Christians in Syria: Separating Grim Reality from Islamist Propaganda

Islam's religious purification campaign inflicts its horror.

christiansA recently released video of an interview with a Syrian rebel -- and would-be-martyr -- gives extraordinary insight into the mentality of the Syrian opposition. Believing that he’s speaking to European jihadist volunteers, the rebel says that Christians must be killed to impose a Sharia state in Syria, after which they will be given the classic choice: pay the jizya, convert or die. He also says that the rebels intend to move on from Syria to attack Europe and America.

Similarly, another rebel clearly explains that Islam must be the sole source of authority of the future Syrian state.  In the meantime, Syrian militants just massacred a Christian village’s population. Many Syrian Christians have been kidnapped and killed or never seen again.

Targeting Syrian Christians for kidnapping and attacks on churches is condemned by Human Rights Watch.  An U.N. Independent Inquiry on Syria concludes: “Entire communities are at risk of being forced out of the country or of being killed inside the country”—two cautiously worded reminders of the reality of Christian suffering in Syria at the hands of Islamist militants.  During a recent Congressional hearing on Syria's minorities, witnesses rightly testified that Christians are more fearful for their lives than other group, because they are targeted for religious cleansing.

Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence concerning the plight of Syria’s Christians, there are those who are not convinced that Syrian Christians are being deliberately targeted in a religious purification campaign.

One of them is Muslim college student, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, who lives in the UK and authored the report Christians in Syria: Separating Fact from Fiction, published by The Henry Jackson Society, a UK neoconservative think tank.

Through psychological tactics, like his title Fact and Fiction, and the questioning of absolute figures, percentages and details, Al-Tamimi tries to use the conflicting reports regarding some specific events in order to generate doubts about the veracity of Syrian Christians’ persecution.

Among other things, by claiming that the narrative of those concerned about the Christians’ fate is not the only possible one, he subtly and surreptitiously creates suspicions that those people lie or distort the evidence.

The main problem with his report isn’t so much that it disputes specific details of events. Initially the Western media was rehashing the stories created by the insurgents’ anti-Assad propaganda. Later it became clear that these reports were one-sided and adjustments were made:

For nearly two years, SOHR [Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization of Syrian rebels in exile] has reported only acts of violence by the regime against the rebels. Mainstream international media like the BBC, al-Jazeera and al-Arabya, have relied on it as their sole source of news.

In recent months, several experts and Syrians interviewed by AsiaNews accused Western and Gulf State media of selective reporting. More recently, coverage has become more impartial, but SOHR continues to defend Islamic extremists to avoid losing support among rebel forces.

The jihadists are particularly ruthless in their hide-and-seek mind games, reminiscent of Hamas in its conflict with Israel.

In these conflicts many media reporters on the ground aren’t dispassionate observers but have a stake in the matter. As in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which several freelancers supplying news materials are under Hamas’ control, Western media's flirtation with the Syrian rebels is well-documented.

For example, from Biased War Photography in Western Media:

[T]he portrayal of the "Syrian revolution" is decidedly one-sided… the images taken to supply Western Media all portrayed the Syrian rebels in a way to render sympathy and support.

Here are some other examples:

The Vatican's news-gathering facilities are a welcome counterbalance to mainstream Western media’s bias.  Of course, there can be a margin of error or doubt concerning the details of some events. Yet what is problematic with the Henry Jackson Report is the arbitrariness with which its author, Al-Tamimi, cherry-picks his favorite sources and rejects those he doesn’t like, without giving reasons or criteria.

This is his account about Qusayr:

Modeled on the story of the ethnic cleansing of 90 per cent of Homs’ Christian population, stories began to circulate that 9,000 out-of-a-supposed population of 10,000 Christians had left the city of Qusayr on the basis of an ultimatum issued by a rebel battalion. However, the rebels in Qusayr denied this story. The truth about what happened, most likely, lies in the account given by a couple of reports in the Wall Street Journal.

