What the future holds for Christians in Syria is unclear, but an important topic of discussion on the Bethel College Campus Wednesday morning as part of the Life Enrichment Series.
“Syria is awash in anybody who has ever wanted to be fight and willing to be paid,” said Eldon Wagler, former country representative for Mennonite Central Committee, who served in Syria. “One of my friends told me 'I don't recognize this place anymore.'”
According to Wagler, that man's friends have left the country, and those left have “funny accents and all they want to do is fight.”
Wagler spent 10 years in Syria as a country representative for MCC. He also taught English courses for a seminary in the nation.
Syria, officially known as the Syrian Arab Republic, is a country in Western Asia, bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel to the southwest. The nation's capital and largest city is Damascus.
The unrest in Syria arose as part of a wider wave of 2011 Arab Spring protests, grew out of discontent with the authoritarian government of President Bashar al-Assad and escalated to an armed conflict after protests calling for his removal were violently suppressed.
According to the Middle Eastern Institute, Syrian opposition groups formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and seized control of the area surrounding Aleppo and parts of southern Syria. Over time, some factions of the Syrian opposition split from their original moderate position to pursue an Islamist vision for Syria, joining groups such as al-Nusra Front and ISIS.
Wagler believes the violence will stop at some point — much like it did in Lebanon. He also believes ISIS is weakening, and that weakening means a stronger future for Christians.
“If it is a takeover by ISIS, which is increasingly unlikely, I would be very worried about any sort of Christian presence in Syria,” Wagler said. “I do not think ISIS is going to last too long. … If you have been following Mosul, you can see what our bombing has been doing there. … The islamic factions and definitely ISIS is on the wane at this point. That is partly because of Russia. Iran has been active with that. Let's face it, our bombers have been flying up to 100 missions a day trying to target ISIS targets.”
He believes the war will drag on until those fighting are worn out — which is how unrest in neighboring Lebanon came to an end.
“I see this civil war dragging on for some time until all the parties slump to the table in exhaustion much as they did in Lebanon after 15 years. They were just tired of the fighting,” Wagler said.
About 400,000 people have died in more than six years of conflict in Syria. Wednesday Wagler talked of Christian priests who have gone missing and are likely dead. However, he was quick to point out it was likely resistance groups — and not the Syrian government — who were likely responsible.
The Syrian government is a Ba'athist government. Ba'athism is based on principles of Arab nationalism, pan-Arabism, Arab socialism, as well as social progress. It is a secular form of government.
In Syria, the government has granted Christians equal rights — while not given protections, Christians are not persecuted or treated differently than other groups. Christians can build where they like, and worship as they like if they are not resisting the government.
“That is a remarkable step for a Middle Eastern government, to treat Christians equal to everyone else,” Wagler said. "You have equal citizenship rights in Syria."
He said that is most obvious during Holy Week — the week before Easter. Christians have a week-long celebration that includes parades through their communities.
“When we moved to Syria, one of the first things we had to deal with was the Christians relationship with the government,” Wagler said. “It is very nuanced.”