February 3, 2012
by Kurt Werthmuller
On a hill above the ancient, well-worn route between Aleppo and the Syria border with Turkey, one can easily tramp up to the ruins of what was once a massive basilica complex from Late Antiquity. The now-dilapidated Byzantine structure was originally built around the site of one of the most colorful and influential figures of 5th-century Christianity: Simeon the Stylite, who spent decades—literally—sitting atop a stone pillar to demonstrate his ascetic commitment to Christ. One could easily read within these sad and magnificent ruins a broader symbolism of the fading light of Syrian Christianity, largely forgotten, or perhaps ignored, by Christians elsewhere in the world. To do so with mere resignation, however, is to commit the common mistake of valuing the Middle East only for its antiquities, instead of turning our eyes to those millions of Christ's followers who remain in Syria, comprising some 10 percent of the nation's 20 million inhabitants—and who are at particular risk from the current chaos enveloping the country.
Recognizing the unique religious diversity of Syrian society is the key to understanding the precarious position of the nation's Christian community amidst the present crisis.
Since the Middle Ages, the varied geography of Syria, like its smaller Lebanese neighbor to the west (which were not separate political entities until less than a century ago), has tended to attract the settlement of religious sects on the fringes of "mainstream" (e.g., Sunni Arab) Middle Eastern society. In this context, the Sunni majority surrounds not just one ethnic or religious minority—unlike the context of the Egyptian Copts—but rather a whole series of historically marginalized communities: Kurds, Druzes, Alawis, Circassians, Ismailis, and others. In Syria, these groups could find isolation when necessary, like Mt. Druze, but still make use of the country's busy commercial routes, bustling urban centers, and fertile countryside.
Christians had understood this dynamic even before the 7th-century Islamic conquests, after which bilad al-sham ("the northern lands," or Greater Syria) came to represent the borderlands between Muslim and Byzantine rule. Assyrians, Armenians, Nestorians, and other Christian sects had been on the outs with Constantinople since the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and many of them sought refuge in the hills of Syria. They were joined by followers of the Greek Orthodox Church, still the largest proportion of Syria's Christians, and its smaller Greek Catholic (Melkite) offshoot that declared loyalty with Rome in the 18th century.
These communities suffered much over the centuries, from their precarious position in the line of fire during the Crusading era, to the ravages of the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, to painful Ottoman attempts to transition to modernity in the 19th century (which unsuccessfully tried to replace confessional identity with citizenship, to much controversy). But Syrian Christians also found opportunities to prosper as well: like the Maronites of Lebanon, they shared in the interests of European merchants who sought to trade with their co-religionists in the Levant. It is worth noting that these perceived economic advantages over Syrian Muslims served as the most important catalyst for outbreaks of anti-Christian violence in the early modern era.
By the 20th century, Christians shared with their Muslim and other neighbors in the tumultuous emergence of Syria as a modern nation-state, from the collapse of Ottoman power in 1920, which had ruled there since the 16th century, to the process of independence from post-WWI French mandate authorities between 1936 and 1944, and beyond the humiliation defeat by the newly-created State of Israel in 1948. In the midst of these events, Syrian Christians were among the most influential writers and ideologues of the day: George Antonius, a British-Syrian diplomat who wrote The Arab Awakening in 1938, and Michel Aflaq, who co-founded the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party in 1947, were among those who picked up the earlier work of Syrian journalists in articulating and fueling the burgeoning Arab Nationalist movement. This was a matter of ideological commitment, but also of inclusion: for many Syrian Christian intellectuals of the era, Pan-Arabism was a way of highlighting and translating into political reality an Arab cultural identity (despite its shaky foundations) over a specifically religious one that has traditionally excluded non-Muslim minorities.
