Guardians of the Land – The Syrian War

Guardians of the Land

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The grainy image shows the monk kneeling in front of his Jihadist captors, his hands tied and tethered like a sacrificial animal. The executioner is cheered on by a crowd of men with shouts of “Allahu Akbar’. Many of the bystanders have their faces covered; many also have mobile phones held aloft filming the grisly scene. The end comes not quickly but in a gruesome struggle of a body kicking and writhing as the man is pushed face down into the dusty ground, decapitated with what looks like a simple kitchen knife. The noise of the baying crowd grows ever louder and more manic as the scene reaches its bloody conclusion.

Some weeks later the death of the Franciscan Father Francois Murad was confirmed by the Vatican news agency. Father Francois was killed in Gassanieh, in northern Syria. He had been staying in the convent of the Custody of the Holy Land. His killers alleged that the priest had been collaborating with the Assad regime. According to local sources, the monastery where Fr. Murad was staying was attacked by militants linked to the jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra who have declared as their sole objective the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, under which the law will not allow even the mere presence of “kaffir” (“infidels,” or, in other words, non-Muslims) even those who have lived here for two millennia.

Just a few weeks before news of Fr. Murad’s execution, I read a report from Afghanistan stating that two young boys had been beheaded by the Taliban. Their crime was scrounging food from an army checkpoint to bring to their starving families. In July 2012 in the same district in Kandahar, a 16-year-old boy accused by the Taliban of spying for the government was beheaded and skinned. The next month, a girl aged six and a boy of 12 were kidnapped and beheaded in separate incidents in Kandahar and the east of the country. In 2010 a seven year old boy was hung for “spying”. The child was abducted from his home and taken to a neighbouring village where he was put on trial. The child was then hanged in public in the village of Heratiyan, in the southern Sangin district of Helmand province.

For a liberal westerner one can’t but be appalled at the barbarity and cruelty of these killings done in the name of Allah and Sharia. There are many problems with Western Society. The United States is often called a bastion for protecting core western values and freedoms. However the US is itself a country blighted by issues such as its out of control gun culture that has led to the slaughter of innocents. Despite having a large conservative Christian caucus, the prevailing liberal moral code in America is viewed by more traditional societies as base and immoral. Our own continent has in the lifetime of many still amongst us witnessed the single greatest attempt to wipe out an entire people.  There is no perfect society and one person’s freedom can be just one step across another’s threshold of tolerance. We are reminded that all rights, save fundamental ones, have over time been essentially a moveable feast. Let us not also forget that witches were still been burnt in Europe up until the 19th century, is that any more abhorrent than an adulteress being stoned to death in Kandahar? 

Many of the practices in Islamic Countries that most abhor us in the West, would be very familiar to an early Christian. The cult of martyrdom is shared in many ways with Islam. Was Fr. Murad not described as a Martyr in much of the Catholic Press, dying for his faith?

Many Christians quote the practice of honour killing as something uniquely Islamic but the Bible contains numerous references supporting the practice. At Leviticus 21:9 it states “And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire”. Clearly the justification for killing the girl is that she has brought discredit to the father’s reputation and his honour can only restored by killing his own. It is true that the countries where most honour killings take place today are Arab or Muslim countries, which of course leads many people in the West to conclude or presume that all Muslims support such behaviour. The truth is the vast majority of Muslims condemn such acts as barbaric. In contrast to the Bible there is no single text in the Quran that justifies these crimes. The custom of honour killing predates the Islamic faith and is seen in Hindu and Sikh cultures and in the trans-Caucus Christian communities. 

Honour killing was only abolished as a specific category in Italy in 1981. In Brazil men could be acquitted of murdering their spouse if they could successfully raise the defence of Honour, a position that only changed in 1991.  Like all other religions, Islam strictly prohibits murder and killing without legal justification. 

You can see why Fr. Murad’s killers justify his murder by accusing him of being a spy when the more plausible reason is that they want to cleanse the area of all Christians. Once again we must not rush to demonise all Muslims, the overwhelming majority of whom condemn such crimes as vile and a backward distortion of their faith.

In recent weeks we are faced with the sight of ISIS killing and displacing the remnants of the ancient Christian Community in Mosul.  Why do so many of us in the West feel such a powerful affinity of kinship with this dwindling and oppressed Christian flock, caught up in the current violent maelstrom of the Middle East? Could it be that the uprising which in the beginning, appeared to embrace freedom and democracy has steadily became a violent Islamist expression against a liberal secular society. In Gaza the Christian community is less than 1% of the population. Just half a century ago this percentage would have been closer to 20%. Why do images of Christians being persecuted often weigh heavier on us than Israeli shells hitting apartment buildings in Gaza? 

