Elizabeth Kendal, an international religious liberty analyst and advocate, has published a book titled After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East. The book explores the state and future of the Christians of the Middle East. Dr. Kendal authors the weekly Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin, serves as the Director of Advocacy for Christian Faith and Freedom (Canberra), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology, an affiliated college of the Australian College of Theology. Her previous book, Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today, presents a biblical response to persecution and existential threat.
The following is an interview with Dr. Kendal.
Firstly, please explain the title.
“After Saturday Comes Sunday” is a popular Arab war-cry which essentially means, “After we (Muslims) get rid of the Jews (who worship on Saturdays) we’ll get rid of the Christians (who worship on Sundays).” We cannot appreciate the magnitude of the Christian crisis in the Middle East unless we first appreciate the seriousness of this threat.
Anyone who thinks Christians and Christianity could not be eliminated from Mesopotamia (Syria-Iraq), Egypt, and the wider Middle East needs to consider that the precedent has been set, for Jews and Judaism have already been eliminated from the Arab states. Christians and Christianity could be eliminated from Mesopotamia and the wider Middle East, and the only thing necessary for that to be achieved is that we do nothing.
What motivated you to write this book?
Most media coverage of the Syrian conflict is thin on context, thick with propaganda, and driven by interests. Every night the newsreader tells us that the heavily armed, bushy-beared, black flag waving, Allahu Akbar (Allah is greater) shouting, “moderate rebels” on our screens are fighting for democracy, liberty and human rights. But as news of Islamic atrocities leaked out, Christians around the world grew increasingly concerned about the fate of their co-religionists.
Cognizant of a growing demand for information, I committed to writing a book that would not merely expose the suffering but explain the Christian crisis in the Middle East.
We need to understand what is happening, for not only do the Christians of the Middle East need all the help they can get, but Mesopotamia, long known as the cradle of civilization, is merely ground zero in the increasingly global battle for civilization.
The conflict seems incredibly complex. How do you manage to unravel the complexity without losing people?
Conflicting narratives, manipulative “newspeak”, and saturating propaganda all work together to make the conflict profoundly confusing. While many of the finer details regarding agendas, deals and relationships are riddled with intrigue and complexity, the overall geo-strategic framework is actually very simple. And once the geo-strategic framework is clear, it becomes much easier to separate truth (which fits the picture) from interest-driven propaganda (which does not).
So what is the “geo-strategic framework” of the crisis in the Middle East?
A century of Western hegemony over the Middle East has come to an end and locked in a battle for hegemony over Mesopotamia are, the region’s
- three imperial powers: NATO member Turkey, US ally Saudi Arabia, and ascendant Iran;
- two Islamic sects: Sunnis versus Shi’ites;
- two political axes: the north-south the Turkey-Arab Sunni Axis versus the east-west Iran-led, Shi’ite-dominated, Shia Axis or Axis of Resistance (comprising Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus, along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other “resistance” groups such as Hamas)
In the eye of the storm; in the buffer zone between the region’s three imperialistic powers, on the sectarian fault-line between the region’s two principle Islamic sects, at the flashpoint where the two political axes intersect, is the Fertile Crescent, home to Mesopotamia’s minorities–Alawites, Yazidis, Kurds etc, and the region’s indigenous Christians (mostly Assyrians and Armenians). Instead of defending Mesopotamia’s integrity as a buffer zone, the West has been backing neo-Ottoman Turkey and Wahhabist Saudi Arabia while enabling and brokering deals with the revolutionary Shi’ite regime in Iran; aiding Shi’ites in Iraq and Sunnis in Syria. Meanwhile, under the cover of conflict, the region’s minorities–in particular the exceedingly vulnerable indigenous Christians–are being eliminated: targeted, crushed underfoot and swept out of the arena, along with all evidence that they ever existed.
We’ve been told the Syrian conflict is about advancing democracy and human rights; that it’s about ridding the world of a repressive, evil dictator named Bashar al-Assad. Are you suggesting that is not quite the case?
Leaders in the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia insist that “Assad must go” because he is a brutal dictator who abuses human rights and has used force to put down popular protests. The very fact that the West’s partners in this supposedly honorable and humanitarian, pro-democracy and pro-human rights venture are Turkey and Saudi Arabia–leading human rights abusers and oppressors who also use force to quell protest–should indicate that democracy and human rights are not the issue. The conflict in Syria is about a lot of things, but human rights is definitely not one of them, despite what the would-be regimechangers might say.
So why do the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia insist that “Assad must go”? If the Syrian conflict is not about democracy and human rights, then what is it all about?
The rise of the Shia Crescent, and the ascent of Axis of Resistance leader Iran, has alarmed Israel and the US-allied Sunni Arab
dictators, for an ascendant Iran is a threaten their security and to the Sunni Arabs’ economic interests.
It was in this high-stakes context that the US and her Sunni Arab allies, along with neo-Ottoman Turkey, sought to exploit
Syria’s 2011 Arab Spring protests as a cover for illegal regime change in Damascus. The plan was to re-orient Syria by replacing the Alawite-led, Shia Axis-aligned, Syrian government with a Sunni Axis-aligned, Sunni regime more amenable to US and Sunni interests.
So what went wrong? Why has the US-Turkey-Arab regime change plot failed?
The US assertion that the Assad government would fall quickly with little bloodshed, just as in Tunisia and Egypt, was totally unrealistic; for as Russia pointed out, Syria is not Tunisia, nor is it Egypt–the strategic situation was totally different, meaning the government would not fall quickly.
