The cost of war versus the cost of inaction: Why Christians are divided on Syria

The meditative silence was broken around half an hour into the meeting yesterday. As guidance stipulates for those attending their first Quaker meeting: 'Anyone is free to speak, pray or read aloud, as long as it is done in response to a prompting of the spirit which comes in the course of a meeting.'

And though it was highly topical, this lady's intervention added to rather than subtracted from the contemplative atmosphere among the 25 worshippers who had gathered in the shadow of airstrikes on Syria carried out by the US, UK and France over the weekend.

REUTERS/Bassam KhabiehA man walks with his bicycle at a damaged site in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria on April 6, 2018.

Chapters 31 and 32 of the Quaker guide, Advices and queries was quoted: 'We are called to live "in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars". Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparation for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ? Search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the seeds of war. Stand firm in our testimony, even when others commit or prepare to commit acts of violence, yet always remember that they too are children of God.

'Bring into God's light those emotions, attitudes and prejudices in yourself which lie at the root of destructive conflict, acknowledging your need for forgiveness and grace. In what ways are you involved in the work of reconciliation between individuals, groups and nations?'

The woman's anxiety over the strikes put her among a considerable majority of the public: polls show support for military action in Syria at around a quarter to a third.

The sceptical majority is backed by not only most – though not all – Quakers, who are traditionally pacifist, but also the Methodists, the Church in Wales, Syrian church leaders and, according to some reports, Pope Francis.

While Christian groups appear to be hardening against action, middle-of-the-road politicians who opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, such as (the Catholic) Lord (Chris) Patten, are now in favour of strikes on Syria.

This is based on the admirable position that any breach of Barack Obama's 'red line' – the use of chemical weapons – must not go unpunished. In a major report last year, Tom Tugendhat (Conservative) and the late Jo Cox (Labour) outlined the humanitarian cost of inaction.

There are of course different strands and currents at play here.

Not all Christians who oppose military action can be accused of being 'pro-Assad', though the group of UK church leaders who met with Syrian officials hours after the airstrikes, including Giles Fraser, are surely risking just that.

But then it is important to remember that, although the highly limited nature of these strikes appears to have softened opposition to intervention over the weekend, the – selective, by the way – toppling of monstrous regimes in the Middle East, as with Iraq and Libya, has brought about a resurgence of Islamist extremists who were otherwise kept at bay filling the void.

Indeed, in the case of Iraq, Britain became a target of such terrorists only after the invasion, not before, and the country had not been overrun by Islamic State until after 2003. Saddam was (very) bad, but he was not mad, and his relatively secular regime included his Christian deputy Tariq Aziz. Similarly, there is a view, evidenced by the fact that there are Christian leaders who are free to speak out against this weekend's action, that Christians in the region seek nothing more from their governments than protection and the right to worship. The leaders of Syria's three major churches have voiced their support of Assad, denying he held chemical weapons and condemning the airstrikes as 'unjustified aggression' and a 'clear violation of the international laws'. And as a recent visit to Egypt impressed on me, stability is valued more than democracy by many in the region, including some Christians.

So there is the pacifist approach of the Quakers, and then the practical opposition of other Christian leaders, articulated in a lonely column yesterday by the Christian conservative Peter Hitchens, columnist for the Mail on Sunday, who has been pointing out the terrible alliances involved in opposing Assad and asked in a piece widely shared on the left of politics: 'How would killing more people rescue Syria?'

Which bring us finally to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader. He told the BBC's Andrew Marr yesterday that 'you can never say never' when it comes to future military interventions. But his instincts are with the first group, the pacifists. As are those of Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary who failed to come up with a single conflict she supported other than World War Two.

Whether that means they are qualified for governing Britain is another question. But as the House of Commons gathers to debate the difficult issue today, it is good to know that there are those such as Tugendhat who are mindful of the cost of inaction, just as there are those, such as that Quaker, who remain ever-anxious about the price of war.