Assyrian culture used to be distinctive among other countries in the Middle East for the coexistence between Christians and Muslims which went beyond just a tolerant forbearance. This was a reality of which most Syrians were proud. Under the iron fist of the ruling Alawite dictators, who kept fundamentalists at bay, a good degree of religious freedom was preserved.  Christians fleeing persecution in other Middle East countries found refuge in Assad’s Syria, including Iraqi Catholics fleeing post-Saddam persecution.

Yet today the “Arab Spring” has become to sound as hollow as the “Celtic Tiger”.  The 2,000-year-old community of Assyrian Christians—some of whom still pray in Jesus’ Aramaic tongue—are facing extinction, Armageddon. As Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Centre for Religious Freedom told a subcommittee hearing of the US House of Representatives in June this year, “Christians are the targets of an ethno-religious cleansing by Islamist militants and courts. In addition, they have lost the protection of the Assad government, making them easy prey for criminals and fighters, whose affiliations are not always clear. Wherever they appear, Islamist militias have made life impossible for the Christians.” Unlike the Christians in Lebanon there will be no foreign power coming to their rescue.

Ethno Map SyriaI have been fortunate enough to visit much of the Middle East before the Arab Spring; a sequence of events that have changed the geographic and demographic landscape of the Islamic world. One of the most unexpected legacies of that trip is a strong empathy I now have with the various Christian communities throughout Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. There were the struggling souvenir shop owners in Bethlehem cursing the Israelis for hindering tourist traffic by diverting them on a long winding route away from and around the new settlements. There was the restaurant owner in Nazareth complaining that the pilgrims are now staying in Haifa or Nazareth Illit, the new Jewish city overlooking the old town centre. Then there was George the handsome Omar-Sharif like Copt who drove me all around Cairo for a couple of days sharing the rich tapestry and Coptic influence on his homeland. There was the elderly Emile who tried to communicate with us in French and explain that he was not an Arab at all. We were travelling from Tripoli in Northern Lebanon up high into the mountains to Bcharre. We stopped the car by the side of the road to have a look back down towards Tripoli, a predominantly conservative Sunni City backed now on this sunny October morning by the glistening Mediterranean. As I was taking a photograph the elderly man hailed us from his house across the road. Within seconds he was crossing over to us with two outstretched arms, the hands cupped upwards as if in supplication, his English and our French was about the same level of mediocrity so we struggled to communicate at first: yet I couldn’t help but think the few phrases he had uttered to us had been used by him on many occasions previous, “We are not Arab, we are not like these people, we are like you, we are Phoenician, just like Italia, Spain, Sicily. We are Western, we have culture, we are surrounded but we will fight until the last one is left”. It was as the narrative of the Kateeb, the right wing ideology of the Christian Maronites espoused by Camille Chamoun (he of Brownshirt fame) and one of the primary causes of the Lebanese civil war.

Bcharre, Christian town in the Mountains of Lebanon

Bcharre, Christian town in the Mountains of Lebanon

Away in the hazy distance one could almost make out the shape of the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, an anomaly amongst a city that was now only 5% Christian. Yet up on the foothills and mountains were these villages that were almost 100% Maronite communities. It was as if by holding the high ground they could maintain a constant guard against the Muslim threat visible below on the narrow coastal plain. South and west of here is the heart of the Maronite nation, the Mountains of Lebanon. Almost every hill and summit is adorned by a cross. It is this group whose conflicts with its Muslim and Druze neighbours have drawn the West in, initially France and lately the US, for the first western intervention since the Crusaders and left both States reeling from the experience. Israel in ’82 made the same mistake thinking it could control this country of factions directly and later by proxy. It was a doomed strategy despite all the resources at Israel’s disposal. Then the counterweight in Lebanon’s complicated political mosaic was Syria, a country like Lebanon of so many sects and denominations, somehow held together by an autocratic ruler and his cruel state security apparatus. After Israel pulled out the murky world of the Syrian security personnel continued to pull strings in Lebanon culminating the assassination of the Sunni Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri. Whilst this single event was probably the beginning of the end of Syria’s hegemony in Lebanon, time will tell if it will also be seen as significant in the challenge to the Alawite dominated Assad regime.


