U.S. Evangelicals See Political, Religious Cause in Syria Conflict

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Catholic Father Paolo Dall’Oglio of Syria’s Mar Musa monastery stood before Rock Springs Congregational United Church of Christ in Arlington, Virginia, on July 23 and pleaded for U.S. intervention in his homeland’s escalating civil war. Already half of Syria’s two million Christians have fled, he said, comparing the exodus of Christians to the one out of Iraq. “It is already too late—but we must do something to save what can be saved,” he told the 250 Christians and Muslims in attendance. “We need the help of the international community…otherwise only the weapons will dictate the destiny of my country.”

Dall’Oglio is not alone in his frustration with the Obama Administration’s approach to the Arab Spring uprisings. Egyptian Christians picketed Hillary Clinton’s visit to Cairo last month, claiming that the U.S. supported Islamists over other civil democratic parties—protesters pelted her motorcade with shoes and tomatoes, Coptic Christian leaders issued an outraged statement, and an evangelical leader and a Coptic bishop refused to meet with her.

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Christian conservatives in the U.S are also increasingly concerned about the violence in Syria. “The churches in Syria are suffering greatly from persecution,” Franklin Graham, an evangelist and head of Samaritan’s Purse, tells TIME, recounting a conversation he had with a Syrian pastor who gave him “numerous accounts of Christians who have been murdered by members of the Muslim Brotherhood…I urge people to join me in praying for the church in Syria as these Christians feel like there is no safe place to go.”

Jordan Sekulow, Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, an organization founded by Pat Robertson that advocates for religious freedoms, thinks the U.S. should be more directly involved in the conflict. “We should not underestimate the influence western countries have with either the Assad regime or the Syrian opposition,” says Sekulow. “As the United States, a country that prides itself in liberty for all, we must apply pressure on any future ruling party to guarantee that Syrian Christians and other religious minorities retain all human rights within the future Syrian society.”

Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, was more blunt.  “America should make clear to the Syrian rebel forces, which we are now providing with at least logistical support, that we will not countenance Christian persecution as, somehow, an acceptable price for the overthrow of President Assad,” he says. “Persecution of Christians in Islamic countries seems to be an afterthought in our foreign policy, in violation of the essential principles of religious liberty and human dignity that are at the core of who we are as a nation.” Before the U.S. cooperates with a new Syrian regime, he continues, it needs “ironclad assurances that the Christians of Syria will enjoy the same protections and benefits as all the rest of Syria’s citizens.”

While this criticism of the Obama Administration is widespread among these conservative evangelical groups, Mitt Romney has not sought to capitalize on it. While he has stepped up efforts to display his foreign policy credentials in the Middle East this past week, Romney has remained mostly mum on Syria. He has not joined Sen. John McCain’s call for airstrikes or safe zones. He skirted Syria in his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention last week in Nevada, touted by his campaign as a marker on his foreign policy. Romney has said that Obama has “abdicated leadership” on Syria, but he—like the Administration—has thus far not advocated U.S. military involvement.

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Mahmoud Khattab, chairman of the Syrian American Council, a co-sponsor of Dall’Oglio’s address, suggests that the presidential campaign is impeding U.S. willingness to intervene. “Unless the United States moves, things will get messy,” he cautions. “The whole world is waiting for the leadership of the United States.” And many evangelical leaders in the United States are waiting to see who will take up their cause.