Over the past many months, some Syrian Christians and their leaders have made comments that surprised me.
“The West has betrayed the Christians of Syria and abandoned them. They support and arm the rebels who not only want to overthrow the regime, but also want to rid Syria of Christians.”
These comments strip away the facade of the simple narrative, told by the Western media and their governments, of the battle between good and evil in Syria – that the regime is bad and the opposition is good.
Michael Weiss recently wrote about “the civil war within the civil war.” He described in detail the emerging, brutal conflict within the Syrian opposition between the more secular oriented factions who have a vague notion of a semi-democratic Syria and the more extremist groups, such as the al-Nusra Front, who are fighting for a radical, Islamic vision of Syria.
The latter are better armed, better trained and they are bearing the brunt of the fighting. As a result, they are making significant inroads and are able to hold territory they have taken.
At the same time, extremists are practicing the same brutality for which the regime has been known.
Syria’s Christians, representing about 10 percent of the population, have historically been protected by the regime whose leadership is predominantly Alawite, a religious minority within Syria.
As the regime comes under increasing pressure and begins to collapse, the Christians are among those who become targets of violence. Many are forced to leave their homes.
Those who remain don’t seem to have a place in the emerging, Islamic dominated societies, as the radical extremist elements would prefer not to allow non-Muslims to have the same rights as Muslim citizens.
The West, under the guise of being champions of democracy, gloss over these agendas for geopolitical dominance and energy security, seeing the Arab Christians as an inconvenience and having no strategic value.
They are abandoned to their fate; hence their sense of betrayal.
Arab Christians in the countries experiencing political upheaval are often viewed as not belonging to the mainstreams of society, culture and faith, all of which are becoming increasingly Islamic.
Though their ancient historical and religious roots predate Islam, they are mistakenly perceived as vestiges of a Western, imperialistic Christianity.
The irony is that they are seen as betrayers of what many feel it means to be Arab. This is based on the incorrect perception that Christianity is a Western religion and that being Arab is synonymous with being Muslim.
In a different context and at a different time, the struggles of Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo – who grew up in Manchuria where he was perceived as an alien, a child of the despised Japanese occupiers – mirror those of Syrian Christians today.
Upon his return to Japan, Endo’s anguish deepened as he experienced further rejection, being part of the 1 percent of society who were Christians.
During World War II, his isolation turned into a sense of betrayal as the West, whom he had always seen as the spiritual home for his Christianity, destroyed Japanese cities, indiscriminately killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Consequently, his novels struggle with the silence of God and his sense of rejection, not only by his own people but also by those who were supposedly his brothers in the faith.
This story of double betrayal and abandonment is the story of the cross.
The living God in Jesus is betrayed by his own people, the Roman occupiers and by one of his disciples. He is then abandoned by those closest to him.
Though many of us may know about the silence of God, Syrian and Iraqi Christians have come to understand the agony God endured because of betrayal and abandonment, as Shusaku Endo did.
But the story of the cross also includes redemption.
There is another story of forgiveness and reconciliation that is being played out in Syria. It is a story of redemption only God could have written.
As Syrian refugees are flooding into Lebanon, some Lebanese pastors and churches are opening their doors and hearts to assist those who are terrified and have lost everything.
They do this in the face of intense criticism from many Lebanese who have never forgotten the brutality of the 20-year Syrian occupation.
There isn’t a Lebanese family who hasn’t endured repeated shellings by the Syrian army. Many recall family members who were killed or tortured.
Yet, the impact of these few pastors – as they lead their churches in demonstrating forgiveness and reconciliation that is only possible through Christ – is so profound that I believe it will breathe new life into the church in Lebanon.
They are living out the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven … forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
The timeless story of betrayal, forgiveness and redemption is still being played out in the Middle East today, and it is the only message of hope for the region.
Rupen Das is director of the master of religion in Middle Eastern and North African studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. This column first appeared on the Institute of Middle East Studies blog. Visit Arab Baptist Theological Seminary on Facebook.
Rupen Das is research professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto and the national director of the Canadian Bible Society. He is author of several books, including “Compassion and the Mission of God.”