Ghosts in Syria: Christians caught in the war are ignored in Washington Post

Ghosts, it might be said, hover over every battlefield. Once you’ve heard or read the haunting World War I poem In Flanders Fields, you may never forget it.

Tragically, the ghosts of Christian communities in Syria -- even the plight of Christians still living there -- are in danger of being forgotten in the rush of secular coverage of the civil war in that cratered land. A story yesterday in the Washington Post stands as a sad example.

The newspaper paints an artful, ominous picture of the "mini world war" it says now rages in Syria:

KILIS, Turkey — Across the olive groves and wheat fields of the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, a battle with global dimensions risks erupting into a wider war.
Russian warplanes are bombing from the sky. Iraqi and Lebanese militias aided by Iranian advisers are advancing on the ground. An assortment of Syrian rebels backed by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are fighting to hold them back. Kurdish forces allied both to Washington and Moscow are taking advantage of the chaos to extend Kurdish territories. The Islamic State has snatched a couple of small villages, while all the focus was on the other groups.

The Post notes that Russia's involvement affirms its "stature as a regional power" in the Middle East. It says also that, through proxies like Hezbollah and other Shiite militias, Iran is stretching Shia influence far beyond its original centers. But the article doesn't forget the human price -- at least, the price for most humans. Its sources say that driving out civilians has actually become a military tactic: “It’s a much cheaper and easier way to occupy territory than by trying to win hearts and minds. They’re simply going to push people out so that there is no insurgency.”

I say "for most humans" because I see nothing of Christian humans in this story. It interviews a refugee from town that is 95 percent emptied in the contested area of Syria. He and others "tell stories of entire villages being crushed and communities displaced," the newspaper says.

But while talking of Shiite Iraqi and Lebanese militias "extending the sway of Iran far beyond the traditional Shiite axis of influence into Sunni areas of northern Syria," the article forgets that some of those areas have also been Christian.

Perhaps the newspaper's myopia comes from its dependence on strategic think tankers for this story. If, say, it had read the Vatican Press, it would have gotten a closeup of Christians huddling in Aleppo -- not only those gathered around a Marist Brothers house, but around Armenian Catholic and Greek-Orthodox churches.

The Vatican also quotes a priest missionary on some disturbing claims about the persecution:

"At least 120 Christians" says the priest, "have found refuge in the house of the Marist Brothers." Among the fugitives, news about murders and rapes of women perpetrated against families who were linked to the army government circulate. "Even I have heard of this," says Father David, "but the information we receive is a lot and sometimes contradictory, and for the moment there is no way of verifying it. "Yesterday, through the social network youtube the fatwa issued by Yasir al-Ajlawni was released - A Jordanian Salafi sheikh - resident in Damascus – who declares lawful for opponents of the regime of Bashar al-Assad rape committed against "any Syrian woman not Sunni." According to the disturbing sheikh, capturing and raping Alawi or Christian women is not contrary to the precepts of Islam.

Such details would have been a good balance to the strategists' remarks from 30,000 feet in the Post article.

The Toronto-based National Post, too, offers some perspective on Syria via Cuba. Columnist Father Raymond J. de Souza today drew out the Middle Eastern portion of the joint statement by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church:

The joint declaration stressed above all the need to defend Christians from facing lethal persecution in their ancient homelands in the Middle East where, it bears constant repeating, their communities existed before Islam was founded. Who will protect them? At best, the American and European powers seek to contain the anti-Christian massacres, and often fail at that. Neither America nor Europe has its heart in the fight against Islamist persecution of Christians.

Perhaps many mainstream media lack that heart as well. The Huffington Post ran an assessment of Syria today by military blogger Joseph V. Micallef. His rambling, 1,700-word piece mentions Sunni and Shiite fighters, Hezbollah and al-Nusra Front, Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State. Christians? All Micallef gives them a single sentence:  "Syrian Christians and Armenians living in the city sided with the Syrian government and formed their own militias." He takes more interest in the Great Mosque of Damascus, "considered to be the fourth holiest place in Islam … containing the tomb of Saladin, and according to local lore, is supposed to be the site where Jesus will appear at the 'end of days.' "

It's not like the Washington Post is unaware of the Christians' distress. On Christmas Eve, it ran a touching feature on Iraqi and Syrian Christians who have taken refuge in Lebanon. And last month, the Post featured Patriarch Youssef III Younan of the Syrian Catholic Church in Rome, denouncing the persecution of Syrian and Iraqi Christians by Islamist militants. But what did the newspaper lead with? A headline that snickered, "Syria’s leading Roman Catholic is upset Iran’s president didn’t see naked figures."

But none of the above mention the kidnappings of two Orthodox bishops -- one Greek, one Syriac -- from Aleppo, still unreleased three years later. It falls to media outside the mainstream to keep an eye out, and hope the rest of us pay attention.

OK, I get that you can't write everything about everything, or you would never finish. The most recent WaPo article focuses on Syria as staging ground for a mini-Cold War. But any assessment calculus of the war must include more than conflicts between east and west, even more than the ancient hatreds between Sunni and Shia. It must also include the cultural and spiritual atrocities dealt against communities older than Russia or the U.S. or Islam itself.

There may be only one thing worse than a spiritual and cultural ghost: silently watching a whole community turn into one.

Thumbnail: Church of St. Simeon Stylite near Aleppo, Syria.


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