Category: Islam

Baptists in Levantium

 Interesting history.  Thank you very much.  I’m curious, because it wasn’t mentioned in the article and perhaps wasn’t germane, but how much Baptist work in Israel/Palestine is with Jewish (secular and confessing) persons and how much is with non-Jewish (i.e., Arab Christians and Muslims and non-Arab visiting pilgrims/tourists) persons?  What are the ratios?  Maybe I’ve been misinformed, but I thought evangelical outreach to Jews was verboten in Israel.

Actually, I was a bit surprised that the Jerusalem Post even published the story.  My impression after comparing it to Haaretz for the last few years is that the JP is more or less the Faux News of Israeli newspapers.  There were, however, some curious insertions that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the narrative, such as the factoid that there were 6,000 Jewish casualties in the 1948 war (6,373 to be exact), or 1% of Israel’s Jewish Population.

No mention of Arab casualties.  Guess even back then, we Westerners couldn’t be bothered to do body counts if the bodies happened to be Arab.  I checked a few sources and, in the interest of offering “the other side of the story” wanted to remind everyone that in that same war, estimates of Arab casualties range from 5,000 to 15,000 (2,000 regular army from Arab countries and perhaps as many as 13,000 Palestinian irregulars).

Let’s do a little math:  Approximately 711,000 Palestinian Arabs fled because of the war (those are UN figures, Israel’s estimate is 420,000 and the Palestinian estimate is 900,000).

 In 1927, the population of Palestine was approximately:

589,200 Muslims
 83,800 Jews
 71,500 Christians
  7,600 Others

By 1947, the population estimates were:

1,135,269 Muslims
  650,000 Jews
  153,621 Christians
   16,370 Others

So, taking the lowest estimates of 3,000 Palestinians killed and another 420,000 exiled, 32% of the 1,305,000 non-Jews in Palestine were forever (if the Israelis have their way) banished by the 1948 war.  Sorta makes the 1% figure seem less significant.  Using the higher casualty estimates (also about 1%) and the UN refugee estimates, the percentage jumps to 55%!  And don’t forget, Israel’s territory increased by nearly 50%, from 5,400 square miles to 8,000.  In military terms, seems like that 1% figure was a pretty good trade-off, especially when you factor in the way it destabilized neighboring countries for the next half-century and created a climate that encouraged far more Jews than were ever lost in the war to immigrate from Arab countries.

This kind of one-sided reporting reminds me of the recent flap over Carter’s book in which he labeled Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine as apartheid.  Every newspaper in the USA and Israel was giddy over the fact that 12 members of the Carter Center’s advisory board had resigned in protest.  You had to search high and low to find out that all 12 were Jewish and that more than 280 members of the same board had NOT resigned!

Still, David Smith’s history of Baptists in the area was very interesting.  Others have been in the region even longer.  In 2002, Ussama Makdisi wrote in the Boston Globe that “the first American missionaries to the Arab world were associated with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  They departed Boston in 1819 and arrived in the Levant in 1820.  Failing to establish themselves in Jerusalem, they settled on Beirut as the center of a missionary enterprise to Syria in 1823.”

I received an e-mail in 2004 from Tony [deleted].  He is descended from a long line of Presbyterian missionaries.  His mother’s grandfather (a Jessup, from Pennsylvania) went to Lebanon during Abraham Lincoln’s administration.  One of the Jessup brothers was asked by Lincoln to serve as US consul, but he declined saying he wanted to be free to preach God’s message rather than be required to deliver the government’s official message.  Tony’s father, also a missionary, retired in 1961 and was replaced by Ben Weir (who many of us know and who was a hostage during the civil war).

