Threats to Syrian Christians Heighten Concerns in Congress About Aiding Rebels

Sara Sorcher

Members of Congress know that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad is the bad guy, but they're increasingly worried about toppling him from power, after Christian organizations have galvanized America's religious base.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., worries that the presence of extremist groups linked to al-Qaida within the fragmented Syrian opposition poses a "direct threat" to religious minorities there, including Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population in a country home to ancient biblical scenes such as the Damascus road on which Paul had his conversion experience. Qaida-linked groups' vision of a "post-Assad Syria is one with no Christians in it," Van Hollen told National Journal Daily. "It's an extremist, intolerant, fundamentalist Islamic state. So this is a very real factor in the whole question of U.S. support for the rebels."

Syria's bloody civil war changed Christians' relatively protected status under Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, a Shia offshoot. His primarily Sunni opposition largely sees Christians as Assad's allies. Extremists seized the ancient Christian enclave Maaloula where the language of Jesus Christ is still spoken, killed a Catholic priest, and two prominent Syrian bishops were abducted.

While Van Hollen would support giving the Obama administration a very limited authorization for the use of force in Syria if needed, he is against arming the rebels because of the risk that extremists, who are the best fighters within the opposition, could get the upper hand in the conflict. "I'm not convinced we have clearly established whose hands these weapons will end up in," Van Hollen says. "People … don't want to be dragged more deeply into a civil war that could result in these radical extremist groups taking over.

"Yes, Assad must go, but you don't achieve your goal if you replace him with somebody as bad or worse."

Worried about the fate of their Christian brethren in Syria, a swath of Christian organizations have launched grassroots lobbying campaigns to encourage members of Congress to oppose any U.S. military intervention—ranging from a strike to arming rebels—for fear of exacerbating the volatile situation on the ground and putting minority groups in danger—and perhaps on the road to extinction. Tens of thousands of phone calls and letters have flooded Capitol Hill offices in recent weeks.

"There are no good guys in this scenario," said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council. "Siding against Assad will only strengthen the hands of those who have direct links to the attacks on Christians." As members of Congress solicited his group's opinions on Syria, Perkins said, "we were very clear" that intervention was not in Christians' "best interest."

Armenian Christians used to number about 100,000 in Syria; during the conflict, their numbers have been reduced by half as they fled the country or were targeted in attacks. Should the opposition come to power, the Armenian National Committee of America's executive director, Aram Hamparian, said, "we have no assurances … they would respect the rights of Christians." That group alone, working through local chapters, spurred 9,000 activists to contact lawmakers.

Hamparian's concerns appear to be shared by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who believes the dwindling populations of Jews and Christians in Egypt and Iraq could signal a similar fate for Syria's Christians. "First the Saturday people then the Sunday people," Wolf laments. He opposes intervention. "You have to be very concerned, or else you're going to see the Christian community emptied."

Some groups are looking ahead. Darrin Mitchell, president and chief lobbyist of the American Christian Lobbyists Association, says his group is urging his members to write and call their elected officials to draft legislation that would ask "all Islamic governments, including a new future Islamic government in Syria, to protect and respect the rights of religious minorities including the Christian population in their respective countries" amid fears "that if an al-Qaida backed Islamic government takes over in Syria … that Christian worship would be severely restricted and that Christians in general would experience extreme persecution."

The fate of Syria's Christians, said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., resonates with the American people. "When you talk about how there are Christians on the side of Assad, it makes people say, 'Oh, gosh, what are we going to do now?" Paul said. "I don't think many people would argue Assad had protected the Christians.… When people hear that and they also hear al-Qaida's on the other side, al-Nusra's on the other side, and the Islamic rebels are committing atrocities such as beheadings they put on videotape to show the world, killing priests … it shows it's not Thomas Jefferson and George Washington versus a tyrant. It's a little more messy than that."