When a civilization falls in the fog of war, and no one pays attention, does it make a sound?
In August when ISIS militants destroyed the fifth-century Mar Elian monastery in Syria, the destruction of yet another landmark for the ancient Assyrian Church of the East was barely noted.
In their original homeland of Syria and Iraq, the Assyrian people themselves also are falling to the hammer blows of ISIS. A raid last February on Assyrian villages in northern Syria forced thousands to flee, and caught hundreds in captivity. At this writing, among those taken captive in those raids along the Khabur River, 227 Christians remain in captivity. Given what we know of the ISIS detention system, it’s likely the men have been executed and the women and girls herded into a slave system whose trademarks are forced marriages and repeated rapes.
Mar Elian is in Qaryatain, a modest oasis of a town in the middle of the Syrian desert between Homs and Palmyra. In the Old Testament it’s known as Hazar-enan. When ISIS militants took Qaryatain, they kidnapped another 260 Christians.
‘This administration will not issue visas for Syrians based on Christian faith.’
The fighters and suicide bombers, many of them Saudis and Tunisians, overwhelmed Syrian government forces, who responded with aerial assaults, including the now-infamous barrel bombs that brutally destroy property and lives. This is a repeat of what happened in the city of Homs starting in the earliest months of the 4-year-old war. Christians who escaped—I interviewed some of them in Lebanon—described pulling feathers from pillows to burn for small fires so they could boil weeds to eat.
For Christians and Muslims alike in Syria, these are days of desperation. The difference for the Christians is that whenever it is over, they will have no homes and no place to return to. Across Syria and Iraq, the ancient civilization set down in the Bible and throughout church history is being wiped out. Even church leaders there no longer counsel Christians to stay, realizing they have no hope to survive.
The United States is the largest home to Assyrians, many of them driven out starting a century ago during the Armenian genocide. Yet the Obama administration has made clear it won’t shelter the Assyrian refugees forced from Syria or Iraq by ISIS.
“This administration will not issue visas for Syrians based on Christian faith.”
That was the word given to Anglican bishop Julian Dobbs by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. As a board member of Barnabas Fund, one of the largest relief organizations working in Syria and Iraq, Bishop Dobbs appealed to the State Department earlier this summer on behalf of the Assyrian Christians. The State Department said no.
Officials told Dobbs the Assyrians should use “people traffickers” to get across their borders to Turkey then appeal to the UN for refugee status. When Dobbs pressed his case, reminding officials of the large Assyrian diaspora in the United States and the U.S. obligation (at least historically) to reunite families and people groups, the State Department response was emphatic: “We better hope the Brazilians can take them.”
In fact, new countries are emerging as safe havens: Poland, Czech Republic, and Brazil. The Polish government was the first to agree to grant visas for Assyrian Christians, and a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor is footing the bill to resettle them in Poland. Lord Weidenfeld, a Jewish member of Britain’s House of Lords, said he has “a debt to repay” Christians because Quakers and Plymouth Brethren fed, clothed, and housed him as he escaped Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938. The lack of concerted effort on their behalf from the American church is, well, startling.
To recap: The United States took sides in Syria’s civil war within weeks of its start in 2011. President Barack Obama told the world it was time for President Bashar al-Assad to go, “for the sake of the Syrian people.” Since that time U.S. taxpayers have provided $400 million in mostly nonlethal aid to rebels fighting the Assad regime and $3 billion in humanitarian aid. In the White House view, that’s enough to make it look as if we’re doing something without aggravating the anti-war left. From the Syrians’ viewpoint, it’s just enough to aggravate a grim war, to make Americans complicit in the demise of one of the oldest civilizations, and one renewed by the gospel of Jesus Christ starting in the first century.