Rafic Hariri Shrine, Beirut

Rafic Hariri Shrine, Beirut

I was in Damascus in the wake of the Hariri killing. The main streets were choked with traffic as usual but amidst the lines of vehicles were plenty of marque cars, Mercedes mostly but some BMW’s, all bearing the Liban registration plate. No doubt these cars belonged to people from Beirut at odds with the thousands of anti-Syrian protestors filling Martyrs Square. For this heretofore elite life was suddenly so un-comfortable that they decided to head across the border to the safety of Damascus. It really brought it home to me then that Damascus is barely a two hour drive these days from downtown Beirut. Is it any surprise then that every move, every newly formed alliance or partnership amongst Lebanon’s multitudes was so closely scrutinised by Syria.

In contrast to Emile, the Maronite who approached us in Zgharta as we gazed down on Tripoli , were the Christians of Zahle. We had crossed over the Lebanon Mountains passing through Aley and Bhamdoun , scenes of the bitter fighting between the Lebanese Army and the Druze militias of Walid Jumblatt in 1983-84. The Druze took the Lebanese Army and the Maronite dominated Lebanese Forces (LF) by surprise.  In a few weeks they had overran sixty-two Christian villages, driving the Christians from the northern Chouf mountains. It is hard to imagine today the bitter fighting that took place up here in the mountains; the Syrians supplying the artillery to the Druze to rain shells down on Christian East Beirut and the US New Jersey moored off the coast shelling the Druze positions to assist the Lebanese Army.

Once through Bhamdoun (now a summer retreat for Gulf Staters) you pass over the crest of the mountains with Mount Sannine, the highest peak in Lebanon, on your left. As the road winds its way down to the Bekaa Valley you again appreciate why the Christians and Druze clung to the protection of these snow-capped heights. The Valley is predominantly Shia with several significant Christian enclaves. We spent a few days touring the Bekaa and the ruins at Baalbek, gradually getting used to seeing the faces of various Shia clergy on posters beside mosques. and at road junctions. The Bekaa has been a prize itself since ancient times as can be attested to by the sheer magnificence of the temples at Baalbek. This is a breadbasket worth fighting for, the rich loamy soil providing food for the more arid and desert provinces nearby. The Valley produces crops of wheat, corn, cotton and vegetables. There are also bountiful vineyards and orchards around Zahlé. The valley also produces large amounts of hashish and cultivates opium poppies, which are exported to the West.

Zahlé is the largest city and the administrative capital of the Beqaa Governorate. It lies just north of the main Beirut–Damascus highway, which bisects the valley . The majority of Zahle’s residents are Lebanese Christian of various denominations but the majority are members of the Greek Orthodox Church. The town of Anjar is visible in the distance. It is situated in the eastern part of the valley, close to the Syrian border. Anjar has a predominately Armenian Lebanese population and is where the Syrians kept an important military, security and intelligence post during their lengthy stay in Lebanon.

It was late afternoon when we pulled into Zahle. We visited ‘Our lady of the Bekaa’ a garish concrete tower with a statue of the virgin Mary atop offering amazing views of the valley and the Mountains behind. Zahle is tucked into the mountainside slowly creeping its way up the and down the valley. It is very different vibe than Christian East Beirut as most of its residents seem happy with their Arab identity. It might help that they also make fine wines. Zahle escaped the worst of the Lebanese Civil War despite being only 25 miles from the Green Line in Beirut. It did suffer two sieges by the Syrian Army which were resisted by tenacious residents who repulsed several attempts by the Syrians to enter the city proper. Zahle for me was where I first saw Christians content in their Arab skin.

Some years earlier as I walked around the narrow streets of the Christian quarter in Damascus. The area lies in the shadow of the Umayyad Mosque. As you walk around the narrow streets one felt you were in a place protected, not just by its Unesco World Heritage site  status, but also by the secular Baath Party that ruled the country, The Baath Party kept the fundamentalists at bay by whatever means. The Christians really bought into the Assad Regime because the Assad’s like them came from a minority group, the Alawites. If the little groups kept together then they could keep the lid on things and prevent the Islamists from taking control. Often times the methods were brutal; such as in 1982 when the elder Assad encircled the city of Hama and bombed the old centre until every building was levelled and the Muslim Brotherhood were slaughtered. There was not much care for the innocent population trapped in the siege who had nowhere to go as the Russian made bombs rained down. Robert Fisk was one of the few western journalists to cover the bloody siege as the Assads sought to kill not just the opposition but also the news of the slaughter.

