Syria’s Christians Fear Iraq Scenario
Concerns over their future prompting Christians to side with the Assad regime
Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Former President Hafez Al-Assad did not rule in the name of minorities, but in the name of the secular Ba’ath party. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of members of his security and political services were not Alawites. In fact, according to the most optimistic estimates, the Alawi sect constitutes around 20 percent of the Syrian population, whereas the majority Sunni sect constitutes 65 percent.
These days, and ever since the start of the Syrian uprising two years ago, Syria’s Christians have grown increasingly concerned about their very existence. Their fears have been compounded by reports of the forcible evacuation of Christian villages, and the abduction of Christian clerics. Furthermore, the Syrian opposition’s stated stance—to treat the Syrian people as one united bloc—has failed to resonate among the Christian community.
Hafez Assad never publicized his Alawi roots. On the contrary, he used to worship in Sunni mosques and his son Bashar followed in his footsteps. However, the Assad regime did seek to strengthen the role of the Alawi sect in the Syrian administration and in the Ba’ath party, in order to ensure the loyalty of the army and intelligence services, which ruled Syria with an iron fist. Hafez Assad (later followed by Bashar) realized the importance of a minority coalition in Syria. He began to consolidate his ties with the Christians (who constitute about 7.5 percent of the population), the Druze (2.75 percent), the Shi’ites (about 3 percent), and the Isma’ilis (1 percent).
When the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011, the regime was determined to highlight the Islamist face of the uprising, even before the Islamists had actually infiltrated Syria. It was a deliberate attempt to intimidate the Christians, Alawites, and other minorities. The regime was assisted in this endeavor by the sectarian problems being encountered in post-revolutionary Egypt.
It seems that the fears and concerns of Syria’s minorities are playing a major role in the crisis. These fears prompted Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi to visit Syria, having boycotted the country ever since Lebanon gained its independence. The same fears also drove the Orthodox Church to re-elect a patriarch of Syrian origin. Meanwhile, the Druze acted against the calls of Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt and opted to fight alongside the Assad regime.
Suleiman Al-Yusuf, a Christian-Assyrian writer and researcher, argues that the fears and concerns of the Syrian Christians are justified, particularly in the country’s east. He points out that the abduction of Christians and the seizure of their land and property by Arab tribes has forced a large number of families to leave the country. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Yusuf proclaimed: “The Christians are afraid for the future. Now that abductions and acts of looting are taking place under the eyes of the current regime, what is going to happen if the regime falls?”
He added: “The case of Iraq is prominent in the Christian mindset. Forced evictions and the bombing of churches could happen at any moment after the fall of the regime, exactly like what happened in Iraq. There is also concern about the spread of radical groups, like the Jabhat Al-Nusra, who consider Christians to be infidels”.
Yusuf went on to say, “The Christians of Iraq paid the price for the sectarian agendas of the warring sides there, and this may happen in Syria. For instance, in the east, an Arab-Kurdish struggle is raging and both sides are mobilizing militarily. It is obvious that the side that will ultimately pay the price is the Christians”.
Open Doors USA, an American Christian organization, reports that Syria has now become one of the most dangerous countries for Christians. The organization published its annual ‘World Watch List’ of countries that persecute Christians worldwide, and Syria was ranked 11th this year; having been ranked 36th in the previous survey.
Despite the Assad regime’s insistence on portraying itself as the “protector of minorities,” Christians have not enjoyed many political privileges. They lack any form of influential role in Syria’s internal and external policy-making process.
Just as Syria’s Christians are afraid, so are the Druze and the Shi’ites. This has driven these minorities to a primal state of “defending their existence”, having been convinced (rightly or wrongly) that they will be annihilated if the opposition comes to power. As a result, many are ready to defend the regime until the last breath.
According to Yusuf, “The lesson of Iraq, the eviction of its Christians, and the bombing of their churches is still very much alive in the memory”. Thus the Christians are clinging on to the current regime in order to avoid further instability and chaos. Although some prominent Christians have joined the ranks of the Syrian revolution, they are something of an anomaly. The majority of Christians have remained neutral while others have openly proclaimed their support for the Assad regime.
According to some opposition members, there have recently been a number of attacks against Christians in Syria. The latest incident saw the abduction of three Christian clerics from the town of Al-Suqaylabiyah: Armenian Catholic priest Michel Kayyal, and Greek Orthodox clerics Father Mahir Mahfuz and Father Louis Sakkaf. According to activists, “The clerics were kidnapped in February by an unknown group that is yet to announce its identity or motives.” Some activists believe that “the abductions took place in the rural surroundings of the city of Hama, which is home to the Christian villages of Mahradah and Al-Suqaylabiyah.”
Ghazi Al-Hamawi, a member of the Hama Revolutionary Council, revealed that the regime’s forces are deploying vehicles and military units to these towns to give the impression that they are defending the Christian residents there.
In a telephone interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Hamawi said: “When conducting operations in rural Hama, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is careful to distance Christians from the conflict and prevent the regime from creating sedition among the region’s different residents.” Press reports say that the village of Qastal Al-Burj—a small farm close to Al-Suqaylabiyah, also with a Christian majority—was attacked by gunmen last May, in order to evict its residents and transform their homes into military centers. Commenting on this, Hamawi said that “the forced eviction of this village is still somewhat vague. However, it is certain that the military groups that occupied it do not belong to the FSA.”
Hamawi denied that “the Christians in Syria are allies of the Syrian regime,” adding that “large numbers of Christians participated in the peaceful demonstrations. They also opened their doors to welcome refugees from devastated areas”.
Among all the Syrian towns and cities, Homs has witnessed the largest exodus of Christians as a result of the military clashes that erupted there a short period ago. Prior to this, around 200,000 Christians lived in Homs and the city housed 16 churches. According to church sources, “The Christians of Homs left their homes to escape the hell of the daily shelling. They headed to the area of Wadi Al-Nasara (Valley of the Christians), which is a principal stronghold for Syrian Christians in rural Homs.”
An opposition source told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Christian villages are not usually embroiled in the country’s current conflict. But the Shabiha forces loyal to the Syrian regime are seeking to involve these villages in the battles in order to make political gains. We have seen this with the Christian village of Rablah, located halfway on the road between Al-Qusayr and the Lebanese border. Rablah is home to about 12,000 residents, with a Roman Catholic majority. The Assad army and Shabiha loyalists confronted Syrian revolutionaries there and tried to cut off their supply lines by planting mines and setting ambushes. This prompted the FSA brigades to abduct 200 farmers from the village, calling on the residents to expel all agents of the regime. The residents replied that they were powerless against the Assad army and its militias, and following some give and take, the revolutionaries released the 200 abductees. Nevertheless, these villages and nearby towns had been thrust into the front line of conflict.”
As for the capital, Damascus, the conditions for Christians there are no better. Their districts, particularly Al-Qassaa and Bab Tuma, have been the scene of powerful explosions that have killed many. Moreover, the parish priest of the town of Qatana, a Damascus suburb, was recently killed a few days after being abducted by an unidentified group.