Likewise, the great grandfather, grandfather, and mother of retired CIA officer Ray Close (one of those notorious “Arabists” by his own admission) were Presbyterian missionaries in Sidon, Lebanon, starting in 1853.  Four years ago, Mr. Close sent my father the text of a speech he gave in early 2003, on the eve of our conquest of Iraq.  He concluded with a 1953 quote from Dwight Eisenhower:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.  The world in arms is not spending money alone.  It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. … This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense.  Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Seems like we’ve been hanging from that cross ever since.  By way of contrast, here’s what our “war president” has to say about a variety of issues:

 I can’t help but wonder what the state of Christian evangelism might have been throughout the Middle East if we had had more leaders like Eisenhower and Carter…

“The End of the Affair” by Ussama Makdisi, Boston Globe, October 27, 2002 (Edition: THIRD, Section: Ideas, Page: D1)

Sent: Mar 9, 2007 9:36 AM
Subject: “Baptists in the Holy Land” by David Smith.


As a Baptist journalist in Israel for the past 25 years, I’ve often been shocked at how little Israelis know about my denomination.

With more than 90 million Baptists in the world, about half of whom are in the United States, and 17 million in my denomination – the Southern Baptist Convention – it’s a shock that Israelis, so interested in all things American, overlook this phenomenon.

How has the role of America’s Baptist presidents, many of whom acted out of faith toward the Jewish people, been overlooked? Harry S Truman was instrumental in securing UN recognition for Israel. Jimmy Carter mediated the Camp David accords in which Egypt recognized Israel. And Bill Clinton… well.

Although some earlier survey work had been done, the single greatest catalyst for Baptist work in the Holy Land was Sukri Mussa, a resident of Safed who went to the US to study in the early 1900s. While there, he came to faith under the preaching of George Truett at First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Supported by Baptist churches in southern Illinois, he returned to the Holy Land in 1911.

According to Fuad Sakhnini, pastor of the Nazareth Baptist Church since 1960, “He bought a horse and began preaching in the villages. It wasn’t easy because people were fanatically loyal to their communities. The first Baptists here were persecuted by the other traditional Christian communities.”

He witnessed in Turan and Eilabun, villages with large nominal Christian populations – the kind of background he was from. Mussa organized Bible studies and people met in homes for a time, but in 1926 the new believers built Nazareth Baptist Church. Mussa died in 1928, but there was already a vision to start planting churches in the Galilee, Sakhnini said.

Sakhnini, born the same year the church was built, was among a group of young men who continued starting new works “in obedience to the Great Commission.” Many of them went out on donkeys to preach.

Churches were established throughout the Galilee, in villages such as Jaffa, Kafr Kanna, Turan, Eilabun, Acre and Rama. More recently, two Baptist churches have been established in Nazareth.

During the 1930s a number of American Southern Baptists arrived in the Holy Land to bolster the local work. They included Leo Eddleman, later a college Hebrew professor, who was noted for his mastery of both Hebrew and Arabic. He attributed those skills to the curfew maintained during the British Mandate, saying there was little else to do but study from sunrise to sunset.

By the end of the 1930s, Southern Baptists had seven Americans working in Palestine, but World War II forced them to leave and the work floundered for a time.

Dwight Baker, who served in Israel in the 1950s and ’60s, wrote: “Had it not been for the stout-hearted courage of the nationals, all would have been lost. A work that was begun by Arab Baptists was just as heroically sustained by these indefatigable souls.”

In 1945 Henry and Julia Hagood arrived, and soon moved to Nazareth to open the George W. Truett Home for Children. That same year, Robert and Margaret Lindsey came to strengthen the work in Jerusalem. Lindsey had spent 1939 in Jerusalem as a student, and already had a good working knowledge of the language, according to Baker.

Working tirelessly to establish the orphanage, learn Arabic and preach on the weekends, Hagood “was no match for the serious throat infection which hospitalized him in January 1946 and caused his death three days later,” according to Baker. His wife, Julia, stayed on in Nazareth with their young son to continue the work.

Baptist work suffered another setback before and during the 1948 War of Independence. Many children orphaned as a result of that war (which killed 6,000 Jews, or fully 1 percent of the country’s Jewish population) found a home at the Nazareth orphanage, necessitating a reevaluation of that ministry.

