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Opinion Roundup: Should Syria's Christians Be Our Top Priority?
Image: Hasan Shaaban / Reuters

What's best for Syria's Christians might not be what's best for the rest of Syria.

Compared to Christians in other countries in the Middle East, Christians in Syria have fared well under the protection of President Bashar al-Assad. But many have been threatened and killed by Islamist rebels amid Syria's recent political unrest. Now more than 450,000 Christians have fled their homes during more than two years of war.

Observers are generally united in thinking that an American attack on Syria would lead to increased persecution for Christians in the country, who make up 8 to 10 percent of the population.

As one Lebanese bishop told Al-Monitor, "Hear my words and take notes; the US strike on Syria has no guaranteed results whatsoever, neither on the military level nor on the political level or any other. The only certain and inevitable result is that the launch of the first rocket on Syria by NATO will be the end of Christians in this country. They will either be slaughtered or displaced."

So how should the world's Christians weigh the possible decimation of Syria's Christians? Is it enough to argue against the United States arming the rebels? Is it enough to argue for supporting a regime that has allegedly used chemical weapons to kill tens of thousands?

Geoff Tunnicliffe, head of the World Evangelical Alliance, wrote to the White House and the United Nations that it's at least enough to argue against all U.S. military action. "There is a major consensus amongst the Christian leaders in this region that any military intervention by the United States will have a detrimental effect on the situation, and in particular for Christians in Syria," he said. "Christians have already been threatened in Syria by some of the opposition indicating that a post-regime Syria will be Muslim, and Christians will not be welcome."

Likewise, Eric Metaxas argued in a Breakpoint radio commentary this week that American Christian opposition to intervention is driven by concern for Syrian Christians. He approvingly quoted the Catholic Patriarch of Syria saying that "Salafist fundamentalist armed gangs of thugs … are far more dangerous even than destructive chemical weapons."

Daniel Heimbach, professor of ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, supports this sort of lobbying. "If the White House isn't concerned for a significant minority that we care about, then Christian leaders need to speak up to ensure the government is thinking about them," he said. "It is always appropriate to consider the harm that would be done to a minority, no matter how they are identified. Sometimes the interests of a minority might be against the common good. But I would argue that in this situation, that is not the case."

Indeed, exactly what outcome would benefit the common good is a matter of strong debate among Christian experts outside Syria.

"If America does nothing, it's quite possible that the civil war will spill over into Lebanon and Iraq—not to mention that thousands more will die," said Bryan McGraw, associate professor of politics at Wheaton College. "If we aid the rebels, it seems likely that we'll end up helping people who might be worse than Assad."

But others are more optimistic. Daniel Bell, professor of theology and ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and author of Just War as Christian Discipleship, said Western Christians shouldn't presume that Syrian Christians would be wiped out if America performed a military strike. "Is this a confession that the church would and could do nothing to intervene in the face of genocide?" Bell said. Maybe so, he conceded: "The modern church's track record in the face of genocide is not particularly inspiring."

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Opinion Roundup: Should Syria's Christians Be Our Top Priority?