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'God-fearing' US helping to crucify Syria's Christians


Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees

for The New York Times

Syrian refugees

"Ah! Wherefore persecut'st thou me?"

He heard and saw and sought to free

His strained eye from the sight

But heaven's high magic bound it there

Still gazing, though untaught to bear

The insufferable light.

Thus 19th century Christian poet John Keble's evocation of the conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul spent the rest of his life spreading the Word across what we now know as the Middle East and beyond.

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He was preaching in Rome when Nero torched the city and, so it is said, blamed the tiny Christian community.

The tradition continues that Paul, a Roman citizen and exempt from crucifixion, was beheaded. But at least some of the villages where he had laboured held tight to the faith.

Christianity in Syria goes that far back. These are the oldest Christians in the world. A number of their villages are the only places left on Earth where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken. That's if the villages in question are still left on Earth.

Two years ago, as the United States and Britain debated whether to launch air strikes against President Assad - in response, so it was said, to his use of chemical weapons against rebel-held areas close to the capital - Christian villages were caught in the middle.

Britain, the US and their allies are now bombing Assad's deadliest enemy, Islamic State. You can't take your eyes off Syria for a minute without somebody changing sides.

As the political drama in Western capitals over whether to bomb Assad unfolded, the mainly Christian village of Maaloula, about 35 miles from Damascus, was overrun by Islamic extremists.

Residents fled and pleaded with an Assad army base a few miles away for help. Given weapons, they returned to Maaloula and reclaimed their homes.

Identified now as associates of Assad, however, they realised that if Washington and London gave the go-ahead, Maaloula would likely be on the bombers' target list. One of their leaders remarked to Western journalists: "We gave you St Paul. You give us bombs."

That particular crisis ended when Russia brokered a deal whereby Assad gave up his chemical weapons. But nothing has illustrated the kaleidoscopic political and military contradictions of Syria as much as an ancient Christian settlement feeling threatened by the West for having acquired the means to defeat Islamic extremists.

Since the Syrian war broke out in 2011, 600,000 Christians have fled the country, about a third of their total number.

It is the misfortune of the Syrian Christians that they don't fit into a pattern of play which suits any of the major forces. For centuries Christians have had a slightly privileged position in Syria, by no means overlords, but disproportionately represented in business, the professions and the State service.

They tended to support the Assad regime, both to defend their position and out of fear of the alternative. They have also been positive towards the Palestinian fight for justice.

The Christians' association with the Palestinian cause has deprived them of the support of the most powerful section of Western opinion, which might have been expected to highlight their predicament and come to their aid.

But the Christian Right, which can paralyse the US Government over healthcare or a woman's right to choose, being uncritical in its support of Israel and unconcerned about the oppression of Palestine does not include defence of the Syrian Christians in its quiver of causes.

One of the leaders in the race for the Republican Presidential nomination, Ted Cruz, told an audience of Middle Eastern Christians at a meeting in Washington titled In Defence Of Christians: "You have no better allies than the Jewish state... I will say this: if you do not stand with Israel, I will not stand with you."

Support for his hunted, beleaguered co-religionists in the Syrian conflict was dependent on them cheering on the persecution of others.

The week before last, heavy fighting between Islamic State and Assad forces was reported in the largely Christian town of Dadad, population 15,000, in Homs province. Dadad had been captured by Isis in 2013, then liberated (at least from Isis) by Assad soldiers.

During the period it held Dadad, Isis murdered 45 Christians in horrible circumstances. Hundreds of families fled. It is unclear how many Christians are left in a town which had 14 churches and a monastery. It is unclear how many of the Christian buildings are still standing.

"God bless America!" cry Cruz and his co-thinkers at the close of every speech. But to hell with anyone who won't do and think what we tell them.