By Catholic Herald
Christian militias are merely defending villages from an enemy that will
show no mercy. But in doing so they must make dangerous choices
We are accustomed to seeing Christians in the Middle East as always
being victims of discrimination and violence. And so they are, and have
been for centuries, suffering from laws (even now) which reject their
claims to equal citizenship, and from sporadic but frequent and
terrifying instances of persecution or mob violence.
In recent years sectarian violence has approached such a crescendo
that the very existence of Christianity in the region of its birth has
been put in doubt.
Why don’t Christians then take up arms, as some other persecuted
groups have done? The Druze of Lebanon, who offend Islamic orthodoxy by
their belief in reincarnation and liberal reinterpretation of the Koran,
are famously ruthless fighters. The Alawites of Syria proved such
effective soldiers that they took over first the country’s military and
then its government.
Leaving aside questions of principle – the region already has more
than enough armed men – the pragmatic answer is that it usually wouldn’t
work. Christians are too divided to form any kind of unified political
party, let alone a military unit. There are more than 20 different
Christian denominations in the region and not since the advent of Islam
have they ever come together to act as one.
Furthermore, most Christians are urban and many are middle class
without military experience and with the option of emigration to the
Finally, the precedents are so ominous that they would hardly expect
anything good to come from putting their heads above the parapet in such
an obvious way.
Chief among those precedents is that of the Armenian and Assyrian
Christians in the early 20th century. Both groups, living under Ottoman
rule but accused of covert collaboration with the Ottomans’ Russian
enemies, were subjected as a consequence to a genocidal campaign of
massacre, rape and deportation. In the beautiful town of Mardin,
southern Turkey, some years ago I took care to read the inscriptions on
the lintels of the local restaurants and hotels; they showed that these
had once been the homes of Assyrian Christians. None lives there now.
The Assyrians were a tight-knit group, bound together by ethnic as
well as religious ties. Survivors who fled to Iraq, then under British
rule, hoped that the British would give them some form of autonomy, or
even independence. Instead, history would repeat itself. After Iraq was
granted independence, clashes between Assyrian and Iraqi soldiers led to
a general massacre of Assyrians – an event which partly inspired the
definition of “genocide”.
Another more recent precedent is the Lebanese Civil War of the 1970s
and 1980s between Lebanon’s former Christian ruling class and their
Muslim opponents, which ultimately led to the country’s domination by
its neighbour Syria.
So what should we make of the existence of Christian militias in
Syria, fighting alongside the Kurds to defeat ISIS? Many are composed of
Assyrians, the same group that suffered in Iraq. Will it end
differently for them this time?
There are quite a few of these militias, all of them aimed at
fighting ISIS. These groups are doing what most of us would do if we
lived in such a lawless place: defending their villages from an enemy
that will show them no mercy and brooks no compromise.
In doing so, however, they enter a web of tangled moral choices. Such
groups need weapons and support. Some find that by aligning with Bashar
al-Assad’s blood-soaked regime. Others look to the rebel Kurdish forces
operating in the country’s north-east. So they are unified now by a
necessary war against radical Islam; but one day, if the Syrian state
and the Kurds come to blows, they will be divided again. Life in the
Middle East can often involve rawer, more dangerous choices than we will
ever have to make.