that, “The U.S.’s planned attack on Syria is a criminal act.” That may strike some as strident, to say the least, given that no attack had yet occurred when the statement was made. Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako in Baghdad likened the prospective intervention to U.S. action in Iraq, of which he was critical: “After 10 years of the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ that overthrew Saddam, our Country is still battered by bombs, security problems, by the instability of the economic crisis.” When Archb. Romero used similarly strong language, the U.S. State Department drafted a letter to the Pope criticizing alleged partisanship in the archbishop.
It’s not political. Of course, it’s simplistic to dismiss clerics who raise objections to military intervention as mere partisans. Besides, if you analyze the political alignments, such a critique doesn’t make much sense. When Romero wrote a letter to the U.S. President warning against military involvement in El Salvador, its recipient was Jimmy Carter, a liberal Democrat with an avowed affinity for human rights. And, of course, when Syrian Christians speak against U.S. intervention today, they address their grievances to Barack Obama, another left-leaning Democrat, who campaigned for the presidency criticizing his predecessor’s interventionist projects and who visited the region vowing a new era of cooperation with the Muslim world. (In other words, it’s not a bunch of leftist foreign clerics against a conservative U.S. politician.)
Every situation is different. Again, lest anyone confuse this reflection for editorializing, let us be clear that the point of this thought piece is not, ‘Romero was right, therefore the Syrian Christians are right.’ I am usually the first to object to attempts to extrapolate Romero from his unique, historical moment and use him as an all-purpose litmus to be applied to situations that may be radically different from the moment in history in which he lived. Romero himself warns, counter-intuitively, that, “History does not repeat itself even though it is said: ‘History repeats itself’.” Certain patterns and archetypes may recur, but history is “varied,” Romero maintained. The only constant is God, who delights “to change history and ‘makes all things new’.” (C.f., Isaiah 43:19, Revelation 21:5.) Favoring intervention, the greatest thing that weighs on my mind—and must weigh on those with the power to act—is the thought that, during the Second World War, it is said that the Allies had some knowledge about the possible locations of extermination camps, but opted not to bomb. Surely, at some point, human rights violations arise to the level that action, even unauthorized action, is a Christian obligation. When pastor Bonhoeffer became involved in a plot to kill Hitler, his action was morally cloaked in that obligation. But happily, this is not a piece on how to address a humanitarian crisis, but simply pointers on how to listen to the Christian voices within it.
There are certain undeniable similarities in the Salvador-Syria comparison. Let’s take a closer look at five of them.
1. Death of Christians. One thing Christian leaders are telling us is that our involvement could have tragic consequences for Christian clerics. As was true in El Salvador, where six of Archbishop Romero’s priests had been assassinated and twenty more (including Romero) would be killed before the dust settled, Syria, in particular, has Christian clergy in the crosshairs. The Syriac Orthodox bishop of Aleppo, Youhanna Ibrahim, and the Greek Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo and Iskenderun, Boulos al-Yaziji, were kidnapped and remain missing. An Italian Jesuit Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, was also kidnapped and is feared dead. Fr. François Murad was killed in June. “I would like everyone to know,” said Fr. Halim Noujaim, the Franciscans’ regional minister for Syria and Lebanon, “that the West, in supporting the revolutionaries, is supporting religious extremists and helping to kill Christians.”
2. Geopolitical standoff. As was true with the Salvadoran crisis, the regional conflict in Syria is an expression of a larger global confrontation. El Salvador was a flare-up in the Cold War showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which were funding the combatants in the local conflict. “Everything that is going on in the Middle East,” says Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, “be it in Egypt, Syria or Iraq, is a two-dimensional war,” pitting moderates against fundamentalists and, in a larger sense, plays against the U.S.-led War on Terror. “I hate to have to say it, but there are countries, Western especially,” says the Patriarch, “that are fuelling these conflicts.” Geopolitical conflicts are, by definition, worldly, mundane, and the Church’s transcendent, eternal perspective can help us take the long view.
3. Right to be free from foreign intervention. Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak expressed this principle unambiguously when he declared that, “We are Egyptian, an integral part of the Egyptian people” and that “foreign intervention in Egypt's internal affairs or its sovereignty under any pretext, for example under the pretext of protecting Christians, is rejected.” As Archb. Romero put it, “God works out the history of salvation in each people’s history. Each people is different from every other and no imperial power may interfere with or influence our people’s way of being.”
4. Military action lacking moral credibility will not be successful. Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregoire III Laham has warned that military intervention would lack credibility in the region because no one would believe that the U.S. and the E.U. would use military force to defend the weak. “No one believes that!” Even though it may be grating on Western ears to hear such a condemnation, it is a blunt assessment of how we are perceived in certain parts of the world. The Church is not trying to elbow her way into the debate to become one more partisan voice of discord, said Archb. Romero. “Rather, with the autonomy and freedom of the Children of God offered by the Gospel, our mission is to indicate what may be good in each plan in order to encourage such plans, and what may be bad in any program the Church must seek ways to have those elements removed.”
5. Failure of intelligence. Patriarch Sako warned that US-led military intervention in Syria would be “a disaster. It would be like a volcano erupting with an explosion meant to destroy Iraq, Lebanon, [and] Palestine.” As previously noted, he pointed to the continuing trouble in his country (Iraq) and Patriarch Laham recalled the faulty intelligence that precipitated the original invasion, regarding the alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction by the Iraqi regime (which was never borne out). Such warnings from the ground can be useful if the sources are reliable. In his letter to Jimmy Carter arguing against U.S. military involvement in El Salvador, Archb. Romero warned against plans for U.S. military advisors to train three Salvadoran battalions. Those battalions would later be dismantled because of their notorious human rights records, including responsibility for the worst civilian massacre on the American content.
There is a lot of agitation surrounding this issue. Worse still, there is a lot of indifference. Perhaps with these points in mind, we can listen to what our fellow Christians are saying and give them a fair hearing.