Damascus is one of the oldest populated cities in the world. There is evidence of settlement in the area going back to 9,000BC but the modern city has its roots in a 4,000 year old settlement. For half of that time there has been a very visible and influential Christian community present. It is a city that has changed hands so often with every new dynasty leaving some mark or influence from the Pharaohs who strengthened the Walls, to the Assyrians who knocked them down and rebuilt them, to Alexander the Great who took the city and left it to the Grecian Seleucids. There was also the glory years of the Roman Decapolis marked by the Jupiter Temple which stands before the Great Mosque . The latter building marks the beginning of the Islamic period which has now prevailed for 1,400 years, albeit through a variety of empires.

Despite all this upheaval and as they say in the US, ‘Regime Change’, the Christian Quarter (known as Bab Touma ‘Thomas Gate’) has thrived. The little enclave has given us many notables such as Saint Paul and Saint Thomas . Roman Catholic historians also consider Bab Touma to be the birthplace of several Popes such as John V and Gregory III. In modern times perhaps the most influential resident was philosopher Michel Aflaq, founder of the Ba’ath Party and Ba’athist thought. The area has a mixed Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic community with a smaller Armenian congregation but is quintessentially Arab in character and ambience. What saddens me that not just the loss of life in this enclave but that I also feel the loss of my own Christian heritage. Therefore the car bomb which killed twelve people in Bar Touma in October, 2012 and the suicide bomber and mortar attack earlier this year are not just an attack on those frightened residents, it is an attack on me.

Greek mass in Damascus

Greek mass in Damascus

I am also struck with guilt, guilt over why it is that out of the 125,000 people estimated to have died so far in the Syrian Conflict thusfar, it is the grisly decapitation of a Franciscan Priest and the indiscriminate bombing of an old Christian neighbourhood that is causing me the most agony. What about the atrocities committed by Christians in the pro-Assad militias and the Army? What are they not causing a similar response in me? Despite lots of introspection I still don’t know why? I also realise and acceptthat despite my affinities with the Arab Christians and the Maronites (who are in communion with Rome) this is essentially an Arab conflict. The US cannot understand that Russia will do all it can to arm either the Orthodox Christians, or those who will defend them, and also those who will maintain their Mediterranean naval base near Lattakia. But Russia and the US, the Gulf States that are arming many of the rebels, Iran and Hezbollah and everyone else that has been sucked in to this Syrian Tragedy have essentially now created a murderous stalemate where the only thing that changes is the rising body count.

It is ironic and trivial but I also had one of the most memorable experiences of my life when in the city of Aleppo, the commercial hub and largest city of Syria. I had been travelling for almost a year through various parts of the world. I had flown from Nairobi to Cairo and began an overland journey that took from the Egyptian capital through the Sinai, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and concluded in Sofia, Bulgaria. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight I believe the Syrian part of the journey was by far the most memorable. Syria was challenging for a person travelling on their own independently but when you walk amidst the desert ruins of Palmyra, gaze across the Orontes Valley from the ramparts of Krak-de-Chevaliers or listen to the haunting groans of the famous ‘Norias’ (water wheels) of Hama you are very easily hooked by the charm and depth of this country.

 The Citadel, AleppoOn the 25th of May, 2005 I found myself in the old quarter of Aleppo. I had hoped on that date to be in Istanbul to watch my football team, Liverpool play the mighty AC Milan in the European Champions Cup Final. The Hotel was very, very, modest; I use the word modest because I don’t want to insult the generous and kind hearted owner. Let me just say I have been in better establishments but none worse. The only thing going for the Hotel was that it was in the heart of historic Aleppo a mesmeric maze of narrow streets, busy souks and tremendous noise. It was just a short walk to explore the Citadel but what I enjoyed most was simply walking about the narrow streets which were a hive of activity.

The area was known as Bostan Kelab and its main thoroughfare was Yarmouk Street. Just around the corner from the Hotel was the Ogarit Cinema on Baron Street. It was there that I stood admiring the gigantic billboards for the latest Bollywood Blockbuster showing. Later over coffee I met a local called Hassan who explained the Syrian love affair (I’d call it obsession) with Bollywood. On Wednesday last the 18th of September, 4 civilians were killed and 6 badly wounded when rocket propelled-grenades fell near the Ogarit Cinema. When I read the report I wondered were the casualties looking up at the Cinemas posters to see what was showing. Maybe the Cinema had stopped showing movies in the middle of this warzone.

