President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
September 9, 2013
Religious Minorities and Religious Freedom in Syria
Dear Mr. President,
I have just returned from Syria, where I traveled extensively between Tartus, a coastal town teeming with refugees, and the war-torn city of Homs. I had the opportunity to meet with many displaced Christians, Sunni Muslims and Alawites. They are horrified at the prospect of American missiles soon descending upon their country.
Wherever I traveled I was struck by the convergence of views with those of Pope Francis I, who condemned the use of chemical weapons, but also urged you to “lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution.” There is a widespread consensus among the displaced that using such direct means to achieve your declared goal of affecting regime change will not lead to “democratic transition,” as you pledged, but will instead pave the way to authoritarian Sunni Islamist domination.
While we were on the road to Homs, my host - a church worker - received a call from her terrorized brother in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula. That morning, American-backed Islamist rebels, including elements of the Free Syrian Army, used a suicide bomber to overrun a government checkpoint, and then burst into the lightly guarded town. The rebels vandalized ancient Christian monuments, shouted militant Islamist slogans, called Christians idol-worshipping kufar (infidels), and ordered them to leave their homes. Most of Maaloula’s Christians fled for refuge to government-controlled parts of Damascus.
Such scenes of anti-minority religious cleansing have increasingly become a feature of Syria’s civil strife since you announced regime change as American policy in August 2011. Displaced war victims have provided me with accounts of targeted violence committed by rebel groups against religious minorities, especially Alawites and Christians. They include assassinations, ritual beheadings, hostage taking, and the desecration of churches and other religious symbols.
The violence against religious minorities in Syria has escalated in the context of the release of a previously pent-up but powerful jihadist spirit of Sunni supremacism. This intolerant spirit was and continues to be politically, religiously and financially fueled by America’s regional allies, especially Saudi Arabia. With the outsourcing of the implementation of much of the United States’ regime change policy to such regional allies, Sunni supremacist armed forces, including those directly linked to Al-Qaida, have come to dominate the military opposition to the Assad regime.
Visiting the Christian village of Ein al-Ajouz, I met a traumatized, displaced Christian grandmother, Zahiha. She and her family fled their home in Homs in the spring of 2011 when anti-government Islamist agitation at a nearby mosque threatened their security. Zahiha sought safety in her native village, Ein al-Ajouz. At first Zahiha thought she had found it. But last month, a minibus carrying visitors from Damascus was blown up near her dwelling by a roadside bomb. One girl was killed. Three days later, on the 17th of August, a band of rebels from the nearby opposition-controlled Citadel of the Knights killed local village guards. They then stole one of their vehicles and shot at passers-by, killing five young people, and wounding others, including her cousin. Zahiha is terrified that the American airstrikes you intend to launch will provide cover for the rebels garrisoned at the Citadel to descend upon her village in force.
It is not only the religious minorities of Syria that are victimized by the religious intolerance of Washington-backed rebel armies. Moderate Sunni Muslims are also victims. For example, I spoke with Anwar Salem, a displaced Sunni from the Ein Tarma suburb of Damascus - one of the sites of the recent poison gas attack. Mr. Salem told me:
The opposition took control of our neighborhood in the spring of 2011. I fled with my family in October 2012. Soon after the uprising began, armed groups infiltrated our neighborhood. I knew the people who first came in with the Free Syrian Army. They were mostly criminal types. Their initial targets were state institutions, such as the police and, health clinics. They closed the schools and used them as prisons for those whom they arrested for crimes, and for people whom they kidnapped for ransoms. The various opposition groups fought against each other. Religious extremists eventually achieved supremacy. They established Sharia courts. These courts passed the death sentence on anyone whom they believed was associated with the government. One of their fatwas gave permission for mujahideen soldiers to marry girls as young as 8-years-old. These groups claim the right to confiscate property and girls. All they have to do is enter a dwelling shouting “Allahu Akhbar” and then they feel entitled to occupy the place and steal the contents. I pray and go to the mosque regularly, but their Islam is not my Islam. What these people are doing has nothing to do with democracy. It is the Americans that allowed these terrorists to come and create this havoc. If the rebels follow me here to Tartus, I will go home to Ein Tarma and die there.
Moderate Sunnis like Mr. Salem, and the displaced Christians and Alawites with whom I spoke, are well aware of the dark character of the Syrian police state, and the Assad regime’s readiness to use draconian measures to maintain its hold on power. But they are also convinced by experience that American support for Sunni supremacist rebels will not only fail to produce democracy, but will also result in the loss of the considerable religious freedom and parity that the Assad regime granted. For this reason, many Syrians – 70%, according to NATO intelligence sources – cling to the Syrian government for protection, and want nothing to do with the US-supported Islamist rebels.
In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, former U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith noted:
“The Syrian opposition has not even tried to win the support of the country’s minorities. There is no program, or even meaningful discussion, of how a post-Assad regime might protect Syria’s Alawites from retribution. Nor has the opposition acknowledged or addressed the fears of Syria’s Christians.”
Ambassador Galbraith’s assessment is no less true of the United States and its regional Sunni allies.
I urge you, Mr. President, to present to the American public, as central elements of your Syria policy, guarantees of the rights of Syria’s religious minorities, and religious freedom and parity for all Syrians. The people of both the United States and Syria merit this before you give orders to escalate further American military intervention with airstrikes and more extensive covert activity. Credibility requires that such guarantees are endorsed publicly by our regional Islamist allies, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, plus by the Syrian opposition.
I also commend to you Congressman Chris Smith’s proposal for the United States to ask the UN Security Council, before further American military intervention, to establish a War Crimes Tribunal for Syria with a mandate to prosecute and convict the perpetrators of atrocities committed by all parties to Syria’s civil war.
Failure to act in this direction will substantially increase the risk of genocidal consequences for the religious minorities should there be direct American military intervention.
Dr. John Eibner
CEO, Christian Solidarity International-USA
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