America’s Christians mobilize against Syria strike ahead of Hill votes

America’s Christians mobilize against Syria strike ahead of Hill votes


[This article originally appeared on the NBC News website.]

American Christian organizations across the political spectrum are mobilizing their networks nationwide to urge Congress to oppose authorization for a U.S. strike in Syria.

The advocacy arms of the Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran and Catholic churches are among the groups in the United States urging members to contact their representatives in DC to urge a no vote on the resolution next week.

The civil war in Syria poses a dilemma for people of faith; after the killing of women and children, reportedly at the order of Syrian President Bashar Assad, could intervention be justified to prevent more death – either by further chemical attacks inside Syria or by a spreading regional conflict? Or would the violence of such a strike backfire by sparking more violence in Syria against minority faith groups – particularly Christians – who are more fearful of persecution under anti-Assad forces than under the current regime?

President Obama says he is “not itching for military action” in Syria but added he cannot see many alternatives.

“We have found ourselves between a rock and a hard place of a false dichotomy; to do nothing or to replay violence with violence, and death with death,” Rev. Eliza Buchakjian-Tweedy, pastor of First Church Congregational in Rochester, New Hampshire, told her United Church of Christ congregation in a sermon last Sunday.

The question is the same one facing President Barack Obama, who has acknowledged enormous public skepticism about his belief in the necessity of a strike, which he says would send a message to current and future powers capable of using chemical weapons in violation of international norms.

“This is not convenient,” he told reporters in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday. “This is not something that I think a lot of folks around the world find an appetizing set of choices. But the question is, do these norms mean something? And if we’re not acting, what does that say?

But the response from American Christians from conservative and liberal congregations alike appears to be – almost overwhelmingly – adamant opposition to the military action Obama says is justified.

Members of the United Church of Christ have sent more than 3000 letters to members of Congress urging a no vote on military intervention. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has activated its network throughout the country, alerting all bishops in the country and human rights representatives in each diocese to lobby against congressional authorization. Other mainline Protestant leaders say they’ll be joining Catholics in a day of prayer and fasting for Syria this weekend.

Even evangelicals who were largely supportive of the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq are hesitant to back action now, said Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“I was expecting more of a debate on this issue,” Moore said. “But almost everyone I talk to at the conservative evangelical grassroots level is deeply, deeply concerned about going to war. I’ve been surprised by that.”

The overwhelming opposition to a strike in Syria puts the Christian community at odds with America’s prominent Jewish faith and civil rights organizations, many of which urged action after officials reportedly participated in a conference call with White House advisers on Tuesday. Some prominent Jews have drawn parallels between Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons and the gassing of Jews during the Holocaust; others have alluded to the security of Israel as a consideration.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., explains how he’s “torn” over the action the U.S. needs to take in Syria and talks about the president’s upcoming address to the nation on Tuesday.

“Those who perpetuate such acts of wanton murder must know that they cannot do so with impunity,” the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group of over 50 Jewish groups, said in a statement. “Those who possess or seek weapons of mass destruction, particularly Iran and Hezbollah, must see that there is accountability.”

While Christians cite their desire for peace in theological terms, another important reason for their opposition is the safety of Christians in the region.

“I’m getting emails and talking directly to Christians there, and they are scared to death that once Assad falls that they are going to be just like the Christians in Egypt,” said General Jerry Boykin, USA (Ret), the executive vice president of the conservative Family Research Council. “They’re going to be pursued, they’re going to be forced to flee and if they can’t get out they’re going to be killed.”

Rev. Gradye Parsons, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, said that he’s heard directly from partner organizations in Syria who are urging the United States to hold off on military action.

“There’s a lot of conversation about what the Christians in Syria want,” he said. “And what they’ve told us directly is ‘we want the shooting to stop, we want the violence to stop.’ And I think we need to listen to the people on the ground.” 

Their comments echo an argument voiced by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a leading opponent of the strike, who argued on NBC’s Meet the Press that Assad has “protected Christians for a number of decades.”

Christians and other religious minorities in Syria have indeed been relatively secure under Assad’s rule, says Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute.

“Christians, like a lot of other minorities, gathered around the Assad regime because it backed up Ba’athism and created a system that was secular in nature and allowed Christians to play an equal part in society,” he said.

But, he added, while some extremist elements of the Syrian opposition are likely to target Christians if Assad falls – in part for their faith and in part for their previous political alignment with the Assad regime — others who are fighting the existing government are not unfavorable to religious minorities, and some Christians have even joined the opposition to work towards Assad’s ouster.

“The opposition as a whole is not antithetical to Christians,” Tabler said. “It’s just those extremist elements that are less tolerant.”