The Heritage Foundation, a conservative American think tank once known for incubating Ronald Reagan’s policy agenda, hosted an event on January 27 in Washington, D.C., titled, “Marked for Destruction: The Plight of Syria's Christians with Syrian Christian Leaders.” The event itself was superficially noteworthy for the panelists’ refusal to assign any blame for the current crisis in Syria, or for the plight of the country’s Christian population, on the Assad regime, Iran, or Hezbollah. Instead, the focus throughout was on the threat posed by Sunni jihadism and its supposed state sponsors, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, a theme that tracks well with propaganda from Damascus that is now being used to extravagant effect by the regime’s representatives at the Geneva II conference. However, unmentioned by Heritage and seemingly unknown by the attendees of this discussion was that at least two of the invited speakers – both Syrian Christian clerics from different denominations – have a long history of denouncing Israel and Zionism. One of them has also accused the United States of perpetrating terrorism in the Middle East and praised both the “Lebanese resistance” and Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah.
These are views that, to say the least, do not conform to the politics of the staunchly pro-Israel and anti-Iran Heritage Foundation. I asked the think tank if it felt that the presentation assigned adequate responsibility to the Assad regime for the plight of Syrian Christians. Jim Weidman, a spokesman for Heritage, replied by email: “It may be possible that some who attended do not believe that there is religious cleansing… or they may wish those who spoke had focused more on who to blame. But our goal was to raise awareness among American policymakers and the American public of the wanton murder of Christians and the devastation of the region's Christian community.” Weidman would not say if Heritage had vetted any or all of the speakers beforehand.
The “Marked for Destruction” panel discussion consisted of “the first delegation of Syrian Church leaders to visit the United States since the start of the civil war,” as Heritage described it on its website. This delegation was brought to Washington by two other groups, the Westminster Institute, with which Weidman said Heritage “partnered” for the event, and Barnabas Aid. The first is a research organization, also based in Washington, founded in 2009 with a “focus on the threats from extremism and radical ideologies.” The second is a Virginia-based NGO dedicated to “support[ing] Christians where they are in a minority and suffer discrimination, oppression and persecution as a consequence of their faith.”
Both are admirable objectives, yet some of the Syrian clergy on display on Monday are questionable champions of them.
One was Reverend Dr. Riad Jarjour, a Presbyterian clergyman from Syria who is now based in Lebanon. He is the former General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches and now is partly responsible for distributing humanitarian supplies from Barnabas Aid inside the war-torn country. Yet on May 5, 2003, Jarjour delivered a lecture to the Imam Khomeini Centre for Culture in Beirut – a pro-Iranian regime, pro-Hezbollah venue – on the subject of “Christian Zionism.” Support for the Iraq war, he said on that occasion, was “founded upon a Zionist imperialist expansionist racist ideology.” Jarjour also praised Hezbollah, which is wholly blacklisted by the United States as a terrorist entity, for fighting Israel: “We must resist. We must resist because we are the possessors of the right and because we are the sons of right, justice, and peace. And just like the valiant Lebanese resistance overpowered the mighty Israeli military machine, each of us must be committed to its position in that resistance.” Of Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah, Jarjour said: “I note with appreciation all the leaders of our country, political and religious, who are working to deepen the national unity and solidarity and to address potential perversions that may spoil our unity and solidarity. I would like to single out especially Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, who said a few days ago in front of tens of thousands of Lebanese, ‘We will search for a different slogan for this American war on Iraq other than [the phrase] the Crusade.’” The United States’ response to 9/11, he said, included “waging a campaign of terror in the world to address the so-called terrorism that reached it.”
Yet “so-called terrorism” was very much on Jarjour’s mind on January 27. At Heritage, he claimed that “[o]ur suffering as a Christian community started especially when many radical groups came to fight in Syria. We have 15- to 20,000 – I’m not sure about the number – of armed jihadis who came from 50, maybe 60 countries from all over the world to fight in Syria.” The regime earned no mention for its responsibility for the displacement and dispossession of thousands for Christians in Syria and for the destruction of churches. “We have witnessed from the very beginning, in the city of Homs,” Jarjour said, “when the militants were cornered in Khaldiyeh and Bab al-Hama, they came to the Christian quarter of the city of Homs. And somehow they occupied that Christian quarter that has the most ancient churches in Syria and all the Christians of that Christian quarter somehow were forced to leave. All the churches and more than maybe eight of them were destroyed, they were shelled. And people have been uprooted from their homes.”
The implication here that the rebels shelled Homs’ churches is in marked contrast to numerous reports about both the origins of the siege of that city and what continues today. The Telegraph’s Ruth Sherlock noted the cancellation of Easter in April 2012: “Two weeks ago [Syrian Christian] Moussa’s relatives fled from Homs as government forces began shelling the Christian neighborhoods of Hamidiyah and Boustan al-Diwan where they lived. Videos of the area show streets riddled with debris, and concrete buildings shattered by shells and bullet holes.”
Syrian photographer Yazan Homsy wrote on the Syria Deeply website in August 2013:
“Christians who stayed in their neighborhoods alongside Muslim rebels, neutrality was not an acceptable position for the regime. Security checkpoints were erected in an attempt to separate mixed residential quarters. Attempts to remove the checkpoints were met with random shelling that did not differentiate between Christian and Muslim homes or churches and mosques.
“The mainly Christian districts of al-Hamidiyeh and Bustan al-Diwan suffered the brunt of the army bombardments due to their location in the heart of liberated [rebel-held] Homs. Residents were forced to flee at a moment’s notice, leaving most of their possessions behind. Those who remained suffered a worse fate of raids and massacres when regime forces advanced.”
No one contests jihadist persecution of Christians and other minorities in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra is widely suspected of kidnapping a dozen Greek Orthodox Syrian and Lebanese nuns from the ancient town of Maaloula, and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has burnt churches in Raqqa. Italian Jesuit president Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who has supported the anti-Assad protest movement since its inception, was also kidnapped by ISIS in Raqqa. But the Syrian opposition disputes the allegation that Christians have suffered sectarian persecution at the hands of other rebel groups. “There is absolutely no ethnic cleansing of Christians in Syria by rebel forces,” a representative of the U.S.-recognized Syrian National Coalition told NOW. “In fact, Assad’s forces kill indiscriminately, whether people are Christian, Muslim, or Alawite. Father Francis, leader of the Christian community in Homs, made an appeal for Assad to lift the starvation siege as the Muslim and Christian communities are suffering together.”