We are accustomed to seeing Christians in the Middle East as always being victims of discrimination and violence. And so they are, and have been for centuries, suffering from laws (even now) which reject their claims to equal citizenship, and from sporadic but frequent and terrifying instances of persecution or mob violence.
In recent years sectarian violence has approached such a crescendo that the very existence of Christianity in the region of its birth has been put in doubt.
Why don’t Christians then take up arms, as some other persecuted groups have done? The Druze of Lebanon, who offend Islamic orthodoxy by their belief in reincarnation and liberal reinterpretation of the Koran, are famously ruthless fighters. The Alawites of Syria proved such effective soldiers that they took over first the country’s military and then its government.
Leaving aside questions of principle – the region already has more than enough armed men – the pragmatic answer is that it usually wouldn’t work. Christians are too divided to form any kind of unified political party, let alone a military unit. There are more than 20 different Christian denominations in the region and not since the advent of Islam have they ever come together to act as one.
Furthermore, most Christians are urban and many are middle class without military experience and with the option of emigration to the West.
Finally, the precedents are so ominous that they would hardly expect anything good to come from putting their heads above the parapet in such an obvious way.
Chief among those precedents is that of the Armenian and Assyrian Christians in the early 20th century. Both groups, living under Ottoman rule but accused of covert collaboration with the Ottomans’ Russian enemies, were subjected as a consequence to a genocidal campaign of massacre, rape and deportation. In the beautiful town of Mardin, southern Turkey, some years ago I took care to read the inscriptions on the lintels of the local restaurants and hotels; they showed that these had once been the homes of Assyrian Christians. None lives there now.
The Assyrians were a tight-knit group, bound together by ethnic as well as religious ties. Survivors who fled to Iraq, then under British rule, hoped that the British would give them some form of autonomy, or even independence. Instead, history would repeat itself. After Iraq was granted independence, clashes between Assyrian and Iraqi soldiers led to a general massacre of Assyrians – an event which partly inspired the definition of “genocide”.
Another more recent precedent is the Lebanese Civil War of the 1970s and 1980s between Lebanon’s former Christian ruling class and their Muslim opponents, which ultimately led to the country’s domination by its neighbour Syria.
So what should we make of the existence of Christian militias in Syria, fighting alongside the Kurds to defeat ISIS? Many are composed of Assyrians, the same group that suffered in Iraq. Will it end differently for them this time?
There are quite a few of these militias, all of them aimed at fighting ISIS. These groups are doing what most of us would do if we lived in such a lawless place: defending their villages from an enemy that will show them no mercy and brooks no compromise.
In doing so, however, they enter a web of tangled moral choices. Such groups need weapons and support. Some find that by aligning with Bashar al-Assad’s blood-soaked regime. Others look to the rebel Kurdish forces operating in the country’s north-east. So they are unified now by a necessary war against radical Islam; but one day, if the Syrian state and the Kurds come to blows, they will be divided again. Life in the Middle East can often involve rawer, more dangerous choices than we will ever have to make.
This article first appeared in the September 16 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.