The Baptist Village, near Petah Tikva, had originally been conceived by Lindsey as a cooperative for Jewish believers in Jesus; land was purchased in 1948 and 1950 toward that end. But failing that venture, Baptists in Israel later decided to relocate the orphanage.

If the Baptist denomination is not known in Israel, the same cannot be said of its institutions. Baptist Village is known throughout the country. Although Lindsey’s original vision was never realized, thousands of people have been blessed by its ministry.

As the orphans grew, a school was developed for them. In 1963 Baptists established a vocational school whose 100 graduates would include all ethnic groups in Israel. Believers founded a church on its grounds whose ministry continues. A camp and conference program was established in the 1950s. Annual camps are conducted in English, Russian, Hebrew and Arabic.

More recently, Baptist Village has teamed with International Sports Properties to support baseball and softball. As a result, the 2005 Maccabiah baseball and softball competitions were held there.

Residents of neighboring Petah Tikva and Hod Hasharon have enjoyed Baptist Village since its beginning. Every Friday afternoon 15-20 men gather there to play soccer. Yanco Zvi of Tel Aviv, who’s been playing for more than 20 years, says: “This place has been great for us. I hope my children can enjoy it as I have.”

Nazareth Baptist School, opened in the 1930s, closed during World War II and reopened only after independence. From its modest beginnings, it is now recognized by the Ministry of Education as one of the country’s premier educational institutions. In 2006 it was ranked seventh nationally for the percentage of students scoring “excellent” results in matriculation exams.

In the youth competition called “First Step to Nobel Prize in Physics,” Israel has won 22 prizes in the past 10 years. Nine of those prizes went to students from Nazareth Baptist School. When physicist Stephen Hawking was here last year, three schools were allowed to send students to interview him; Nazareth Baptist was one of them.

According to general director Butrus Monsour, Nazareth Baptist scores in the top 1% of Israeli students in English every year.

The school’s waiting list is long. Monsour says if he had the facilities, he could double its 1,000 enrollment in two years. It is presently considering another site in Nazareth.

Although their work has grown exponentially from its 1911 roots, Baptists have suffered setbacks. Beset by wars, terrorism, religious persecution and political tension, the story of Narkis Street Baptist Church is largely indicative of Baptists in the country.

With the resurgence in Baptist work after World War I, a church of 13 congregants began meeting on Narkis Street near downtown Jerusalem in 1933. These early congregants included Jewish, Arab and expatriate devotees meeting in a chapel that had been largely built by one man – Roswell Owens – for about $1,000 in building costs.

World War II took its toll, and the succeeding revival was cut short by almost immediately by Jewish-Arab tensions. Robert Lindsey assumed the pastorate in 1949 and worked ardently to build the work, most of which revolved around Friday night and Saturday morning services in Hebrew and English. Others assumed preaching responsibilities at the church during most of the 1950s, but in 1962 Lindsey became pastor again as the group formalized itself as a church.

In 1961 Lindsey had crossed into Jordanian-controlled east Jerusalem to retrieve one of the residents of the Truett home whose relatives were preventing his return to Israel. Sneaking across the Mandelbaum Gate at night, Lindsey stepped on a land mind, causing the loss of a leg. His biography, co-written by his son-in-law, is titled One Foot in Heaven: The Story of Bob Lindsey in Jerusalem.

In October 1982, the church was levelled by arsonists. Police suspected extremist elements from Jerusalem’s haredi community. Charles Kopp, senior pastor for the previous 15 years, was the first member to arrive at the scene. He says the members felt “shock and great grief because of our worship center being destroyed. But we also felt hopeful. Bob [Robert Lindsey] took it as positively as he could, and said he had been praying that the fire of the Holy Spirit would fall from heaven, though [the arson] wasn’t what he had intended.”

Although the crime was soundly condemned by politicians and the chief rabbis, the government was reluctant to allow the church to rebuild, suggesting it move farther from the city center.

Lindsey was prepared to accept the government’s suggestion, but church members declined, saying leaving might encourage the extremists to step up their campaign. Permission to rebuild on site was secured in 1987, after apetition to the High Court.

