Why we should be concerned about the attack on Bab Touma?
Because the area attacked symbolises the very foundations of Christianity, and the incident was a reminder of how mistaken the government’s Syria policy is.
The facts are these: On 22nd January, the Damascus Christian district of Bab Touma was attacked, yet again, by “moderate” Syrian rebels.
Not much notice was taken by the world media, because it seemed it was just another scenario of the seven-year Syrian conflict.
Outsiders would not even know it was a Christian district, or very importantly, its Biblical significance, either.
But because of these factors, the attack is a wake-up call for all on what is wrong with the government’s Syria policy.
The area targeted, Bab Touma, is the Syrian name for the Gate of St. Thomas, which obtained its name because one of the key twelve disciples of Jesus lived there, St. Thomas.
Not only that, but one of the major other Christian saints, St. Paul, of the road to Damascus fame, lived there too.
When Bab Touma was shelled, the number of Christians killed was nine, and the number injured was twenty-one.
They included children and young students leaving their schools, with their lives ahead of them.
There was no condemnation from western leaders and silence from Donald Trump. One wonders if they are so poorly advised that they do not know these facts. It wouldn’t be the first time they had made grave errors in the Middle East.
Assuming that our leaders know as little about Bab Touma as the rest of the population, it is time they were made aware that this district has been bombed by the rebel opposition solely because they are Christians, and because Christians support their President and their government.
If we in the Christian West cannot stand up for our fellow Christians in the Middle East, if we turn our eyes away from the persecution of Christians and the defence of historic Biblical sites, have we any right to call ourselves Christians?
Those who attend church will be used to regular prayers for the people of Syria. Do our prayers for Syria now call on us to do more than pray? To put prayers into doing something positive to resolve the situation, rather than stand by and do nothing?
Or for those who are of other faiths or of none, is it right to ignore what is going on?
The Bab Touma district is in fact regularly targeted by the “rebels,” because it is Christian.
The last attack was reported on 9th January, when St. George’s Cathedral was damaged and one person was seriously injured.
Should we not be concerned? St. George, after all, is the Patron Saint of England and well recognised by Christians in the USA and throughout the world. George is a common name because of this. The future King of the United Kingdom is called George.
Only a few months ago, a friend of mine in Damascus told me that one of her closest friends, who had returned to Syria after being in France, was killed when a mortar bomb hit the flat below.
(Shereen Touma, pictured here.) Paris was becoming no more safe than Damascus, it seemed.
My friend, who is both a teacher at an International School and a manager of a Christian charity that helps women and children affected by the violence of the conflict, is in despair about what has been happening.
She cannot comprehend why Western governments are continuing to give political and other support to people who hate Christians. (Elena Nana is pictured here). These same people hate Jews, too.
It is not just in Damascus where Christians in particular are targeted by rebel groups. It has been in any area of Syria that has seen conflict. In Aleppo and Deir Ezzor, both recently liberated cities, the churches are being rebuilt, but where is the help on this from the Christian West? Why have other nations’ Churches offered to help, yet not ours ? Why are not the British and USA Church authorities offering to partner with Syrian Christians and help them rebuild their churches?
Our British and Western Churches are all too ready to offer sanctuary to Syrian refugees (who consist of virtually no Christians), yet ignore the Christians in Syria. There are some laudable exceptions, such as the Open Doors Christian charity that does good work in Syria, but even they could be doing so much more. There is no direct Overseas Aid to Syrians inside Syria by the British government, except that which reaches the “moderate” opposition. The same applies to the USA and other Western governments.
There is now a situation where Syrian Christians see the UK and the USA as on the side of the rebels. They see us as supporting the Islamic fundamentalists, both ISIS (Daesh) and the various other groups. They see no logic in our government saying they want to defeat ISIS but not offering to help the Syrian Army defeat them. They believe that we have lost the basic understanding of what Christianity is all about, and lost the will to stand up for it. In fact, even for those without religious faith, should we not be supporting secular states that are defending their values ? It is difficult to argue with that point of view.
The rebels who attack Bab Touma are the “opposition” FSA (Free Syrian Army) and Jaysh al Islam, yet there is no condemnation of them by the West. They are based in Eastern Ghouta of the Damascus region, and the Syrian Army is slowly but surely defeating them. But let us remember who is in the Syrian Army: many Christian soldiers, male and female, who are fully integrated in the multi-faith secular structure.
When we hear of the Syrian Army and civilian casualties, let us also remember that proportionately about ten percent of them will be Christians. The Syrians themselves do not believe in giving casualty figures according to religious orientation. “We are all Syrians” — that is their firm belief. In many respects, that is an example many other countries could follow. However, the opponents of the Syrian Army believe in an Islamic state ruled under Sharia law (which is banned in Syria), so should our government be giving them any support at all? It makes no sense to have what is called a “Prevent extremism” programme in the UK and then actually encourage extremism in Syria. It is baffling.
