Christians Have An Assad Problem: A Story of Violence During Holy Week

In 1982, extremist rebels from the the city of Hama, Syria rose up in insurrection against the government of Hafez al-Assad, father to the current Syrian dictator. Sunni anger at the Alawite Muslim Assad regime had been raging for years with numerous violent incidents including an assassination attempt on the dictator in 1980. Islamism had become a unifying theme among dissidents who opposed the Assad regime’s secular government, as well as their socialist economic policies, which seized lands and businesses from wealthy Sunnis to be redistributed to political allies. These rebels in Hama, with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and wealthy Sunni land owners, murdered over seventy members of the ruling political party and their families in February 1982 and distributed thousands of weapons to fellow insurgents in the city as they quickly took control. Calls for jihad rang out from the mosques with the hopes that the rebellion would spread throughout Syria to take down the Assad regime.

The Assad regime’s response in 1982 mirrors the response of Syria’s current dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to the Arab Spring in 2011. The regime bombed the city of Hama from the air and shelled it with artillery for three weeks, indiscriminately killing insurgents, Islamists, Christians, and civilians in the city. An estimated 10,000 to 40,000 people, overwhelmingly civilians, died as a result of the siege and subsequent executions. Starving civilians were forced to flee their homes as the military continued to shell the city. Hafez al-Assad was determined to end the uprising against his government that had been waging at low levels for years and was willing to kill tens of thousands of civilians to do it. His strategy worked. After 1982, Syrian Islamists never seriously challenged his rule again.

International condemnation to the Hama massacre in 1982 was nearly non-existent. The Syrian government restricted information about the event and the international community largely ignored it. News of Hama nonetheless spread throughout Syria, but this was to the Assad regime’s advantage. Hafez al-Assad wanted Hama to be a warning to anyone who opposed him. Sunni Muslims inside Syria quietly condemned him, but their opposition to the regime quickly fractured following the massacre as fear of Assad rose and trust in their compatriots fell.  The insurrection ended, but the underlying problems did not.

Minority groups like the Christians and the Druze in Syria were doubly terrified. If they opposed Assad, what would stop Assad from murdering them and their families? And if the Islamists overthrew Assad, what would the Islamists do to them? Terrified of both government punishment and extremist violence, Christians in Syria, like other minority groups, were trapped. When faced with potential violence from fanatics, they overwhelmingly chose Assad. They still do.

Mark 15:1-15

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

The Sadducees, who dominated the council mentioned here in Mark, were the priestly aristocracy of Jerusalem. They were powerful, educated, and, of course, wealthy. They are depicted as manipulating opinions of the crowds and of Pontius Pilate to force the death of Jesus. Since his crucifixion, the Sadducees have been reviled by Christians. Even the Jewish historian Josephus speaks poorly of them saying they “have the confidence of the wealthy alone but no following among the populace.”

They should be pitied.

The Sadducees were responsible for temple worship and managing the Temple’s administration. The Temple wasn’t just a religious institution concerned with worship and ritual. It was also a political and financial entity that brought in an enormous amount of money and gave political credibility to Jerusalem’s rulers. The Romans preferred to rule through client kings like Herod, but when none proved able or when conditions were poor, they appointed Roman governors. These client kings and governors worked with the Sadducees to institute Roman policies and to keep the peace.

There’s a fine line between selling out your people and attempting to be a voice of moderation when caught between a brutal, oppressive Roman regime and a rebellious, fanatically religious populace. For all their faults, the Sadducees tried to walk that line arguing for the well-being of local Jews to Rome and attempting to quell and discredit radical locals who would encourage insurrection. Ultimately, their efforts failed. Radicals in Judea revolted and Rome crushed the rebellion, butchered thousands of innocent people, and destroyed the Temple. The Sadducees could see the imminent calamity and for decades attempted to prevent it from happening. Many were decent, well-meaning people, but others Sadducees were corrupt who grew wealthy off Roman favors and local suffering.

In the Gospel of Mark, Sadducees aren’t treated very favorably. They are depicted as colluding to get an innocent Jesus killed by the Romans because of their reported “jealousy.” Likely, the Sadducees just viewed Jesus the same way they viewed people like Barrabas. They were dangerous insurrectionists that risked the lives of Judeans and their ability to freely carry out their faith and traditions.

The position of the Sadducees is understandable. They were stuck. As the Romans murdered, tortured, and humiliated their opposition in Judea and beyond, the Sadducees were terrified. If they opposed the Romans, what would stop the Romans from murdering them and their families? And if the radical insurrectionists overthrew Rome, what would the insurrectionists do to them? Unlike the Christian position in Syria, we already know the answer. The Sadducees were right to be afraid. After the rebellion was crushed and the temple destroyed, the Sadducees disappeared forever.