The church at Narkis Street, from its infancy in the 1930s, overcame these obstacles. Presently four different congregations, representing about 500 believers meeting in Hebrew, Russian and English, gather there. One English-speaking congregation has a contemporary worship service, while another employs a traditional Baptist liturgy.

Similarly, the national work, from its equine-borne evangelists in the early part of the 20th century, presently consists of about 6,000 adults and children meeting in 20 churches – the Association of Baptist Churches (ABC) having formed in 1963.

Although Baptist numbers in Israel are limited, their influence has affected the believing community greatly. Dozens of congregations and thousands of Christians throughout the country are Baptist in terms of doctrine and administration, although they do not formally belong to the ABC.

Fuad Haddad, chairman of the ABC, writes: “The concern of Baptists today is to witness and be witnesses in the Land. The promotion of the Lord’s work is a priority… local churches have been challenged to double their numbers in a decade. God has blessed, and He will continue to bless.”

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What if?

It’s Sunday, October 8, and I’ve been reading letters and opinions in today’s paper.  One side is right.  Everyone else is wrong.  I’ve also been thinking all day about the tragedy last week at the Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania…

If the Amish had responded as America did after September 11, they would have immediately burned down the killer’s home.  If his wife and children were still inside, too bad — that’s what happens.  “Collateral damage” in bloodless, abstract war terms.  Then they would have marched into town and torched the hardware store where he bought supplies for his deadly rampage.  And the diner where he occasionally ate breakfast.  If nearby buildings caught fire, too bad — they weren’t intentionally targeted and besides, they shouldn’t have been so close…

Before the smoke cleared, they would have looked around to see what else they could destroy in their quest to make Lancaster County safe for the Amish.  The killer worked for a dairy, so they would butcher the cows and poison the pastures.  Wasn’t the right dairy?  Too bad, but according to anonymous experts (in undisclosed locations), all dairy farmers hate the Amish way of life…

How did the Amish really react last week?  A Presbyterian pastor visited the home of one of the Amish girls who was killed.  He found the mother preparing her daughter’s body for burial.  In the background, the girl’s grandfather was reminding the rest of the family about the importance of forgiving her killer.  It was a scene that moved the pastor to tears.

The Amish have initiated relief efforts to help the families of the girls who were killed and wounded, and to help the family of the man who killed them.  Thursday, the long funeral procession of black horse-drawn buggies passed in front of that man’s house.  And the house is still there…

What would the world think of us now, five years after September 11, if America had been more like the Amish?

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Muslim and American?

For several months now, a provocative question-and-answer (Q&A) essay has been circulating on the Internet and by e-mail.  The essay asks the question “Can a good Muslim be a good American?” and then emphatically answers “NO!”

A few days ago, the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) offered its position on each of the points raised in the essay.  ABTS was established in 1960 by American Southern Baptists for the training of Christian workers throughout the Arab world.  What follows is the original Q&A essay, with ABTS’ comments inserted after each point.

I have injected some minor changes here and there to facilitate reading this “dialog” between the anonymous Q&A author and the seminary.  ABTS has reviewed those edits and this is offered for your consideration with their blessings.

Q&A’s opening question:  Can a good Muslim be a good American?

Q&A’s answer #1:  Theologically, no, because his allegiance is to Allah, the moon god of Arabia.

 ABTS:  As indicated by the name of Muhammad’s father “Abdallah,” Allah is the Arabic name for God probably used by Arab Christians long before Islam.  Most likely its root is the Syriac word “Allaha” which was used by Syriac Christians since the second century.

ABTS:  With this in mind, if “Allah” comes from the name of the moon god of Arabia, then it may be argued that “Elohim” is the plural version of “El,” a Semitic pagan head divinity; and that “Theos” is the generic name of any Greek Divinity; and that virtually every other appellation of God in European languages, such as “Dieu,” “God,” “Gott” and others were adopted into Christianity from pagan religions and rites of the regions that adopted the Christian religion.

Q&A’s answer #2:  Religiously, no.  Because no other religion is accepted by his Allah except Islam (Quran, 2:256).