So, reports from Jihad Watch and from the Vatican news agency Fides, Vatican Insider, Barnabas Fund, aren’t to be trusted, but the rebels, who are, for all intents and purposes, the suspects of heinous crimes and so naturally deny it, are more trustworthy?

Or the truth, he moderately suggests, is “in the middle”—that is, in places like The Wall Street Journal, that supports Obama's decision to arm the Syrian rebels and he only regrets Obama didn't make this decision sooner, and in The Independent, whose senior Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk had the honor of a personal recommendation from Osama Bin Laden and demonizes Christians for supporting Assad.

Al-Tamimi offers no reason for adopting those two pro-Arab-Spring newspapers' version of the events.

"The rebels deny it," Al-Tamimi pronounces. Here's what the rebels also say:

Syrian opposition spokesmen have repeatedly said that Syrian rebels do not target Christians or other minorities and believe in creating a democratic society once Assad is ousted.

To which we can add: and pigs might fly. To believe that al-Qaeda-linked Islamists want a democratic society—in the Western sense of giving everyone equal rights, and not in the Muslim Brotherhood’s interpretation of it as a means to impose an Islamic state—is, at best, naïve. That part of the Syrian opposition's statement should throw doubt on the other part, that rebels don't target Christians.

But Al-Tamimi, who must surely know about taqiyya—lying to non-believers to advance the cause of Islam—behaves as if he didn't.

The conclusion of Al-Tamimi’s report looks like a highly precarious assembling of statements counterbalancing, if not contradicting, each other to produce a very confused and confusing result.

He writes:

The evidence surveyed here does not, as of yet, suggest the existence of an organized campaign of militant Islamic persecution of Christians throughout Syria… Have there been incidents of anti-Christian violence in Syria? Undoubtedly, but one should always be alert to those pro-Assad propaganda outlets which are willing to exploit, for their own ends, what they see as Western concerns about the status of Christians in the country. In addition, analysts should be more nuanced… At the same time, one must avoid complacency: the ever-growing infiltration of Syria by foreign jihadists (e.g. from Jordan to the south) poses an increasing threat to the survival of the various Christian communities of Syria.

First, that the evidence doesn’t suggest "an organized campaign" is puzzling. What evidence of an "organized" campaign would Al-Tamimi accept?

The Syrian opposition has no effective centralized political or military leadership, so how could there be an organized campaign of any sort?

Muslim persecution of Christians doesn’t require central, bureaucratic coordination. Its organization derives from Islamic law and the hostility it breeds for Christians.

Al-Tamimi warns that we should be alert to pro-Assad propaganda exploiting Western concerns about Christians—without bothering to mention that the propaganda war is fought on both fronts. So why should we be more alert to one side of it than the other?

Apparently simply because one source confirms what Al-Tamimi wants to believe and validates his agenda.

In the end, however, after another series of self-limiting statements, his final conclusion is that there’s an increasing threat to the survival of the various Christian communities of Syria.

Isn't that enough reason for concern? Why nitpick—why write this convoluted report trying to minimize the persecution of Syrian Christians in the first place—if in the end you must, perhaps begrudgingly, admit that there is “an increasing threat to the survival of the various Christian communities of Syria.”

This research doesn’t lead to a new interpretation of the events. Its conclusion is remarkably similar to that of most counterjihad analysts.

What’s its point then? It's not immediately clear until one remembers that it was published by the neoconservative think tank The Henry Jackson Society, calling for Western intervention to assist Syrian rebels. Hence the "nuances" that Al-Tamimi mentions, which would help erase any black and white contrast and paint the rebels a uniform, unintelligible gray.

Enza Ferreri is an Italian-born, London-based Philosophy graduate, author and journalist. She has been a London correspondent for several Italian magazines and newspapers, including Panorama, L’Espresso, La Repubblica. She blogs at

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