Residents walk on rubble in a damaged street in Aleppo's district of Bustan al-Basha


It is hard to equate my own happy memories of this beguiling city, steeped in history, and the pictures of the rubble strewn streets, bombed out buildings, bullet marked houses and barricades manned by men with Kalashnikovs, their pockets stuffed with magazines. It is simply impossible to reconcile that these people I met in Aleppo or Halab as they called it, Sunnis, Kurds, Armenians, Shias, Melkites, Catholics and Alawites are now locked in this deadly struggle and killing each other by the thousands in a bitter and nasty war.

On that balmy May night in 2005 I returned to the Hotel to watch the match. Earlier that Day the owner Samir had promised me that he would be showing the match. I had a short nap before coming down into the common area where the old TV was located. Samir was not there but a young man was sitting behind the desk that passed for the reception. I asked him could I watch the football, he nodded and turned on the telly. He switched the various knobs and I guessed he was looking for the right channel. A few minutes passed but still all that was on the telly was snow. The young man was now getting agitated. I asked was there another telly but he shook his head. He telephoned Samir and they talked in that Arabic way that sounds like they are having a serious disagreement. Within minutes Samir was back in the hotel and he began trying to get the TV tuned into a channel. He managed to get some channel but it was an old black and white film not the scenes from the Ataturk Stadium I was hoping for. Samir sensed my anxiety; it was just 15 minutes to kick-off. I asked if there was somewhere nearby where I could watch the game, my question went unanswered.

Eventually Samir just said “Come, this way” and he left by the stairs. I followed him and moments later we were driving headlong and crazy through the busy Aleppan streets in a battered Mercedes to some destination unknown. It looked like Samir was intent on driving me all the way to Istanbul. Soon we pulled up outside a nondescript three storey apartment building, what direction or where we were I don’t know, so disorientating were the maze of streets and alleys we had just been through. Up the stairs we went and into a room furnished with ornate carpets, cushions and a number of sofas. On a table like a tabernacle sat an old faux-oak backed Television.

Samir went over and turned on the Telly and switched quickly through the channels, still there was no football. He started tuning the set and eventually the screen lit up with the familiar red shirts of Liverpool. I hadn’t noticed that a number of men had come into the room by then. One was missing a hand and I just presumed he had lost it whilst fighting Jihad. It seemed entirely plausible; I suppose now all these years later I am inclined to think it may have been something more mundane like an industrial accident. My joy at finally getting to see the game was short-lived, already Liverpool were a goal down. It would get worse, by halftime they were losing 3-0. I was dejected and disconsolate.

Samir sensed this and said ‘Have faith my friend, in challah’. I put on a rueful smile; it would be extremely rude to this sociable man to ask to go back to the old quarter. I didn’t want to witness my team annihilated on this big stage but when a tray of warm sugary tea in small glasses came out I had to endure the well intentioned hospitality. More men had come in to the room as the first half went on and everyone was chain-smoking. There were at least twelve of us present for the start of the second half. None of the men could speak English but if I made eye contact they gave me a sympathetic nod and cupped their hands in a gesture of hope and solidarity. Samir was a source of endless optimism, ‘There is time, God willing’. I had long given up hope of any comeback. How wrong I was! In just six glorious minutes Liverpool had levelled the game through Smicer, Gerrard and Alonso. But Liverpool having drawn level seemed reluctant to go and try and win the game. Milan came back into it and the finale was simply a dual between Jerzy Dudek and the entire Milan team. They did not score though and Liverpool beat them on penalties, a famous night, a glorious night, more sweet tea, more cigarettes passed around and we twelve men in Aleppo all celebrated as much as if we were natives of Bootle or Toxteth.

A few days later I shared a taxi from the Al Ma’ari Street Bus Station to Gaziantep in Turkey. As I crossed the border I promised myself I would visit this fascinating country soon again. I reaffirmed this promise when I was sitting for several hours in an interview room in Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv having being pulled from the crowd by an eager policewoman. It is a promise I intend to keep but nobody knows when this war in Syria will end or what the final casualty count will be. I also don’t know what will be left when the guns do fall silent. Who is to know what will be rebuilt and what will be lost forever. Memory will preserve some of it for some people but it is hard to share memories and we cannot live someone else’s life or experiences, but as Samir who kept my flagging hopes alive on that pleasant May evening said; ‘You see my friend you must have faith, God will provide’. Now as the siege on Gaza enters its second month; and as social media delivers us another gruesome image of what an artillery shell can do in a school yard or when it comes hurtling through the roof of a crammed hospital, it is harder than ever to have faith and to hope that God will provide.









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