ABTS:  Looked at from this angle, it can be argued that neither does Judaism accept the legitimacy of Christianity or Islam.  Nor does Christianity accept the legitimacy of Islam while it restricts itself to a specific interpretation of Judaism that may be described as Christo-centric.   A historical reflection can lead to the argument that Islam’s institution of Dhimmi status guarantees more religious tolerance for minorities than Christianity did in the Medieval period.

Q&A’s answer #3:  Scripturally, no.  Because his allegiance is to the five pillars of Islam and the Quran (Koran).

ABTS:  Often times we miss the point and tend to throw out the baby with the bath water.  Perhaps we need to carefully look at the purpose behind the five pillars, which includes:  1) Proclamation of God’s oneness; 2) Prayer; 3) Fasting; 4) Pilgrimage; and 4) Almsgiving.  Probably we Christians can take heed from this and strengthen our own commitment to our Lord.

Q&A’s answer #4:  Geographically, no.  Because his allegiance is to Mecca, to which he turns in prayer five times a day.

ABTS:  Here again, perhaps we need to be reminded of the words of our Lord Jesus Christ “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3-4).  How many of us Christians tend to worship that which is in contradiction with the Word of God and the Spirit of the Christian message?  Arab Christians may argue here that certain non-Arab Christians allow politics – an allegiance that is not to God – to over-rule the Spirit of God’s Word, jeopardizing God’s work in our part of the world.

Q&A’s answer #5:  Socially, no.  Because his allegiance to Islam forbids him to make friends with Christians or Jews.

ABTS:  Friends, we accuse Jehovah Witness of using isolated verses from the Bible to argue their case.  The “herewith and hereby” finality of these declarations indicates that whoever put together these statements does not have a thorough knowledge of the Koran which is evident in highlighting isolated verses of the Medinan sections of the Koran.  A careful review of the Koran will reveal full statements that are very positive towards Christians and Jews.  The Koran does not – in any verse – forbid Muslims from “making friends” with them.  To the contrary, the Koran recommends that those who hear Muhammad’s message and don’t believe it should go and ask Christians and Jews to confirm that his message is along the same line.

Q&A’s answer #6:  Politically, no.  Because he must submit to the mullah (spiritual leaders), who teach annihilation of Israel and destruction of America, the great Satan.

ABTS:  The Imams of Islam call for allegiance to God above any political power, which is equally true in the Bible.  The difference however is that Islam is willing to take up arms to defend and promote that stance.  But a primary principle of the “JIHAD” is that every means of peaceful struggle should be used before any resort to force.

ABTS:  Apparently some of us are focusing on the glass half empty and as such may be leading the world to the brink of disaster and destruction.  Christians are called to be people of peace and conflict resolution.  Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

ABTS:  As Christians we are responsible for every word we speak – and as such we are responsible too to attain a holistic view of a situation before coming up with a verdict.  An in-depth search into the factors that lead Islam to carry arms may be quite illuminating.   This is one frustrating aspect for us Christian Arabs particularly as we see some of our own non-Arab sisters and brothers in Christ diverting from the Spirit of Christianity and such values as justice and mercy, treading instead in uninformed paths that are political in origin and merely serve to negatively influence the spreading of the Gospel in our part of the world.

Q&A’s answer #7:  Domestically, no, because he is instructed to marry four women and beat and scourge his wife when she disobeys him (Quran 4:34).

ABTS:  Here again, it must be clarified that a Muslim is not “instructed” to marry four women but rather is “permitted” to do so on condition that he treats each of them equally and fairly.  This reflects medieval tribal norms that were current in Arabia at the time of the rise of Islam.  It does not justify these teachings, but at least places them in context.  On the other hand, the more “spiritual” Muslims of today will not favor polygamy, and certainly scourging one’s wife is viewed as barbaric by educated Muslims.  The problem is not religious.  It is cultural and depends on people’s level of education.

