This sorting out process, Landis said, is bound to be “long and bloody,” and exacerbated by the willingness of powers like Russiaand the United States to use these emerging religious blocs as proxies for their own interests. At the present, Landis noted,Russia is supporting a Shi’ite-led government trying to suppress a Sunni insurgency in Syria, while the U.S. supports a Shi’ite government trying to suppress a Sunni insurgency in neighboring Iraq. As a result, Landis said, “the Sunnis are getting hammered,” facing “near ethnic cleansing” in Iraq, and comprising “the vast majority” of Syria’s four million refugees.
For religious minorities with no government or armed force in the Middle East to call their own – like Mandaeans, Yazidis and Christians – the Great Sorting Out represents a “zero-sum struggle.” If the governments that used to protect them do not survive, they will be forced to flee or face persecution and death. In Iraq, which has been violently sorted out into Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs, Landis noted that “over a million Christians have fled since the war began,” while in Syria, the minority-led regime of President Bashar al-Assad is a protective force for Christians.
Landis identified ISIS, with its large-scale massacres of non-Sunni religious minorities, as “the extreme example” of the Great Sorting Out process in action. At the same time, Landis pointed out that “many rebel leaders in Syria have called for religious cleansing” of non-Sunnis, including Zahran Alloush, a prominent rebel commander killed in an airstrike late last year and the brother of the Syrian opposition representative in Geneva.
As an indicator of the strength of religious identifications and tensions in the region, Landis pointed to the fact that for decades, Syrian children in state-mandated religion classes have studied from textbooks that claim, “Islam accepts only two choices for pagans: that they convert to Islam or be killed” – language that is uncomfortably close to the way ISIS publications speak of their plans for another religious minority in Syria, the Druze.
“I see a very bleak future of Syrians,” Landis concluded. “The war will continue for a long time,” and the pressure on Christians and other religious minorities will only increase.
Landis’ talk was part of a lecture series onThe Future of Religious Minorities in the Middle East being held at Boston College, and sponsored by Christian Solidarity International in cooperation with the Department of Slavic & Eastern Languages & Literatures, the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, and the Department of Political Science, Islamic Civilization and Societies.