They should be pitied.

Wars between powerful, brutal regimes and local religious groups force people to choose sides. The regime wants to depict all who oppose it as radical insurrectionists. Today, we call them “terrorists.” The rebels want to depict all who side with the regime as collaborators and traitors. Both groups force you to choose a side. As war intensifies, an odd thing happens. The side you were forced to choose, but of which you were never really a part, inevitably becomes your actual side in the conflict. Work with extremists out of necessity or happenstance, and you become an extremist. Work with the regime out of necessity or happenstance and you become a traitor. That’s the reality of such conflicts.

Bashar al-Assad is barbaric murderer responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. For years he has bombed the cities of his own citizens targeting hospitals, schools, and public areas. His secret police round up anyone suspected of opposing him, even when the proof is as slim as you are a 20 year old Sunni male, and he has them imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, and killed. He and his family were brutal before the war, and if he remains president, he will be brutal afterwards.

In this conflict, Syrian Christians have overwhelmingly chosen Assad’s side. They have fought in his army. They have supported him politically. They have appealed to international institutions on his behalf, even if they have done so begrudgingly. They are under no illusions about who Assad is, but understandably, and especially as the war has increasingly radicalized Assad’s opponents, Syrian Christians fear what would happen if Assad would lose. No doubt, their families would face the horrors that we have seen befall Christians in areas held by Islamist extremists in eastern Syria. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Syrians are moderate, decent people, the most effective anti-Assad forces in Syria are fanatical extremists. How do you oppose Assad when his fall may mean the torture, rape, and execution of your family and friends? How do you oppose him when his fall may mean the end of the Christian faith in Syria, which is home to many of the earliest Christian communities, including the writer of the Gospel of Mark?

On Easter, Christians like to see themselves as part of the Jesus movement. We make promises that unlike the disciples, we will not abandon or betray Jesus. We will speak up against injustice. We would hang beside him on the cross. We celebrate that even though empires have the ability to kill gods, that in this new world ushered in by Jesus Christ, death no longer has the final say. In this kingdom, life permanently triumphs over death.

As much as we would like to see ourselves as walking alongside Jesus, in the conflict, Syrian Christians have taken the position of the Sadducees. We shouldn’t blame them. Going against Assad would mean they were enemies of both Assad and extremists ensuring oppression, exile, or death. It’s little wonder then that Syrian Christians view Russia’s actions in Syria favorably despite their many war crimes. Russia, who sees itself as the defender of Orthodox Christians in Syria, will continue to support Assad and bombs his opponents, including civilians. Christian leaders in the West are eager to condemn extremists but are slow to say anything of Assad’s barbarity.

Perhaps the only consistently Christian position towards Assad’s war in Syria is pro-active non-violence and non-compliance with the state. While this has the benefit of being rooted in Christian tradition and the apparent action of Jesus in his ministry, it’s something that is relatively easy to believe when living in the West (or in Jordan) where the Christian is not in danger and doesn’t know anyone who faces threats from extremists or Assad’s secret police. The position also shares the conceit of many policy experts on Syria who are certain that they have the right idea: they assume they fully understand a foreign culture and are certain that they have analyzed their own dogma without bias or error.

While western Christians have the luxury of avoiding the cross when choosing sides in this conflict, it doesn’t absolve them of responsibility for the actions of their governments past or present. Nor does it absolve them of responsibility for speaking out against the rise of violent extremism and the growing death toll at the hands of Assad, Russia, and their allies. No matter what side we choose, or what idealistic or pragmatic position we take, as Westerners, we cannot avoid guilt. A hundred years of bombs, funding militias, cold wars, favoring one ethnic or religious group, redrawing maps, prioritizing mineral rights over human rights, demonizing a culture we don’t understand, and then lamenting that we have to make choices between Assad and extremists – it casts us as both Sadducee and Roman in this story of violence.

Pity the Sadducees. Do not judge them. Pity the Christian Syrians. Do not judge them. The cross and the empty tomb stand before all of us on Easter. No one is left guiltless. Be afraid that God has not forgotten. Also be thankful, God has not forgotten you.

To read more about Christians in Syria, I highly recommend the following two articles from The Economist.  Excellent reading.

The religious response to Syria’s travails is prolix and confused

Aleppo presents a moral dilemma for Christian leaders


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