ABTS:  Perhaps this warrants a reflection on one’s own non-Muslim society and the increasing number of divorces and remarriages, not to mention the tolerance for sexual immorality and adultery that is widespread in non-Muslim societies.  How do we think that Muslims view these aspects of Western cultures?  The same applies for domestic violence – particularly in North America.   

Q&A’s answer #8:  Intellectually, no, because he cannot accept the American Constitution since it is based on Biblical principles and he believes the Bible to be corrupt.

ABTS:  Perhaps we need to advise the writer of these statements to check their facts first including the degree to which current US Politics are a reflection or an application of Biblical principles.  For instance, what is the point of having “In God we trust” on the U.S. Dollar bill, but then ignore principles of justice and mercy?   

ABTS:  Then again, the Muslim belief that the Bible is corrupt is a matter of practice not doctrine, and consequently it is a matter of discussion at the level of dialogue.  It is highly advisable that such conclusions should not be drawn without a thorough knowledge of Islam and its history.  They are as disturbing to Muslims as Christians are disturbed when non-Christians make cliché statements about Christianity.

Q&A’s answer #9:  Philosophically, no, because Islam, Muhammad, and the Quran do not allow freedom of religion and expression. Democracy and Islam cannot co-exist.  Every Muslim government is either dictatorial or autocratic.

ABTS:  Once more we kindly recommend a thorough and in-depth study of the on-the-ground realities including North American support to dictatorial Islamic regimes in various countries and regions of the world.  One anticipated outcome is a reflection on how overly abused and misused is the term “democracy” in our day today.  Perhaps, the concept of democracy needs to be revisited to highlight the striking variance between the concept itself and its application.

Q&A’s answer #10:  Spiritually, no, because when we declare “one nation under God,” the Christian’s God is loving and kind, while Allah is NEVER referred to as heavenly father, nor is he ever called love in The Quran’s 99 excellent names.

ABTS:  Here again, a more in-depth study of the Koran (Qur’an) reveals the presence of such synonyms as “Rahman,” “RahIm,” and “Wadud” which mean respectively merciful, compassionate and loving.  Moreover, Muslims have an understanding of God as a “Kind God.”   

Q&A’s conclusion:  Therefore after much study and deliberation…. perhaps we should be very suspicious of ALL MUSLIMS in this country.  They obviously cannot be both “good” Muslims and good Americans.  Call it what you wish…it’s still the truth!

ABTS:  In reality, the afore-mentioned statements reveal that not much in-depth study has been made.  We are Arab Christians who live in a majority culture and amongst our team are people who have done thorough studies and earned doctorate degrees in the field of Islamics.  Moreover our Institute of Middle East Studies holds annual Middle East Conferences with the objective of creating a better understanding of Islam and Muslims.  May I kindly take this opportunity to invite the “writer” and others who are interested in gaining a better understanding of our context to attend these events?  Our next conference is scheduled to be held at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary during the period June 18 – 23, 2007.

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Evangelism 101

This is from part of President Daniel Bliss’ speech when the cornerstone of College Hall was dedicated at the Syrian Protestant College (now American University of Beirut) in 1871:

“This college is for all conditions and classes of men without regard to color, nationality, race or religion. A man, white, black, or yellow, Christian, Jew, Mohammedan or heathen, may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution for three, four or eight years; and go out believing in one God, in many gods, or in no God. But it will be impossible for anyone to continue with us long without knowing what we believe to be the truth and our reasons for that belief.”

Photograph of Daniel Bliss from or or

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Rights and wrongs are rather more complex


Syria’s Shades of Gray

By William Dalrymple, June 07, 2003


The United States has probably never been more engaged in the Middle East than now, with an American army of occupation in Iraq and President Bush promoting a Israeli-Palestinian road map to peace. Yet the Bush administration has virtually ignored Syria, which physically links Iraq and Israel, except to single it out as a target of occasional bellicose threats. There has been no question of constructive engagement with Iraq’s most powerful Arab neighbor. Instead Syria is seen merely as an unofficial adjunct to the Axis of Evil, ripe for reform if not outright invasion.

