Syria’s Christians: Forced to Choose?

This is an article I wrote back in May 2014.  The Islamic State (then ISIS)  was not yet headline news, though their genocidal campaign against minorities was already steadily progressing.  Sadly, much of what the interviewees predicted has become reality. 

 

The prime minister’s comments on the United Kingdom being a Christian nation have led to a lot of discussion. Less discussion followed the speech David Cameron made during the Easter gathering at Downing Street where the British Prime Minister said that ‘ “It is the case today that our religion is now the most persecuted religion around the world.1’ Though he omitted to cite countries where this was the case, Christian aid organization ‘Open Doors’ publishes a yearly list of countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian2. Often this is due to state persecution, which harasses or imposes legal restriction on Christian communities. 

In May, Pope Francis said he wept when he saw photographs of Christian being crucified : “I cried when I saw reports on the news of Christians crucified in a certain country, that is not Christian,” 1. Though he did not explicitly say which images he had seen, it is generally understood he was referring to Syrian Christians who had been nailed to crosses by members of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) , a Jihadi group fighting the Syrian government.

Christians are increasingly persecuted in Syria. However, Syria is a relative newcomer on the Open Doors list of countries where Christians are persecuted. The persecution in this case is not perpetuated by the Syrian state, which in the past has shown tolerance towards the Christian faith. Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, the Christian population of Syria has been increasingly targeted by armed groups opposing Bashar al-Assad. How has the civil war affected the Christians in Syria and what future do they have?

Before the war, Christians, of all denominations, formed 10% of the Syria’s population. 2 Pieter van Ostaeyen3 is a Belgian Arabist and Islamicist. He has extensively researched the Syrian Civil War. He has travelled to Syria prior to the civil war and remembers how the Christians lived then.

I had made many friends close to Latakia in North East of the country. One of them is a baker who is still there now. The situation of the Christians in Syria prior to the war was good. I remember one night we spend in the bakery, with friends. It was a very diverse bunch, Sunni, Shia’s , Alawites, and Christians, all sitting together for hours, talking and smoking and smoking cigarettes. Everybody was sitting together in friendship.’

The Ba’ath party, which has been in power in Syria since 1963, has sought to create a secular state. Mr van Ostaeyen emphasises this: ‘there was an absolute freedom of religion and tolerance. That is one of the important points of the Ba’ath regime, since it was founded. The Ba’ath party is a pan-Arabic party and it has never played on religious sentiments.’

In Syria, Christian people were very quiet’ explains Salil4, a Christian student from Damascus. ‘ President al-Assad and his father, Hafez , have never done anything wrong to the Christians. They have allowed them to live very well in Syria.’

The war has significantly altered the daily life of Christians ‘Since 2011, some people who are extremists began to say ‘Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut’ recalls Salil. He concludes ‘the situation of Christian people is very difficult in this war because they don’t want extremism or terrorism. Since the beginning they feel scared for their future because the terrorists do not stop threatening them. Armed groups in Deir ez Zor (city in the East of Syria) have sought to ethnically cleanse the city and wanted to kick out the Christians.’

In their report on Syria, 5 Open doors International has concluded that ‘Christians suffer disproportionately from the violence, insecurity and overall impunity in Syria. There are comparatively more refugees and internally displaced people amongst the Christian population than amongst any other religious or ethnic group.’

ISIS has really been playing the sectarian card. They do not want anything less than an Islamic caliphate’ explains Mr van Ostaeyen. ‘This comes with all possible forms of intolerance that a very extreme interpretation of the Sharia can have. We have seen crucifixion, beheadings and amputations of hands’.

In areas controlled by ISIS, Christians have seen their status in society diminished. Such is the case in Ar-Raqqah, a city in the north of the country. Upon capturing the town, ISIS forced the Christian inhabitants to sign a pact in exchange for protection. The pacts places limitation of what they may or may not do: they may not practice or display their faith in public and are also restricted from eating pork, drinking alcohol and owning weapons. 6

ISIS told the Christians ‘you have two choices: either you pay jizya (a tax of 10% on earnings) to be able to continue the practice of your religion, or you will convert to Islam’ says Mr van Ostaeye. ‘you either to that, or you get killed. This is a practice which has existed in ancient Islamic history. We see that ISIS is really referring back here to a classical Salafi interpretation of Islam’.