In a sense, this cultural and ideological link proved to be integral to the Christian community's eventual cooperation with the Syrian Ba'ath regime, especially following its Alawi takeover under the rule of Hafez al-Asad in the early 1970s. The Alawis belong to a heterodox and insular offshoot of Shi'i Islam, comprising roughly 12 percent of the country's population; after centuries of uneasy relations with the Sunni majority (which largely regarded them as heretics), many of their leaders and members of the military eagerly committed to the secular, socialist vision of the Ba'ath Party. So it was that Asad, an Alawi and an air force officer himself, had a built-in network prepared to support his authoritarian takeover of military-political rule in 1970—a network he utilized to successfully stack the higher echelons of his regime and military with fellow Alawis. But he also fostered cooperative relations with other non-Sunnis throughout the country; perhaps the Sunni majority would have to be controlled by the use or threat of force, but Christians and others could be co-opted by exchanging all political freedom for protection and an unprecedented degree of religious freedom.
(I myself can attest to this state of affairs. During my first of several visits to Syria, this one in 1997, I happened to be in the city of Aleppo for Easter Sunday. I was visiting from Egypt, where I lived at the time and where Copts were typically seen but not heard, so I was amazed to hear the ringing of church bells and to find a Syriac Easter liturgy broadcasting over loudspeakers to overflow congregants in the city streets!)
Since then, the leaders of the nation's Christian communities have typically remained vocal in their support of the Asad regime, including its transfer to Hafez al-Asad's son Bashar in 2000. This has only been reinforced as a trend of Islamic conservatism has steadily grown across the Arab world over the last quarter-century, and the staunchly secular Asad regime has convinced the nation's Christians—with enough of an element of truth to be convincing—that it stood between them and a new era of Islamist domination and a loss of their religious freedom. As in much of the Middle East, those Christians who found their country's state of affairs and regime's severe political oppression too steep a cost to bear have simply migrated, most often to the U.S. and Europe.
This Faustian cooperation has had its costs: when anti-regime protests began in March 2011, and the regime responded with shocking brutality, Christian leaders were left to uncomfortably maintain the party line regarding Bashar al-Asad's continuing legitimacy. In truth, we have almost no idea as to what average Syrian Christians outside of church leadership think about the uprising (now waged by an awkward mixture of peaceful activists and armed defectors from the military), or how many of them have participated in anti-regime demonstrations (and some likely have). After all, information is tightly restricted in and out of the country at the moment, and almost all foreign press coverage of the Syrian chaos is conducted from neighboring Lebanon and Turkey, or from regime-guided tours.
One recent episode clearly illustrates this situation. On January 9th, Arab League monitors who were sent to assess the Syrian chaos on the ground attended a Greek Orthodox mass in Damascusmemorializing a boy who was killed in the city of Homs in the chaos of local violence. These monitors were not invited there simply to pay respects: they were guided and escorted to the church by regime officials for whom the event reinforced its narrative of security and public support in the face of anarchy and terrorism. Syrian Christians have thus found themselves in an increasingly untenable position: they are caught between a minority-friendly and yet oppressive dictatorship; a mass uprising that is brave and legitimate, but with a growing armed faction; and the feared possibilities of sectarian violence in the short-term, and Islamist rule in the long-term.
In light of this poisoned atmosphere, we do know for certain that many of Syria's Christians are simply terrified. Part of this is a fear shared by many Syrians together, of a quickly growing threat of unrestrained civil war. Part of this is also reserved for the potential of sectarian retaliation, in the wake of civil war and a breakdown of order: will Sunni militias (not average Sunni townsfolk, who are most interested in surviving and protecting their loved ones as well) seek to exact revenge on Asad's Alawi community and their perceived allies, such as Christians? And if the regime falls, will Islamists—an unknown quantity in the equation at the moment, but a likely part of a post-Asad Syria—move to strip non-Muslims of their long-held religious freedoms? Both of these scenarios are deeply troubling to many of the nation's Christians.
While it is increasingly impossible for the global community to justify leaving room for the Asad regime to remain in power, following months of atrocities and well over 5,000 dead, we must also be keenly aware of the precarious position in which Syria's religious minorities, especially its Christians, are now placed. They are in urgent need of the United States and other nations to form a coherent, immediate, andintentional response to the threats looming over them as we speak. And they are in desperate need of your prayers.
Kurt Werthmuller is an Adjunct Fellow at Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.
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