Photos have circulated of Christmas worship in churches of Aleppo, Syria, which was recently captured by the Assad regime after several years of siege against occupying rebels amid horrible destruction. Last week photos and video circulated of Aleppo’s remaining Christians celebrating the capture at an outdoor Christmas rally, presumably facilitated by the regime. A close examination of the scene shows flags for Hezbollah and Iran, plus portraits of Assad, Putin and Hezbollah’s chief, Nasrallah.
That Christians are openly worshipping in Aleppo is of course good news. Some Western Christians have hailed Aleppo’s capture by the Assad regime as a liberation from Saudi-backed radical Islamists and jihadists among the rebels. The truth is complicated. Many Syrian Christians, who of course are a small minority, have traditionally supported the Assad regime, despite its nearly half century of murderous brutality, because it is relatively secular. The Assads are Alawites, a religious minority that has found the Christian minority a sometimes useful ally against Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.
The U.S. briefly aligned with Assad during the Persian Gulf War, when Syria joined the coalition to oust Saddam’s invading army from Kuwait. In the wake of the subsequent Iraq War, Assad, in cahoots with Iran, facilitated aid for anti-U.S. insurgents killing U.S. personnel.
Assad has survived Syria’s civil war thanks to fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Islamist Shiite militia armed by Iran’s Shiite theocracy to torment Israel and promote Iranian regional interests. It is deemed by the USA to be a terror group. Assad also depends directly on Iran as his regime’s wealthy patron. Photos of the chief of the Quds (Jerusalem) Force, the special operations of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, reputedly inspecting captured Aleppo, circulated in social media. Those special forces are designated by the USA as supporters of terrorism.
Aleppo’s capture was possible thanks to Islamist terror groups like Hezbollah and the Quds Force, whose role in supporting the relatively secular Assad is to serve Iran’s Shiite theocracy. The capture of Aleppo was also possible thanks to air power from Russia, which has exploited the Assad regime as a proxy since the old Cold War days, and which has long cherished its naval base in Syria.
Some prelates of the Russian Orthodox Church have celebrated the Russian intervention in Syria as a supposed defense of Syria’s Christian minority. But typically they do not reflect on the alliance with Islamist forces like Hezbollah and Iran’s mullahs, whose regime is not kind to Iran’s small Christian minority nor to any religious minorities. Both Iran’s regime and Hezbollah openly advocate Israel’s destruction and the eradication of Jews in the Mideast.
That many Syrian Christians find relative protection under Assad, in alliance with Hezbollah, Iran and Putin, is unexceptional by Mideast standards. Lebanese Christians next door are divided between alliances with Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia, which bans all public expression of Christianity or any non-Islamic faith. We Christians who live in safety in America cannot fiercely stand in judgement of Christians who struggle for survival in far more precarious political contexts.
Catholics in 1930s Spain aligned with Franco, an ally of Hitler and Mussolini, because they feared the republic’s more threatening Stalinists. Even anti-Nazi Lutherans of East Prussia in 1945 likely hoped the Third Reich would protect them from advancing Soviet forces. These choices were morally grim, but in their situation we may not have decided differently.
Similarly understanding different contexts, we can rejoice that Christian worship has returned to Aleppo. But the capture of Aleppo should not be romanticized as a big victory for justice or Christianity. The victors, in service to dictatorship and their own version of jihad, while aligned with enemies of America and Israel, do not merit thanks or admiration. Christmas means peace on earth and good will toward men. Hopefully some day not just Christmas celebration but also the fuller spirit of Christmas will come to Aleppo and Syria.