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Syria Opinion: The Vatican's Dangerous Game On "Persecution" Plays Into Assad's Hands

UPDATE: Two news items signal that the Vatican has reversed course on this narrative, even after pushing the anti-opposition rhetoric harder in the last few days.

The first, and likely most important, news is that the Vatican's ambassador to Syria, Archbishop Nuncio Mario Zenari, has denied that Christians are being targeted by Sunnis. Archibishop Zenari said that for all people, "the descent into hell has started," and even cited UN reports of children being used as human shields.

Archbishop Zenari also signaled that the Church may be in a position to help negotiate:

"It is the Christians' mission to play the role of a link at all levels," he said.

"They're active in very painful situations, such as in Homs where we have priests, nuns and monks ... who are setting an example and risk their lives."

Concerning the issue raised in my original article (below), the Archbishop dismissed claims that Sunnis in the opposition were targeting Christians.

So far, I would say that Christians share the same sad fate as all Syrians (...) I would not say that they are the object of particular discriminations, less so persecutions," said Zenari.

The lot of Christians in Syria today does not compare to that in other countries in the region, he said. "Sometimes it is compared to Iraq, but you cannot compare this."

There are signs that the bishops on the ground have also dropped some of the rhetoric, and are currently working with both the Syrian military and with the Free Syrian Army to negotiate a ceasefire in Homs in order to evacuate civilians and provide aid to the injured. Bishops of several denominations are working together, according to the report, and are hopeful that a temporary ceasefire can be forged.

Initially, only days after coming under fire, Agenzia Fides published more anonymous accounts that they said confirmed the original story that Christians were being targeted by Sunnis in Al Qusayr. The Vatican news feed posted a link to the article.

This raises more questions. Has the Vatican has taken a hard turn on its stance on this issue? Will the Vatican pressure the Bishops in Syria to change tact as well? And perhaps most importantly, will the Vatican attempt to mediate a negotiated peace, now that the Vatican is apparently acknowledging that while Christians in Syria are suffering, their fate is no different than that of their Sunni countrymen.

The original article, published Monday, June 11, is below.

The Guardian has posted a response by the Syrian opposition to allegations, emerging from Syrian Chistians and amplified by the Vatican, that Christians in Al Qusair have been forced out of the city by Islamists in the opposition and specifically by the insurgents of the Free Syrian Army. According to the allegations, the message has been blasted from loudspeakers that Christians must leave the city within 6 days.

The Al Qusair Revolution, an activist network comprised of activists in the city, denies the claim, and has denied the allegation and condemned the statements from the Vatican:

We, the people of Alqusair, confirm that we have lived together with our beloved Christian brothers and sisters for decades, working together and living alongside one another. We have been united since before the birth of the filthy sectarian Albaath regime and we are in complete shock as to the statement released by the respected Vatican.

We condemn the statement by the Vatican as the mosques never called out for our Christian brothers and sisters to leave the city and we also confirm that most of the Christian families fled with the Muslim families around 2 months ago due to the barbaric shelling as the regime used (and continues to use) heavy artillery and mortar shells on civilians. These regime tanks do not differentiate between Muslim or Christian. The snipers have targeted people from both religions and not chosen one over the other.

The Guardian also notes an investigation of these allegations, by the Israeli daily Haaretz, which casts serious doubt upon the validity of the claims. The investigation points out that the initial reports sent from church leaders in Syria were "copy & paste" quotes from the pro-regime website Al Haqiqa (Syrian Truth).

Haaretz not only throws cold water on the reports published by Fides, the Vatican news outlet, but also notes that the claims are completely inconsistent with reports of anti-Christian persecution in Iraq:

Besides, the claims of straightforward ethnic cleansing by Islamist militants do not add up, because that is not how jihadist groups deal with Christians. For example, the standard practice in Iraq for jihadist groups like Al-Qaida - renowned in Iraq for its brutality - is to first demand jizya, which is a "poll tax" imposed on Christian and Jewish minorities, in traditional Islamic theology.

If the minorities fail to pay jizya, they face bomb attacks or other violence. Yet the reports in Al-Haqiqa and Fides make no reference to imposition of jizya.

Haaretz, hardly a pro-opposition news agency and far from insensitive to the plight of minorities in the region, concludes that there is absolutely no truth to any of the claims of anti-Christian persecution on behalf of the opposition. The website argues that the claims are motivated by fear:

There is little reason to doubt the motivation of Vatican and church leaders, who after Iraq have become extremely worried about the fate of the remaining Christian communities in the Middle East.

As a Catholic, I am concerned about the plight of Christians in Syria. However, not a single piece of evidence has surfaced that backs these claims, or similar ones made by church leaders in Syria. Al Qusayr has been a well-documented place for months, as we are consistently finding videos of shelling in the area. Yet not a single clip has be found by us, or anyone we know, with the supposed broadcast warning to Christians. Beyond this, Christians have a large presence in the opposition Syrian National Council, and in places like Hama there is widespread Christian support for the challenge to the Assad regime..

If there are groups specifically targeting Christians, why don't any of the Christians who are actually living inside Syria seem to own any cell phones or video cameras capable of capturing images and uploading them to the Internet? In an hour-long conversation with a Christian activist last week, he was unable to provide any evidence, credible or less credible, of any of these claims, beyond the statements published on Fides and a single video, focused on the death of a single Christian, that was produced by Syrian State TV.

Instead of providing a balanced voice, and a much needed third-party perspective on the violence, and instead of using its influence to protect the people of Syria, the Christian church, and now the Vatican, has been reproducing, sometimes verbatim, the claims of the Assad regime and its loyalists. As such, they now find themselves without any international credibility. So if abuses do eventually occur, Christian groups may not be in a position to adequately report them in a way to gain significant international attention.

The Christian leaders in Syria appear to be playing a dangerous game, and the Vatican has made a major misstep in publishing these allegations. Not only are they defending a regime that has clearly committed atrocities, but they are ruining their reputation with the opposition, an opposition that is growing and confronting the regime more and more with every passing day. What if the conflict turns even more sectarian? What if radicalism flourishes and the Sunnis, in the context of incidents like this one, see the Christians as backers of the regime? How will the church leaders protect their citizens then?

The Christians in Syria do need a voice. They may be at risk of reprisal attacks. However, publishing false truths that support the narrative of the Assad regime will not protect them --- instead they discredit the Christian faithful at the very time when they need the most credibility.

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