We must never forget the mistakes of our policy in Iraq, the results of which saw the Christian population there being reduced from 1.5 million prior to the war to approximately 500,000 now. One positive about prewar Iraq was that religious toleration was the accepted norm. Jewish people were in a better position, too.
Did we really go to war to weaken Christianity in the Middle East, the birthplace of the Christian religion? Did we go to war to increase religious intolerance? Did we go to war to undermine Judaism in the Middle East, because that could have been one of the unintended consequences?
We often are defensive about the value of Christianity. In the Middle East, it has been a balance for good. Any further depletion of the benefit of Christian love and tolerance will serve no useful purpose except more religious strife and violence.
Fortunately in Syria, the Christian population has held fairly firm at 11%, and they are a minute proportion of the Syrian refugees who have left the country. They certainly stand up for Jesus, there is no denying that.
But who has the credit for protecting the Syrian Christians? Not us, but Syrians themselves, with help of the Russians!
Just how logical is it for us to help the Afghans against the Taliban and ISIS, but not the Syrians, who have the same problems?
The Afghans, unlike the Syrians, do not have a secular society, do not give women equality, do not have religious toleration, and do exercise Sharia law. They are very intolerant towards the Jews. At least in Syria, the oldest synagogue in the world is protected in a museum.
What the UK and US governments need to do now is put right the awful image Syrian Christians have of the UK, which a few years ago was a positive one. It is also turning against Israel, or more to the point, the current government there. That cannot be a good thing at all.
There must be an immediate disassociation from any acts of terrorism against innocent Christian civilians in Syria, and indeed, terrorism against those of all faiths who disagree with the rebels.
There needs to be a recognition that the rebels have lost the war, and any continued support for them of any kind simply prolongs the misery and suffering which the Syrian people have had to put up with for seven years.
Christians in Syria are calling for an end to sanctions against their country and for a change of policy by the UK and US governments.
They have much support for the views of Peter Ford, the former British Ambassador to Damascus (2003-2006), who said that we had the wrong policy for Syria and had only made the situation there worse.
If he is right, then Britain and indeed other Western governments need to make amends.
There needs to be an apology to the Syrian people, the vast majority of whom have been loyal to their government.
There needs to be the restoring of full diplomatic relations, an end to any form of help to the “opposition” groups, and the offer of a massive aid programme to help with the restructuring of that shattered country. Part of that aid programme could be the resettling in their homeland of the nearly 20,000 Syrian refugees who were given sanctuary in the UK, and the many thousands more who have gone to the US, Canada and Western Europe. Ironically, the Israeli government is the one that has not taken “refugees” from Syria, because it has a regard for its internal security, something other countries have been very lax about.
We also need to ask for Syrian government help in identifying the Islamic jihadists who have entered the UK and other Western countries — they are the people who know who they are, but we put our national security at risk by never asking them.
Only these types of actions will restore the faith of the Syrian people in our governments, and indeed, the credibility of British and other Western countries’ foreign policy.
That failed policy has seen us support the Wahhabi Islamic fundamentalist policy of Saudi Arabia, which has been arming and supporting Jaysh al-Islam, and that policy needs to change. If the UK and US lose arms contracts, then that has to be the sacrifice we make for peace. It is too risky to arm Saudi Arabia with modern weapons technology, as they could turn against the West and Israel.
After all, should we be arming those who are trying to destroy Christianity, Judaism, or indeed, secularism and multi-faith tolerance?
Is it not more honourable to restore our Judeo-Christian moral strength, or indeed a humaneness, and put people before profit? Should not our prayers, or our sense of humanity, be reflected in our actions?
Very importantly, would a change of policy help restore safety and security in the area?
It might send a key signal to countries such as Turkey, which has illegally invaded Syria to attack the YPG Kurds, to withdraw and rethink. It might make the USA review whether they should be in Syria illegally, too. It might stop Middle Eastern countries turning to Russia as an ally rather than the UK and USA.
It might just persuade all parties involved that further conflict will be pointless, especially if there will be no more outside assistance for it.
Would a copying of the Syrian government’s successful reconciliation programme help bring about stability in the whole region?
Could a spirit of toleration roll back the carpet of distrust and hate between Middle Eastern countries?
Could such a policy help Israel to feel more safe and prepared to work more closely with its Arab neighbours?
It has to be worth a try to change US and British policy, because no one would argue that whatever the current policy is, it is definitely not working.
Anthony Webber is a political analyst and commentator.
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