Support Syrian Christians
17th October 2012
When it comes to overseas intervention, the choice of how and when to intervene is not informed by a blueprint or a guide, instead it requires expert analysis and careful consideration of the theatre of conflict. However, the question, ‘to what end’ is somewhat more clear-cut. The guiding principles of democracy and, especially, human rights for the post-conflict government to follow need to be pressed and emphasized from the beginning, even if the pathway toward implementation is more difficult to see.
The Arab Spring has seen a tremendous surge of democratic spirit, with authorization of the government and its actions stemming from the majority a primary and new attribute in countries such as Egypt, Libya. This new democratic spirit, however, is lacking context. As printed in The New York Times in November 2011, ‘The Arab Spring was a luminous instance of democratic euphoria in a country that had no history of democracy or euphoria.’[i] In the West a large part of democratic history stems from our commitment to egalitarianism and human rights, to which Egypt, Libya, and all other members of the UN committed. Out of 30 Articles in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, here are some worth highlighting in lieu of the Arab Spring:
- Article 6: Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
- Article 13: (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own and to return to his country.
- Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either above or in community with others and in public and private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
- Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
- Article 22: Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.[ii]
In considering these articles, it is important to think about current events in Arab Spring countries. While Egypt under Morsi is still developing, the interim and Mubarak governments presented challenges for Christians and other religious minorities. It is true the Egyptian constitution provides for freedom of religion. However blasphemy laws have made free expression and speech regarding religion difficult if not illegal.[iii] Before the Arab Spring until 2009, only Islam, Judaism and Christianity (the three Abrahamic or ‘revealed’ religions) were allowed on national identification cards, leaving the large Baha’i population un-represented under law.[iv] There are 108,395 mosques but only 2,869 churches, largely because the permitting process to build churches has historically been forced through a prohibitively difficult bureaucratic process.
In Syria the outcome of the struggle between Assad and the Free Syrian Army is still very much up in the air and reports of events are often vague. Angela Shanahan writing for Australia’s The Australian, warns of a potential Christian winter accompanying a Syrian Arab Spring and that there is greater intolerance towards Christians in Syria than any other Middle Eastern state.[v]
With the flow of Christian and other religious minority refugees moving from Egypt, Gaza, and Iraq to Syria only now to have to move again to Lebanon[vi], questions of relocation and return of refugees are increasingly important. Further, new attitudes and policies toward Christians and minority faiths in war-torn countries from which displaced populations are currently seeking refuge are increasingly important as the conflicts and resolutions stretch on and governments are set up on the back of democratic revolutions. It is difficult to assess with any certainty how and when to intervene in foreign conflicts, and setting up a new government and political culture is an art not a science, yet we cannot let the basic freedoms provided by enforcement of human rights go untouched out of enthusiasm for new democracy where previously there was none.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the principle anti-Assad military faction, makes the claim that they are egalitarian in orientation: ‘We declare that we do not have any hidden or political Agendas, and that we are under no circumstances liable, controlled, and headed or representing [sic] any ethnic, sectarian, or religious power groups.’[vii] The significance of the protection of minorities by way of respect and adherence to principles of Human Rights outlined and adopted by the international community cannot be over stated. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in their 2011 Human Rights Report emphasized that ‘human rights are indivisible from our foreign policy’ and that British policy is to ‘bring countries into line with their international legally binding obligations.’[viii] Further, religious freedom has been a fundamental element of the FCO’s mission in the Middle East and North Africa, with Foreign Secretary William Hague emphasized when meeting with the Syrian opposition that whatever comes from the conflict it ought to be built on egalitarian principles regardless of religious or racial background.[ix] What we see on the ground regarding the deaths of Christians and minorities caught in the crossfire is a difference between statements and actions, yet the intent and purpose of the FSA and FCO’s better virtues is certainly heartening as the Syrian conflict progresses.
[i]Andre Aciman, ‘After Egypt’s Revolution, Christians are Living in Fear,’ The New York Times, printed 20 Nov. 2011, accessed via Nexis UK on 17 Oct. 2012
[iii] William Booth, ‘Egypt arrest highlights free-speech restrictions,’ The Washington Post, 27 Sept. 2012, accessed via Nexis UK on 15 Oct. 2012.
[iv] International Religious Freedom Report 2011, US Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, accessed 16 Oct. 2012, url: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper.
[v] Angela Shanahan, ‘Christians a Target for Syrian Rebels We Back,’ The Australian, 13 Oct. 2012, accessed via Nexis UK on 15 Oct. 2012.
[vi] William Dalrymple, Fatal lot of Christianity’s Homelands, The Australian, 9 Aug. 2012, accessed via Nexis UK on 15 Oct. 2012.
[viii] Human Rights and Democracy: 2011 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Report, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, p. 15, accessed 16 Oct. 2012, url: http://fcohrdreport.readandcomment.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Cm-8339.pdf.
[ix] Ibid, 22.