Ancient roots of Christianity at risk, as Syrian minority caught between Assad and opposition rebels
Syrian Christians are being increasingly targeted, are more and more vulnerable to persecution and face a bleak future. This is the findings of a report “Syria: Church on its Knees – Die or Leave”, published by Open Doors UK and Ireland, a Christian charity which works with, and advocates on behalf of, Christians under pressure for their faith.
“The Middle East is in the midst of an enormous upheaval. The Christian Church, which originated in this area, is facing destruction by exile. The massive exodus, prompted by the war in Iraq and reinforced by events in Egypt, is being accelerated by the conflict in Syria,” the report states.
Its title comes from a quote from the Maronite Catholic Archbishop of Damascus, Samir Nassar, who said that the country’s Christians will have to ‘choose between two bitter chalices: die or leave’.
During a presentation of this report at the UK Parliament in London last Tuesday, the UK Foreign Office Minister for MENA, Alistair Burt, heard that the Syrian Christian community (who form about 8% of the population and who are rooted in 2000 years of history) is “particularly vulnerable and increasingly targeted”. Mr Burt was also formally handed a petition ‘Save Syria’ signed by over 30,000 people which ‘urges all those who have influence over events in Syria to:
- Protect the lives, livelihoods and freedoms of all the people of Syria
- Safeguard the existence of the Christian community and in particular stop the assaulting, kidnapping, torture and killing of Christians by extremist and criminal groups
- Guarantee safe fair and proper access for all to humanitarian assistance, both inside and outside Syria
- Make it possible for Christians to remain in and/or return safely to their homes without fear or threat of violence
- Safeguard the right of Christians to be able to worship in peace and safety and allow them space to offer compassionate care and contribute to making peace
- Ensure the establishment of a new Syria with a society and constitution that in theory and in practice guarantees and respects the right to freedom of religion or belief for all’
Mr Burt responded “What this tells us is that not one side or the other should win, just that the killing has to stop for normal life to return and it is the biggest determination of the UK government to do all we can to assist that’.
The previous day, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, speaking at an Open Doors side event at the Church of England’s General Synod (its equivalent of ‘Parliament’) said “It’s absolutely clear that Christians in Syria are being persecuted, we know for example that in many areas of Aleppo, historic Christian areas since the first century, people are being chased out in large numbers. I would encourage people …to write to their Members of Parliament, asking them to think very carefully about the wisdom of supplying further weapons to an area of such complex and extreme violence.”
Stephen Rand, Advocacy Director for Open Doors UK & Ireland and the author of the report, said a colleague ‘has just spent time with a group of Syrian church leaders, and that conversation has reinforced our view that the focus of effort should be on bringing about an immediate cease fire – weapons will not bring a solution to the conflict’.
Mr Rand acknowledged that it can be difficult to know whether Christians are ‘targeted’ by violence in Syria because they are Christians, or because they are seen to support either Assad’s government or the rebel opposition, or sometimes because they are (or are perceived to be) wealthy enough to raise a ransom.
He added that it’s hard to distinguish what’s politically-motivated and what religiously-motivated – it’s so bound up in ‘identity’. However, whatever the complexities, he sees it as vital to raise the voice of Syria’s Christian communities because of their specific vulnerabilities as they are increasingly targeted in what has become a sectarian war. In the midst of the Sunni-Shi’ite clash in Syria, he said the Christians could be seen as ‘incidental’, almost as ‘collateral damage’.
In early June 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, reported that at least 93,000 people have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the conflict. The report gives latest UNHCR figures of 1.6 million are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, with estimates of an additional 4.3 million people internally displaced. A further 6.8 million people are in need. The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, in its report to the UN Human Rights Council of 4 June 2013, accused both government forces and rebels of shelling residential areas leaving many dead and families devastated.
The “Syria: Church on its knees” report’s findings were reinforced by the Syria specialist of Middle East Concern (a coalition of Christian agenciesthat promotes religious freedom) Eliyana Francis who attended both Synod and UK Parliament meetings. She said Christians are being squeezed because if they refuse to take sides they are assumed to be supporting the ‘other’ side. This, she said, leaves them in a vulnerable position.
Many outsiders think all Syrian Christians are supporters of President Assad’s regime, but Francis said the situation is far more complex. Syrian Christians are not monolithic but “quite diverse”, from a range of different ethnic, linguistic and church backgrounds (Armenians, Syriacs, Arameans) who have existed there for centuries, and many generations.
She went on “The tradition of Christ, and of who He was, will be lost if these communities are not protected: it’s something the Syrian churches have protected for many years.
To lose those communities would be a devastation to the (global) church and to the essence of the Syrian nation. It’s imperative to consider them”.
The report explains that the Christian communities have co-existed with Syria’s Sunni and Alawite communities for centuries. It says ‘the Alawites are a branch of Shia Islam, from whom Assad and many of those close to him come. Syria is about 74% Sunni, so President Assad has traditionally relied on minorities to maintain his power. In turn, those same minorities have a vested interest in supporting Assad, who in 1973 dropped the Constitutional requirement that the president be a Muslim. The Muslim Brotherhood has been the main political expression of the Sunni Muslims: their revolt in 1982 was brutally suppressed by the Assad government, killing as many as 25,000 people’.
However, as Ms Francis explained, two of Syria’s larger minority groups, the Kurds and the Druze (the latter emerged from the Ismaili school of Shia Islam, and are known as ‘monotheists’, with some Sufi influence) have been able to isolate themselves geographically.
Christians did not have that advantage, she said, as they were concentrated in cities such as Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus itself– where most of the civil war’s casualties have been.
Many Christian communities, she said, have tried to remain apolitical, but it was impossible, as the civil war forced them to take sides.
However, if they fight against the government, they risk losing their businesses, and to lose what little they have left would seem detrimental to their survival.
UK Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt was quick to point out that there is no easy solution. He said that the British government is the second largest donor to the countries bordering Syria which are receiving refugees.
Stephen Rand of Open Doors confirmed: “This is not campaigning solely for the Christian population: our petition calls for action on behalf of all the people of Syria. But as a Christian organisation we are speaking out for the church to ‘strengthen what remains’ and honour those Christians who decided to stay and serve others in a dangerous situation. The church in Syria does not wish to be seen as victims and want to speak out for the whole of Syrian society. A future Syria must include all minorities, including Christians.”