Two years ago, it was safer to walk down a Syrian street than one in Australia, says Andrew Lake, an Australian Christian missionary recently returned from the Arabic hot-spot.
“We felt extremely safe in Syria. Up until recently, law and order was very strong. There was less theft, less violence than in Australia. You get that in a police state – it’s safer.”
Lake’s experiences reflect a tension between the revulsion most westerners feel about dictatorships and the desire that Christian communities have for ‘the devil they know’, regimes that have traditionally given them some protection.
Andrew and his wife, Pam, spent two years in Syria serving with CMS (Christian Missionary Society), based in Damascus. There, they looked after two international congregations, one in Damascus and one in Aleppo, made up of people from many backgrounds – from ambassadors to Iraqi and Sudanese refugees.
“The thing about Syrian people is that they’re very friendly and tolerant of communities of minorities. The average Syrian man must do compulsory military service, so different religions get mixed up and friendships are made across belief lines. It’s quite a cosmopolitan society.”
Andrew’s image of Syria is certainly not reflected in stories of revolution that have catapulted Syria into the daily news cycle. He says it was almost inevitable that such an uprising would arrive in Syria, after the country watched the events of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya.
Last week, special United Nations envoy, Kofi Annan toured the city of Homs, from which much of the news of Syrian upheaval stems, calling for an end to the killing and violence. For Australians, says Andrew, watching and reading news about Syria from afar can lead to misunderstanding.
“There are aspirations out there for greater democratic freedom and economic reforms. The concern for Syria is, if there is interference by foreign governments, it’s Christians and other minorities that suffer the most,” says Andrew.
“For example, under Saddam Hussein, there were 1 million Christians protected by law in Iraq. Since the invasion, half a million Christians have fled or been killed.”
“The current Syrian government is a secular one, and they protected Christians and other minorities living in Syria – even the handful of Jews left in the country were protected by the government.”
The protection Andrew talks about is corroborated by Christian aid organisation, Open Doors International. In its 2012 World Watch report, Open Doors said “The Christian community lived in relatively peaceful circumstances under the secular regime of President Bashar al-Assad. As long as Christians did not disturb communal harmony or threaten the government, they were tolerated and had freedom to worship.”
Despite that protection, Andrew concedes that the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad is a “sinister regime in many ways”, seeing similarities to Roman government in the time of Jesus.
“I’m sure the Roman government wasn’t interested in religion. They just wanted law and order. If people behave, the government was good to them. If they misbehaved, they’d crucify them all.”
Andrew and Pam returned to Tasmania from Syria last August, after experiencing what Andrew called “common visa problems”. But Andrew said they were also under increasing pressure from the Australian embassy in Egypt (also serving Syria, which has no Australian embassy) to leave.
“They were fairly strong in their encouragement of us to leave Syria,” said Andrew. “They repeated their advise that it wasn’t safe to stay there.”
The Barnabas Fund, an organisation providing aid to the persecuted church, goes even further in its description of the negative Christian experience right now in Syria.
“A Western-backed military campaign in alliance with the Syrian rebels against the Assad regime is looking increasingly likely, and this could be devastating for the Church in Syria,” said the organisation in a letter to its supporters.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of the Barnabas Fund said “Christians in the West should not stand by and allow their governments to destroy Syria – and the Syrian church – in pursuit of their own political interests in the region…Our brothers and sisters in Syria are in a desperate state, facing the daily struggle of trying to get enough food to feed their families while war rages all around them.”
Presumably, however, this ‘desperate state’ is the same for Christians and their Syrian neighbours alike.
Andrew says he’s kept in touch with his Syrian Christian friends, who are indeed struggling.
“There’s a rise in crime, things that weren’t heard of before – kidnapping, robbery. There’re queues for bread and petrol. Food shortages abound. Safety concerns are increasing daily.”
While the mainstream news publishes articles about the atrocities and killings perpetrated by the Assad regime, Christians are worried about what will happen if that secular regime is overthrown.
Open Doors predicts: “A change of government is expected to lead to a situation of anarchy and struggle for power. This will likely result in an Islamist extremist take over – leading to a worse situation for Christians and other minority groups. Should that happen, Christians will either be isolated or driven from the country en masse – a situation comparable to the one in Iraq.”