It is not only for religious reasons that Christians are persecuted. Since the beginning of the war, most Christians have been supportive of Bashar al Assad. Often their support is the result of fear of what may happen in the rebels manage to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Many Christians in Syria support Bashar al-Assad as the best option they have, or the lesser evil. Open Doors International has also concluded that the Christian community ‘inside of the country would have no tangible benefit in vocally calling for the removal of the al-Assad government and will not likely do so in the near future.’7

The large majority of the Christians support Bashar al-Assad because he respects Christians and has no problem with them’ says Salil, who uses Twitter to demonstrate his support for the Syrian president. ‘The extremists target Christians because the Christian community has shown their full support to President Assad since the very beginning and they seek to extract vengeance for that. Most Christians rally in support of the President and a lot of Christians are in the army to fight the Jihadis’.

Both Bashar al Assad and the rebels have sought to portray themselves as the ‘true’ protectors of the Christians. Recent videos on YouTube show rebel militias protecting churches and helping out the Christian population in the towns that fall under their control.

One group that seeks to do this is Jabath al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda’ argues Mr van Ostaeyen. ‘This may sound very bizarre in the Al Qaeda logic, but they have been emphasizing their respect for all religious groups, they do clearly instruct that to their judges. In any case, they display much more respect for the Christians than they do for Alawites or Shias.’

It is estimated that about 450 000 of Syria’s 1.7 million Christians have fled the country since the beginning the war. 8 Mr van Ostaeyen recalls how his baker friend ‘dismissed the danger of Jihadis as sensationalism and nonsense. His wife and kids sought refuge in Dubai, he tried to follow them but they had to return home as they had no visa.’

Many Christians have fled to Europe, the United States and other Arab countries’ elaborates Salil. ‘The war is going on and will not be ended soon. They will be able to return after some years. I believe that Christians are part of Syria and that they will stay in the country, despite the extremism of some in the opposition’.

The fate of the Christians in Syria really depends on how the war will evolve’ argues Mr van Ostaeyen. ‘After reconquering Homs and the recent offensives, it really looks like Bashar Al-Assad has the upper hand again. He seems to be consolidating everything while at the same time giving every community something. However, if that doesn’t work, there are also talks that Syria may split in different smaller states. That is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. If it was to happen you would probably have a state controlled by ISIS or Jabath al Nusra, which in the end want to form a caliphate were only Muslims live. If that was to become a reality, I fear the worse for the Christians’

With the war not drawing to an end any time soon, the Syrian Christians continue to be caught in the cross fire. Their persecution at the hands of various rebel groups forces them to pick sides in this conflict and it looks like their destiny is increasingly tied to the military success of the current government.

1Mac Donald, S. (2014) Pope Weeps for Crucified Christians, Catholic Ireland. [online] available at: http://www.catholicireland.net/pope-weeps-crucifixion-syrian-christians/ [viewed: 14 May 2014]

2 BBC News, 2013. Syria’s Beleaguered Christians. BBC News. [online] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22270455 [viewed 16 May 2014]

3 Interview, Skype, Cardiff-Mechelen. 15 May 2014

4 Interview, e-mail, Cardiff-Damascus, 17 May 2014

5 Open Doors International, 2013, Vulnerability Assessment of Syria’s Christians,[online] available at: https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/research/2572679 [viewed: 12 May 2014]

6 Reuters, 2014, Islamists demand levy from Christians in Syrian City. Reuters. [online] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/26/us-syria-crisis-raqqa-idUSBREA1P1TY20140226 [viewed 12 May 2014]

7 Open Doors International, 2013, Vulnerability Assessment of Syria’s Christians,[online] available at: https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/research/2572679 [viewed: 12 May 2014]

8 Szlanko, B. 2014. Instead of fleeing, some of Syria’s Christians will stand their ground. The National. [online] available at: http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/instead-of-fleeing-some-of-syrias-christians-will-stand-their-ground [viewed 16 May 2014]

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