That’s unfortunate, because Syria, despite its many justifiably condemned policies, stands out in the Middle East in one respect that American policy makers should take into consideration. This aspect of Syria is most starkly on display at Saidnaya, a large Orthodox monastery north of Damascus.

The monastery sits on a great crag of rock overlooking the olive groves of the Damascene plain, more like a Crusader castle than a place of worship. But what is most striking about Saidnaya is that on any given night, Muslim pilgrims far outnumber Christian ones. When you walk into its ancient pilgrimage church, you find the congregation consists largely of heavily bearded Muslim men and their shrouded wives. As the priest circles the altar, filling the sanctuary with clouds of incense, the men bob up and down on their prayer mats. A few of the women approach the icons. They kiss them, then light a candle.

Ordinary Muslims in Syria, it seems, have not forgotten the line in the Koran about not disputing with the people of the book — that is, Jews and Christians — ”save in the most courteous manner . . . and say we believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent down to you; our God and your God is one.”

The religious pluralism that the pilgrimage church represents was once not uncommon across the Levant. Throughout the region until very recently, villagers of all faiths would converge on the shrines of Christian saints to ask for children and good harvests. Eastern Christians and Muslims lived side by side for nearly one and a half millennia because of a degree of mutual tolerance and shared customs unimaginable in the solidly Christian West. From Bosnia to Egypt, Christians and Muslims as well as many other religious minorities managed to live together. If that coexistence was not always harmonious, it was at least — with a few notable exceptions — until the beginning of the 20th century, a kind of pluralist equilibrium.

Only in the last 100 years has that pluralism been replaced by a new hardening in attitudes. Across the former Ottoman dominions, the 20th century saw the bloody unraveling of that complex tapestry — most recently in Kosovo and Bosnia, but before that in Cyprus, Palestine, Greece and Turkey. In each of these places pluralism has been replaced by a savage polarization. In dribs and drabs, and sometimes in great tragic exoduses, religious minorities have fled to places where they can be majorities, and those too few for that have fled the region altogether. Only in Syria has this process been firmly arrested: there alone, you still find five or six religious sects coexisting in villages across the country.

Since the coalition’s victory in Iraq, Syria has frequently been given notice that it could well be the next target of American wrath. Yet the Middle East is not a place where the simplistic notion of good guys and bad guys makes much sense. It is a place of murky moral gray, not black and white. Torture, repression of minorities, the imposition of military law and the abuse of basic human rights happen every bit as frequently and as unpleasantly in states that are American allies as they do in states that are not.

Certainly, most would agree that Syria has much to reform. It is a one-party state where political activists are suppressed and the secret police fill jail cells with political prisoners who will never come before a judge. Violent opposition to the regime is met with overwhelming force, most horribly in the case of the armed rising of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982: the city was sealed off and at least 10,000 people were killed.

Yet the balance sheet is not entirely one-sided, and with the Pentagon busy drawing up invasion plans even as Iraq still contends with postwar anarchy and the Taliban resurfaces in southern Afghanistan, it is well to consider carefully exactly what would be lost if Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, were to be deposed.

For if Syria is a one-party police state, it is a police state that tends to leave its citizens alone as long as they keep out of politics. And if political freedoms have always been severely and often brutally restricted, Mr. Assad’s regime does allow the Syrian people cultural and religious freedoms. Today, these give Syria’s minorities a security and stability far greater than their counterparts anywhere else in the region. This is particularly true of Syria’s ancient Christian communities.

Almost everywhere else in the Levant, because of discrimination and in some cases outright persecution, the Christians are leaving. Today in the Middle East they are a small minority of 14 million; in the last 20 years at least two million have left to make new lives for themselves in Europe, Australia and America. Only in Syria has this pattern been resisted. As the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Ibrahim, told me on my last visit: ”Christians are better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East. Other than Lebanon, this is the only country in the region where a Christian can really feel the equal of a Muslim.”

He added: ”If Syria were not here, we would be finished. It is a place of sanctuary, a haven for all the Christians: for the Nestorians driven out of Iraq, the Syrian Orthodox and the Armenians driven out of Turkey, even the Palestinian Christians driven out by the Israelis” in 1948.

