Jeb Bush says he’s not sorry that he thinks Middle East Christians warrant special attention and protection from America. He’s defending himself against President Barack Obama who says that the former governor of Florida is wrong to say Christians deserve preferential treatment since they are more threatened. It’s un-American, says Obama, to discriminate between Syrian refugees according to religion.
Obama is right, but he has no standing to make that argument. The president has stood by idly while Bashar al-Assad has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims, bombing civilians and gassing children. “And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?” said the man now openly declaiming his love for Syrian refugees.
The White House could’ve backed a proxy force to topple Assad, or even institute no-fly and buffer zones to protect those fleeing from Assad’s depredations. But Obama chose not to because that might have risked the nuclear deal he was eager to cut with the theocratic regime in Iran that also slaughters Sunnis, in Syria as well as Iraq and Lebanon, and for good measure imprisons Christian clergymen for preaching the gospel.
Besides, the administration has previously expressed sentiments much like Bush’s. The administration demanded of Syrian opposition groups that their political programs promise to protect minorities, like Christians. “Syria’s minorities have legitimate questions and concerns about their future and that they need to be assured that Syria will be better off under a regime of tolerance and freedom,” said then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That’s fine, no one should be routed from his home, tortured, raped, or murdered, but the reality is that the community most at risk in the killing fields of Syria is the Sunni Arab majority.
For some reason, that doesn’t seem to bother a lot of people, including other GOP presidential candidates, like Rand Paul, who praised Assad for protecting Christians. Apparently, Obama said the same thing when he hosted last year at the White House a group of Middle Eastern clerics, a number of whom have openly expressed their support not only for Assad but also Hezbollah. According to a Beirut-based pro-Hezbollah media outlet, the president told the clerics: “We know that President Bashar al-Assad protected Christians in Syria.”
That’s certainly become the standard account since the Syrian civil war started nearly five years ago, but the historical record is a little more complicated. Bashar’s father Hafez entered the Lebanese civil war in 1976 to prevent the Leftist-Palestinian alliance from defeating the Christians, but eventually fought the community, laying siege to Christian neighborhoods, killing Christian leaders, and filling mass graves with the corpses of Christians. When the war ended, the peace agreement enforced by Assad ensured that the Christians knew they lost and badly. Lebanese Christian activists protesting against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon were jailed, detained, tortured, and killed. He filled his dungeons with Christians, some of whom rotted to death, while others are still there rotting.
When Bashar replaced his father in 2000, he continued the Syrian regime’s anti-Christian campaign. After the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni, the Syrians and their allies focused their sights almost exclusively on Christian figures, assassinating politicians, activists, and journalists, like Samir Kassir and Gebran Tueni.
The notion that Assad has earned the affection of Middle East Christians and other minorities is just not accurate. As the head of the Lebanese Forces, a Lebanese Christian party opposed to Assad, Samir Geagea, told me a few years ago, it’s not in the interests of the Christian community to support a tyrant.
Assad has not even protected his own minority Alawite community but has instead embroiled them in a sectarian war for no other purpose except to protect himself. As Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has written, the point of Assad’s campaign of sectarian cleansing was only partly to rid Sunnis from strategically vital regions in Syria. “By covering the collective hands of the Alawite community with Sunni blood,” writes Badran, “Assad is creating total identity between his family and the broader sect, while simultaneously heightening its existential fears and feeding its primordial hatreds. The reason Assad’s forces made their murders so vicious was to ensure equally bloody retaliation from the Sunnis, thereby forcing the Alawites to see that if they wanted to live they had no choice but to commit their fate to Assad’s hands. He’s turned his own minority community into a bloody moat surrounding the palace.
To believe that the Christian community has somehow purged itself of the brutal furies that infect other communities, especially the Sunni sect, is simply wrong
No one deserves to be slaughtered by Assad’s forces or the Islamic State—neither Sunnis, nor Middle Eastern minorities, nor Alawites, nor Christians. The concern is that by prioritizing one sect, America has become afflicted with a Middle Eastern disease, sectarianism. After all, we are the one nation that daily embodies and enacts the belief that all men are created equal. We judge people according to what they do, not the faith they profess. Or what makes a pro-Hezbollah, pro-Iran Greek Orthodox Christian a more promising candidate for U.S. citizenship than a pro-Western Sunni? There is nothing in our founding documents, including the Bible, that reasons little Christian girls deserve to be protected more than little Sunni girls.
Middle East Christians are credited with serving as a bridge between the West and the Middle East, bearing enlightenment and modernity. There’s certainly a large element of truth there, which is perhaps one reason why so many Lebanese Christian fortunes have been made in Saudi Arabia, where the Sunni locals prize their talents. But sometimes, Christians in the Middle East simply constitute one tribe among others, sharing many of the same dark ideas.
I remember once in Lebanon I met a man who during the early years of the civil war fought with the Christian militias against the Palestinians as a kid. He was in his fifties, a big and powerful-looking guy who reminisced about the old days, working during the day, and grabbing his guns to fight at night, getting high and killing Palestinians. “Tell him about batikh,” said a friend who introduced us. The man laughed and said, “Batikh means watermelon. Sometimes we would take one of the guys we captured and stick a knife in the top of his head like it was a watermelon,” he explained, moving his hand with a cutting motion.
The point isn’t that the Christians are especially bloodthirsty—it was a war, with atrocities on both sides. But to believe that the Christian community has somehow purged itself of the brutal furies that infect other communities, like the Sunni sect, is simply wrong. Israel discovered as much when it partnered with the Maronites during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The Jewish state had long believed there was a special affinity between itself and the Christian community since they both derived from the same Judeo-Christian tradition and must necessarily then observe certain Western norms of behavior. Sabra and Shatila taught the Israelis otherwise.
In 1982, Christian militias massacred hundreds perhaps thousands at a Palestinian refugee camp in retaliation for the assassination of Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel. Then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was held accountable for the atrocity by both an Israeli commission and world opinion—even though it is clear that the man responsible for ordering the massacre was Christian militia leader Elie Hobeika. Astonishingly, there are those in the Christian community even today who still seek to obscure the role of the Christians by seeking to heap more blame on Sharon.
The unpleasant reality is that many Middle East Christians have a problem with Israel—some are anti-Zionist, but an awful lot are anti-Semitic. It’s hardly surprising that the birthplace of Christianity should be an anti-Semitic stronghold. Some of the most famous theorists as well as activists participating in Arab nationalist and anti-Israel causes are from the Christian community. Some credit George Habash, a Greek Orthodox Christian who headed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as the founding father of modern terrorism. Then there was Wadie Haddad, head of the PFLP’s armed wing who later broke away from his old college pal and formed his own group that organized the 1976 Entebbe hijacking.
Middle East Christians are no worse than anyone else in the region, but the notion that they are somehow automatically preferable because of their religious faith is a perversion of American political discourse.
I have a Greek Orthodox goddaughter living in the mountains over Beirut—I want her to leave that beautiful and damaged country for her physical safety and the integrity of her eternal soul. What a tragedy if when she gets here she finds America ravaged by that same disease that destroyed Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).