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

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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.

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