This should have been obvious, for the governments in Tunisia and Egypt were US-backed, and a key element in the fall of those governments was the withdrawal of US support. To the contrary, Syria’s Alawite-led government is backed by ascendant Iran, which regards Damascus as an integral element of its Axis of Resistance. Tehran was never going to just sit back and watch Damascus fall into the hands of US-backed Sunnis. Furthermore, as a Doha Debates survey revealed in December 2011, though the majority of Arabs (Saudis, Qataris, Egyptians, Palestinians etc) wanted Assad to go, the majority of Syrians did not! In diverse, plural, prosperous, secular Syria, Assad had majority support–support that only escalated as foreign jihadis flowed in. What’s more, Syria’s minority Alawites–who dominate the military–had no illusions about what Muslim Brotherhood-led Sunni majority rule would mean for them: genocide! Any attempt to illegally engineer regime change in Damascus was always destined to set the country and the region aflame.
How has the conflict impacted the Christians?
The impact on Christians has been phenomenal, especially as transnational jihadists have flooded the theatre. In Iraq, the indigenous Assyrian nation has been decimated–from a population of 1.4 million (1987 census) to some 200,000 today, virtually all of whom are displaced and destitute. Driven from their homes and from their historic heartland in the Nineveh Plains, they now survive under the protection of the Kurds, shielded by Kurdish peshmerger and Assyrian militias, although tensions exist, especially as Kurds lay claim to Assyrian lands. In Syria, Christians are surviving in the west of the country under the protection of the Assad government, shielded by the Syrian Arab Army. Hundreds of thousands are displaced. Like their co-religionists in Iraq, most have lost absolutely everything.
Why do we hear so little about this Christian crisis?
The massacres and expulsions of Christians in Syria, and the genocide of Christians in Iraq, is an embarrassment to the postChristian West’s “progressive” establishment elites who cling to utopian fantasies about Islam while nurturing neo-Marxist hostilities towards Christianity. Having sold us a narrative of democracy and human rights, our political leaders seem to believe it is in their interests to keep the truth from us, lest we be appalled to discover what is really going on. And so the Christians of the Middle East are pushed deep into the fog of war, buried under a mountain of propaganda, and rendered invisible by a shroud of silence. Indeed, there is little sympathy amongst the post-Christian West’s “progressive” political, academic and media elite for what they regard as the Middle East’s politically incorrect Christian relics. This has shocked the Christians of the Middle East, for they had believed that the “Christian West” would help them, or at least would never harm them by arming, training and funding Islamic militants whose declared aim it is to kill Christians (in the broadest sense imaginable) and attack the West. The shock, horror, and heart-ache of Middle Eastern Christians, as it dawns on them the extent to which the West has betrayed and abandoned them, has been for me the most painful thing, filling me with deep sadness.
What do you make of Russia’s involvement?
Just like the US, UK, or EU, Russia has its own interest in Syria, not the least of which is its naval base at Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, an asset it doesn’t want to see in the hands of al-Qaeda. After many decades of close and friendly ties, Russia has a lot invested in Syria, such that it is in Russia’s economic and geo-strategic interests to preserve the status quo of a strong, secular Syrian state that is safe for minorities and good for business. Of course this means reigning in Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and defeating transnational jihadists. While this aligns with the agenda of the Alawite-led Syrian government, it conflicts with the agendas of Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran, all of which are advancing sectarian agendas. What’s more, there are more than 2,500 “Chechens” (code for Russian citizens from the North Caucasus) fighting with alQaeda and Islamic State in Syria, and Russians generally agree that is better to fight these terrorists in Syria than to have them return to commit terror at home. On top of everything, Russia–and I do mean Russia, not the communist Soviet Union (the Cold War is over)–has a long history of fighting in defense of persecuted Eastern Christians. A lot of Russians care deeply about the plight of the church in Syria; this is not a “pretext”, this is real.
And as you have noted, a lot of Western Christians care deeply too, but are at a loss to know how to proceed. What action can we take to help the Christians of the Middle East?
Because no house divided against itself will stand (Matt 12:25) Christians need to demonstrate solidarity: free Christians helping persecuted Christians across denominational lines. Christians need to speak out, give generously and get serious about the serious business of intercessory prayer. There is information on my website [www.ElizabethKendal.com ] and in the book’s two appendices, on how this can be done. In terms of the military campaign against resurgent militant Islam: the West needs to stop arming Islamic militants and we need solidarity and co-operation across the Dar al-harb / House of war (i.e. those outside the Dar al-Islam / House of Islam), otherwise Islam will continue to play West against East for its own advantage.
Despite the situation being so bleak, and despite the fact that “After Saturday Comes Sunday” is issued as a genocidal threat, you maintain that Christians have grounds for hope. Explain.
In chapter 12, I feed the threat, “After Saturday Comes Sunday”, through a theology of the cross, and what emerges is a message of hope. For as the cross reveals, our God is a God who comes, who enters hostile territory himself to subvert evil, defeat it from within and redeem it for blessing in fulfillment of promise. The cross tells us that even when it appears that God is dead and the world has won; even when it appears that hopes have been dashed and promises have failed, we can know that God is alive and active in the midst of the darkness, subverting evil, defeating it from within and redeeming it for his glory in fulfillment of promise. So, despite all appearances, this is not the day to disengage! To the contrary, the Christ of the cross commands us to take up our cross and follow him, by speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves (Proverbs 31:8-9), giving generously (James 2:15-16) and devoting ourselves to the serious business of intercessory prayer (Ephesians 6:12-18) in faith that Sunday is coming.