Syria Crucified: Stories of Modern Martyrdom in an Ancient Christian Land by Zachary Wingerd & Brad Hoff (Ancient Faith Press, 2021) is a book that tells us shocking stories that we should already know but don’t. Those of us who approach it with some knowledge—beyond popular media representation—of the ongoing conflict in and around Syria may somewhat understand the geopolitical forces that exacerbate extremely adverse experiences for people living in Syrian cities, villages, and rural places. Furthermore, for those of us whose experience—whether direct or part of our cultural memory—of the Christian faith extends beyond the borders of the United States and “the West,” the reality of the horrors of actual persecution comes as no surprise.
Of course, many of us do not share this background. I don’t think most of my peers grew up hearing whispered tales of neighbors being disappeared for furtively practicing their faith, of the violence in places like the Piteşti prison, and of the joy of fleeing to America where we can do simple things like light a candle in a church narthex without fear for our lives. American Orthodoxy is increasingly a “convert religion,” and even narratives of new martyrs (e.g., those who suffered under the Turkish or Communist yokes) can seem like ancient history to the people of a nation as young as ours, especially as technology and “the metaverse” shift our experience of time, history, and humanity to a disembodied one of increasingly narrow and recent slivers of time. I didn’t realize how true this was until I found others exclaim that they had no idea that real and violent persecution of Christians was an ongoing problem, not just something that happened in the first few centuries of the Church—or, more or less, as a talking point to levy against the horrors of communism and its toll on life in the last century. Moreover, many people (Christian or otherwise) seem surprised to find out that there is a continuous presence of Christians in Syria, where followers of “the Way” were first called “Christians”; I observed this surprise firsthand when I was a member of an Antiochian parish some years ago and curious, non-Orthodox friends asked what “Antiochian” meant.
Wingerd & Hoff immediately relieve any readers of these blind spots. In their introductory matter, they acknowledge the messiness of the geopolitical and military conflict that, partly due to American interests and intervention, has brought about the renewed persecution of Christians in the region. Their explanation is clear and concise, and is fairly consistent with what I’ve learned over the last decade. The only critique I might offer here is that their narrative in the intro may be more sympathetic to al-Assad’s regime than are the Syrian Christians who prefer al-Assad and the relative safety and peace he brought to the chaos and persecution induced by so-called “liberation,” but even this sympathy is tempered in the following chapters.
The bulk of the book—indeed, its entire purpose!—consists of five stories, the personal narratives of Syrians in exile from their homeland: their experiences of peace and then war, persecution, confession of faith, and observation of martyrdom, all in the course of trying to do ordinary things like go to school or practice one’s profession. Each story makes up a chapter of the book, each of which is fairly short, at about forty pages. While the writing isn’t dense, the material is very heavy, painting a very human picture of a story often hidden behind statistics.
Syria Crucified is a necessary counterbalance to the disembodied, disconnected, and dehumanized view of politics, conflict, and religion that afflicts most Americans. The authors do an excellent job of editing down interviews for clarity and concision without sacrificing any person’s voice or narrative, all while providing context and elaboration. I don’t want to spoil the content of the book itself, so I will only highlight that faith, joy, mourning, nostalgia, tragedy, and even hope are important themes that run through these narratives, though each narrative differs in important ways. While the most striking of these themes may be the negative ones, perhaps enduring faith and hope should become the most important one for us Christians; indeed, in the afterword, the message of hope in the face of ongoing conflict runs into us headlong. This does not undermine or minimize the deep tragedies shared throughout the book, but punctuates them as with a semi-colon; there is real pain and tragedy, but there is still more to the story, as the Church in Syria opens wide her gates and does what the Church always will do by ministering to the the suffering people around her, witnessing to the gospel in the face of horrendous, senseless violence.
Post scriptum: One of the most surprising aspects of this book’s reception is that some readers take this book as a warning to Christians in America that persecution is looming here. I think this misses the point entirely. In Syria, confessors for the faith are living day by day in the face of imminent physical danger, and still the Church is working tirelessly to reach out into the violent world surrounding her there, providing the peace and light of Christ in that darkness. People aren’t worried that they simply can’t be rude to others on Twitter without getting fired and calling that persecution; they are literally losing their lives for their faith. It is crass and, frankly, offensive to draw close parallels between that and the experience of most Christians in America.