The confidence of the Christians in Syria is something you can’t help but notice the minute you arrive in the country. This is particularly so if you arrive from eastern Turkey. There, until very recently, minority languages like the Aramaic spoken by Syrian Orthodox Christians were banned from the airwaves and from schools. For Christianity in eastern Turkey is a secretive affair, and the government has closed all the country’s seminaries.

But cross into Syria and you find a very different picture. Qamishli, the first town on the Syrian side of the frontier, is 75 percent Christian, and icons of Christ and images of his mother fill shops and decorate every other car window — an extraordinary display after the furtiveness of Christianity in Turkey.

The reason for this is not hard to find. President Assad is Alawite, a Muslim minority regarded by orthodox Sunni Muslims as heretical and disparagingly referred to as ”little Christians”: indeed some scholars believe their liturgy to be partly Christian in origin. Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, who was president from 1971 until his death in 2000, kept himself in power by forming what was in effect a coalition of Syria’s religious minorities through which he was able to counterbalance the weight of the Sunni majority. In the Assads’ Syria, Christians have done particularly well: in his final years, five of Hafez’s seven closest advisers were Christians. The Christians are openly fearful that if the Assad regime should fall, their last real haven in the Middle East will disappear and be replaced by yet another fundamentalist government, as may be the case in Iraq.

All this does not excuse the repressive policies of the Assad regime. But in a region where repression is the rule rather than the exception, it is important to remember that the political rights and wrongs are rather more complex than the neoconservatives and Pentagon hawks are prepared to acknowledge — or perhaps even know.

William Dalrymple is author of ”From the Holy Mountain: Travels Among the Christians of the Middle East” and ”White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in 18th-Century India.” or

Photograph (modified) of Convent of Our Lady of Seidnaya, by Jerzy Strzelecki, 2001.

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Fertile shores of the 700 Club

Dear editor,

A couple of nights ago, channel-surfing landed me on the fertile shores of the 700 Club. The Reverend Pat Robertson was doing a spectacular job of keeping a straight face as he “logically” connected the dots for his audience, directly linking natural disasters in these United States — fires, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes — to her continued diplomatic “interference” in Israel’s affairs, first with the Camp David agreement, then the Oslo accords, and now the “Road Map” to peace. The moral of Rev. Robertson’s story (he spelled it out in case you weren’t clever enough to follow along) was that Israel gets everything it wants or God will get you.

Such brilliant logic would be funny if the consequences of letting Israel run amok weren’t so tragic. America’s 50-year hands-off sponsorship of theocratic apartheid, now steeped in a folklore-as-religion of fables and prophetic fantasies, has brought untold misery to the Middle East and irreparable damage to nearly two centuries of charitable engagement by Western missionaries. It is hard to remember, given the current state of affairs, that Jews and Christians and Muslims lived together in relative tranquility for most of these last thousand years. (“Relative” is the important disclaimer here — for the last 500 years at least, us civilized Westerners are off the scale in terms of being really, really good at killing ourselves and everyone around us.)

Maybe one of the reasons Americans support Israel so uncritically is that we view them as a righteous extension, an “embed” of our Western, “Judeo-Christian” ideals in a godless heathen land. Maybe we’re vicariously reliving the thrill of exterminating our own indigenous populations, of herding them like animals onto reservations. Maybe the true mark of a civilization’s superiority is its ability to covet what it hasn’t been naturally blessed with. We noble Europeans and Americans have meddled in every corner of the globe in our rabid pursuit of land, water, cotton, opium, rubber, bananas, and now oil. But hey, as long as we’re wearing our WWJD trinkets, and as long as we leave Israel alone to misbehave just like we did… And as long as we’re praying our Jabez prayer (that the stock market recovers and we continue to be richly blessed with low-cost imported sneakers and blue jeans made with child and near-slave labor), then God is surely on our side. For ever and ever, Amen.

Jacques d’Nalgar

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