SYRIA – Christians caught up in political storm


Syrian Christians are often portrayed as supportive of the Assad regime. This is largely because many church leaders have declared their support for the President and in most Christian areas there were no demonstrations against the regime.

Nevertheless, the situation is not so clear-cut. Like other religious communities in the country, Syrian Christians are politically divided and cannot be treated as one homogenous group. There are certainly Christians who support the regime, including senior religious figures, state officials and business people whose interests are invested in it.

There are also Christians who have supported the revolution from the beginning. Five years ago, a group of Christians in Damascus rejected the church leadership’s supportive stance toward the Assad regime and drafted a letter emphasizing the values of freedom and dignity for all Syrians, which they delivered to the revolution leaders.The Syrian opposition today, including the Free Syrian Army, includes several Christian figures, among them George Sabra, chief negotiator for the High Negotiations Committee, and Abdelahad Steifo, vice president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.

Like Iraq, Syria has a number of Christian denominations some of which are in communion with Rome, others with Greek and Russian Orthodoxy. The leaders of Syria’s local churches have generally looked to President Bashar al-Assad as their protector, the only one who  could guarantee their lives.

As the Syrian conflict became polarised, with fundamentalist Sunni fighters murdering all other faiths on one side and government forces backed by Shia militias and Russian air power on the other, only the Assad-Russian coalition appeared to offer Christian churches any chance of prolonging their precarious existence. Virtually all Christian denominations have accepted Russia’s renewed claim, originally dating from the 19th century, to be the protector of Christians in the region. “Russia has given hope to the people of Syria,” said Patriarch IgnatiosEphrem II, leader of the Syrian Orthodox church.

Some Christians blame Assad for bringing about that polarisation, but to a bishop whose diocese is on the front-line, survival is more important than political analysis. The situation in Aleppo, epitomised that dilemma. The only Christian churches still-functioning in the city were on the western, government-controlled side and therefore on the receiving end of rebel shell-fire, not Russian bombs. As groups affiliated with al-Qaeda or Islamic State dominated the anti-government camp, local Christian leaders felt their survival depended on the government’s victory. Christians in the western sector rejoiced as opposition forces were driven out of eastern Aleppo in December.

The political attitude of individual Christians is shaped by their concerns about safety and public services, particularly the presence (or lack thereof) of an Islamist threat. Syrian Islamic factions have failed to address the fears of Christians and even  they have often used violence against religious minorities. Where Islamic groups present less of a threat, Christians are more likely to take a neutral or critical position on the regime.

The degree of segregation between Muslims and Christians also influences Christians’ attitudes toward both regime and opposition. In areas with a clear segregation between the two communities, as is in certain neighbourhoods of Homs and Aleppo, the Christians side with the regime and believe its propaganda labelling the revolutionaries as Sunni terrorists out to massacre minorities. In mixed neighbourhoods however, it is more difficult for Christians to believe their neighbours are terrorists, and they are more likely to understand the reasons of those who chose to revolt.

A few brave priests have spoken out with integrity and paid a heavy price. . Fr Paolo dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit with long years of experience in Syria, voiced sympathy for the democratic opposition when it emerged in 2011 and was expelled by the government. When he re-entered Syria via rebel-held territory in 2013 to try and help friends there, he disappeared. In April 2013, one week before he was kidnapped, Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo, blamed the Syrian regime for failing to deal with the ongoing crisis. Another Jesuit, Frans van der Lugt against all prudent advice, stayed in the city of Homs as it was under bombardment from government forces, and being defended mainly by Sunni extremists. He was assassinated in April 2014.

Fr Jacques Mourad, a member of a religious commmunity founded by Father dall’Oglio miraculously survived five months of captivity at the hands of Islamic State. Asked in October what he thought of outside powers intervening in his country, he said (and on this point every single Christian in Syria would concur) that Saudi Arabia should be restrained from fomenting Sunni extremism. He urged countriesto stop doing business with Saudi Arabia because that is where the funding and weapons for IS are coming from. . He went on to say something that should give all Assad-loving Christians pause for thought: bombing achieves nothing.The solution cannot be simply eliminating those who persecute us. The only way of stopping the extremists is to enter into a dialogue with Islam. 

Yet those who support the regime or the revolutionare a minority among Christians, the majority of whom are indifferent to either side. They do not actively support the regime but are sceptic about the revolution, particularly after its Islamization.

One senior religious leader said Christians in his area are willing to take up arms to defend their neighbourhoods against attack from armed Islamic groups but this doesn’t mean they support the regime.  They refuse to serve with the military; they’re unwilling to fight a regime they believes cares little for their safety.

Other Christians who used to support the regime are unhappy with with the poor public services provided by the state and accuse the regime of neglecting Christian areas.  A few months ago, another Syrian bishop warned the regime not to test the patience of the Christians in his area because of the deterioration of public services.

ACN Malta