In Depth

Easter in Syria: it's not just Christians who are suffering

Kim Kardashian has thrown focus on Kessab: but Syrians of all faiths are suffering under Assad

venetia.jpg

IF #SaveKessab has shown up anything about the media discourse surrounding the Syrian civil war, it's that threats to the country's Christian minorities, even if exaggerated, now tend to receive more attention than the wholesale slaughter of Muslims.

The dubious global media campaign, picked up by none other than the American-Armenian television celebrity Kim Kardashian, sought to raise awareness of what was touted as a possible "second Armenian genocide" after rebels and jihadist groups overran the northern Syrian mountain resort town of Kessab where the Christian community has had an historic presence.

Fortunately, the ensuing global hype turned out to have been thoroughly misplaced, but not before outrage was piqued by pictures of Armenians in Kessab being beheaded and executed - a frenzy that quickly died away when it transpired that they were actually images of Muslims being killed elsewhere in Syria. Oh the irony.

Apparently these days, barrel bombs and air strikes on Muslim areas ain't got nothing on kidnapped nuns and the forcible displacement of Armenians, as if hundreds of people of all faiths haven't also disappeared never to be heard of again, as if other towns and villages aren't being emptied of their inhabitants too. Where is their Kardashian cheerleader?

It seems that when bad things happen to Christians in Syria, it's big news, but when the same things happen to Muslims, the incidents are reduced to a line in a newspaper article.

The recent cold-blooded murder of a brave and kind Dutch-born Jesuit priest - Father Francis Van der Lugt - in the embattled Old City of Homs was quite rightly felt across the world. But how many unsung Muslim heroes has Syria lost in the last few years that we know nothing of?

Part of this comes down to the whimsical news consumer who, after three years, can no longer be expected to engage with or care about every twist and turn of the conflict. As depressing as it is, the daily grind of war is no longer newsworthy in and of itself and reporters must find stories that have a special resonance with their audience back home.

The other part of it, however, comes down to the western world's obsession with the Middle East's Christians.

Thought of by some to be the more acceptable, reasonable face of the Arab world, the "Christians at threat" story holds never-ending fascination for Europeans and Americans.

This reporting bias is not especially about the fact that they are a minority: Syria's Kurds, Iraq's Mandeans, Egypt's Nubians and so on rarely get the same airtime. It's more to do with an underlying racist assumption that Christians are not really part of the Middle East, that this apparently western-friendly religious group is somehow set apart from others in the area.

For those who do not know the diverse community’s ancient history or have not seen the extent of integration and co-existence that occurs in so many Middle Eastern countries, it must be hard to comprehend why Christians would want to keep living in a region increasingly associated with cries of Allahu Akbar, car bombs and jihad.

The most extreme example is Iraq, where the country's Christian population has dwindled from a million to a few hundred thousand due to sectarian violence. Meanwhile, the country's much smaller Yazidi and Mandean communities face a similar fate, but to less outcry.

In Syria, despite a huge number of stories about the potential threat to Christians, there have been surprisingly few attacks specifically aimed at the religion's followers, although Raqqa - currently controlled by the hard-line Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) - is a notable exception.

Many within the Christian community are believed to support President Bashar Assad, and yet presumably for that exact reason, there is no similar spotlight on the plight of the country's Alawite community, which is reviled just as much as Christians by extremist Sunni groups.

Much of the Middle East is facing a dark and difficult time right now. The risk is not to the Christians, per se, but to the religious patchwork of which they are an integral part. Sadly, even if violence specifically aimed at their community is not on the rise in most countries, fear of future attacks is, prompting some to move either to more religiously homogenous areas or else leave the region.

As Easter approaches, we are right to mourn this degradation of diversity, an enormous loss for the Middle East. But to create a narrative that Christians are the sole target of a specific threat is - at least for the moment - far from accurate, and serves only to belittle the suffering being visited on people of all faiths in this part of the world.

Recommended

Mohammed bin Salman facing criminal case over Khashoggi death
Mohammed bin Salman on a visit to 10 Downing Street
In Brief

Mohammed bin Salman facing criminal case over Khashoggi death

How vaccine diplomacy is winning Israel new allies
Benjamin Netanyahu receives a coronavirus vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center, the country's largest hospital.
The latest on . . .

How vaccine diplomacy is winning Israel new allies

Everything we know about the princess held hostage in Dubai
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum greets the Queen at Royal Ascot in 2016
In Brief

Everything we know about the princess held hostage in Dubai

What the UK can learn from Israel’s vaccine rollout
A patient awaits a vaccine jab at a mass vaccination centre in Tel-Aviv
In Focus

What the UK can learn from Israel’s vaccine rollout

Popular articles

Best TV crime dramas to watch in 2021
Line of Duty series six returns to BBC One in 2021
In Depth

Best TV crime dramas to watch in 2021

Ten Things You Need to Know Today: 4 March 2021
10 Downing Street
Daily Briefing

Ten Things You Need to Know Today: 4 March 2021

Are Harry and Meghan pushing it with their request for press privacy?
Harry and Meghan
The latest on . . .

Are Harry and Meghan pushing it with their request for press privacy?