If Assad falls, is Britain ready to rescue Syria's Christians?
The tolerance shown towards Christians in Syria is unlikely to survive Assad's overthrow by Sunnis
THE fighters in Aleppo and other parts of Syria trying to rid their country of President Assad and his ruling clique are to be admired. It must require great courage to take on a professional army with improvised tactics and equipment.
All of us in the United Kingdom owe our democratic political settlement to similar men from the time of the English Civil War. The political aspirations of the Long Parliament did not bring an end to absolute monarchy. It required the military muscle of commanders like Oliver Cromwell and countless other men and women who followed them, enduring danger, disease and death on behalf of the parliamentary cause.
We should be grateful for hard men prepared to take on entrenched regimes. But generally, as was true in Cromwell's New Model Army, the hard men throughout history tend to be driven by belief and ideology. And the driving ideology behind the Syrian rebellion is Sunni Islam in both its austere mainstream and violent Salafist forms.
We should be in no doubt that the insurgency against Assad is a Sunni affair financed by Sunni money from Saudi Arabia with all the traditional hatred and disdain for the infidel, including the Shia Alawite sect that the Assads belong to - and Christianity.
In many ways the Assad regime despite its brutality has been the protector of minorities - not just fellow Alawites, but Druze, Kurds, even a small Jewish community and Christians. There are 1.5 million Christians in Syria - ten per cent of the population - many of whom live in the Aleppo area with its 47 churches and cathedrals of various types.
Christians are fully integrated into Syrian life. Christian civil servants, for instance, are allowed Sunday mornings off to attend divine service – it's a working day in Syria. Whatever happens this tolerance seems unlikely to survive Assad's demise.
The Russians have repeatedly been portrayed as the villains of the piece in the Western press, vetoing UN Resolutions designed to put pressure on Assad. Russia has national interests to protect in Syria – arms selling and its naval and intelligence facilities on the coast at Tartous. But part of their anxiety at the prospect of civil war in Syria is a concern at the fate of its largely Orthodox and Armenian Christian communities.
The precedents are not encouraging. When law and order broke down in the aftermath of the 2003 US/UK invasion of Iraq some of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East were ethnically cleansed – murdered or forced to move to the few remaining Christian enclaves. Originally converted by St Thomas the Apostle (the one who doubted Jesus's Resurrection) their language and liturgy is in Aramaic – Jesus's own tongue.
The anti-Christian rhetoric has already begun in Syria. "Christians to Beirut" has been the cry of some in the Free Syrian Army.
What will we do if Syrian Christians are subject to ethnic cleansing – or worse, massacre? A large-scale Western military intervention seems unlikely. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, in London for the Olympics, made clear in an interview in The Times on Monday that Russia would never countenance this. But an operation to protect and then evacuate Christians under threat from Salafists or general disorder might well be acceptable to and assisted by the Russian government.
For many years we kept plans on the military books for large-scale evacuations from Zimbabwe in case the Mugabe regime descended from mere savagery to genocide. Evacuating Christians and others from Syria would be a military and logistic doddle by comparison.
The nearest safe territory is Cyprus with its British Sovereign military bases providing ideal staging grounds for emigration to the West. The RAF airfield at Akrotiri is less than an hour's flying time from Aleppo.
In any case, should we not be more generous to Christian refugees than we have been in the past? Things are grim for the Copts in Egypt. Currently only in Jordan and Israel proper are Christians free from the threat of persecution and random violence.
Only 10,000 Iraqi Christians currently live in the UK – their Archbishop Athanasios's calls on the government to admit more Christian refugees have so far fallen on deaf ears – despite the fact that the last government and the current coalition government both operate effectively open border policies.
The arguments for admitting Christian refugees from the Middle East are strong and should appeal across the political spectrum. The multiculturalists and those who celebrate 'diversity' should rejoice at the arrival in these islands of a rich social and religious tradition with two thousand years of history.
Those averse to further immigration, particularly from the so-called 'Third World', should be able to take comfort from the fact that the new arrivals would be likely to integrate and contribute quickly. They are most unlikely to sympathise with extremism of any kind and, like their Ugandan Asian predecessors from the 1970s, most have respect for authority coupled with high educational and entrepreneurial aspirations.