Jamil Elias Diarbakerli / Executive Director, Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights
Syrian Christians have strong historical and cultural ties with Syria as confirmed by documents and historical and contemporary events. They view it as the homeland of their parents and ancestors, and they look forward to a future for themselves there, despite all the tragedies that have befallen them, and are befalling them, from dictatorial regimes as well as from the forces of extremism, which are two sides of the same coin.
History and events are witness to their great contribution to the building of Syria’s culture, which they have inherited and developed from generation to generation as the civilizations of Assyria, Babylon, and Aram. Syria (in the historically wider geographic sense) was the starting point for several Christian sects and Eastern churches and has been the home of many prophets, messengers, saints, and monks, who have gone forth to all parts of the world to spread the good news of Christianity, which holds a message of love and peace for all. There are also dozens of monasteries all over Syria, and hundreds of churches and holy sites that are important in Christian history and human civilization.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Syrian Christians constituted about 30 percent, nearly one third of the Syrian population. For most of the century, however, their numbers dropped. They emigrated for a variety of reasons, including political, economic, social, and religious, as well as a low birth rate compared to the majority of Islamic sects, so that today they number no more than half a million. By 2010, according to semiofficial statistics, Christians constituted a mere eight to ten percent of the total population of about 25 million people.
Christians played a significant role in building many of the cities, towns, and villages in Syria. They worked with many other communities, including the Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Turcoman, Circassians, Druze, Alawites, and the other components of Syrian society, to say nothing of their active role in drafting laws and constitutions and other public regulations.
Facts and data confirm their clear fingerprints on the creation of the economic renaissance experienced by the country since its establishment in agriculture, industry, and commerce. Christians still have a prominent share in the national experience, which has bestowed on them a national partnership in all stages in varying proportions. At times during the middle of the 20th century they also participated in the founding of cities, towns, social associations, parties, and parliamentary and political life. We can refer to this period using the term “the golden age” of Syrian Christians, especially from the standpoint of politics. Many Christian personalities participated in the establishment of deeply rooted parties, such as the National Bloc and others. This was in addition to the role of the church, which at the time had three dimensions: national, spiritual, and social.
Despite all of these facts that reflect the Christian community’s leading position in Syrian political and national life during the 1950s, it did not translate in terms of laws and constitutions, including being treated equally before the law. There remained many positions of responsibility that they were prohibited from holding, such as the country’s presidency, the office of prime minister, and the key ministries. To the Christian community, the “prosperity and flourishing” of society was not fully experienced by the community, since they were not treated as a distinctive national component nationally and religiously, that required the preservation of its rights enshrined in the law. Despite this, however, the Christian community wove strong relationships with the Muslim majority in commerce, industry, and politics.
With the proclamation of the Arab Union between Syria and Egypt in 1959, the Christians in Syria began to endure new suffering. The years of the Syrian-Egyptian union can rightly be called “the disaster” that befell the Christians in Syria. The ascension of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in the country constituted the start of problems for the Syrians in general, and Christians in particular. All the Christian schools, such as the Franciscan (Dar al-Salam), the American, and other schools that had a clear influence on Syrian society, were nationalized. The Union government started pursuing nationalization policies, such as attacking Christians who worked in important economic positions, since many of them were owners of factories, companies, and other economic entities, and they owned a large portion of land and agricultural organizations that were nationalized during the Union period. The disaster of the Union was then followed with the Ba’ath Party taking control of the country in 1963, which caused the Christians and many Syrians to pay the price of the police and security state that was established by the Ba’ath Party. This caused many Christians to emigrate, seeking more secure, free, and stable homes, in countries governed by the rule of law. It is hard to neglect the impact of the policies of chauvinistic Arabism that were imposed on non-Arab Christians, including Chaldeans, Syriacs, Assyrians, and Armenians, who were forbidden to speak their language and were forbidden to display any signs of their culture.
With the taking of power by the Ba’ath Party during the decades that followed the ascent to power by the family of Hafez al-Assad in 1970, the Christians did not regain any of their rights that had been taken away (they were used as tools without being partners in the national decision-making, which was seized for the benefit of the al-Assad family and their retinue). The new regime in the country, which was established by force, was able to impose stability, which allowed the regime to strengthen its security, military, social standing, and economic position. As a result, the Christians were forced to give up their political role, just like the other components of Syrian society.
But the outbreak of popular protests in Syria reshuffled the cards in the Christian collective consciousness. On the one hand, the relative stability that revived their community was threatened, but on the other hand the fall of the regime that prohibited them from exercising their political and constitutional rights was not something that was of no consequence. The Syrian Christians were perched uncertainly between the two ends of this ambiguous duality, hesitant to respond to the question of the revolution, which turned into an ordeal and a dilemma that was difficult to deal with.
With this existential uncertainty, the Christians divided into three groups: One group stands wholeheartedly with the regime and with al-Assad to the end and hopes that the revolution and the opposition will be crushed, and that al-Assad will remain in power. This group is the majority in the Christian street. A second group supports the revolution openly and unambiguously and stands officially and openly with the Syrian opposition. It wants the armed opposition to be victorious in its war against the regime. This group is a minority. The overwhelming majority of Syrian Christians constitutes a third group that can be called metaphorically “the silent group.”
It is not a group without an opinion, but rather, it has a clear opinion about the values of the Syrian revolution, democracy, freedom, justice, reform, civil society, and the end of corruption and repression. But it is a “silent” group in the sense that it does not act for two reasons. First, its extreme fear of the regime’s vengeance and brutal repression against it (as it has done with others) has forced it to remain quiet. Second, it is clearly, justifiably, and understandably displeased with the operational methodology of some factions of the opposition, which has met the regime head on in its choice of violence and has faced the regime’s violence with equal violence, its sectarianism with equal sectarianism, and its terrorism with terrorism. This majority of Christians in Syria supports change and an end to the age of totalitarianism, repression, and dictatorship, but it does not believe that it can be achieved through violence, war, and hostilities. It also does not have confidence in the alternatives that the Syrian opposition can bring about.
The Syrian Christians have drunk from the same bitter cup that the Syrians have drunk from. They have traveled the same painful road that has been their country’s destiny. They have offered thousands of victims and hundreds of them have been detained, abducted, and forcibly made to disappear1, just like the other Syrian factions and sects. Their churches and monasteries have been destroyed, their shops, factories, homes, and lands have been plundered, and several Christian clerics have been persecuted during the current events in the country following the outbreak of popular protests demanding freedom and dignity and the removal of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad on March 15, 2011.
The pain of the Syrian Christians has exceeded the limit. Syrian cities and villages throughout the country have been abandoned by their Christian inhabitants, such as Raqqa, Deir El-Zor, Ras al-Ayn, Ma’loula, and the Assyrian villages of the Khabur Basin, leaving hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and emigres within Syria, in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, and elsewhere, not to mention the thousands who have reached the West seeking safety and stability. This is not only emptying Syria of this authentic component, but the entire Middle East, especially in the period that is witnessing accelerating transformations. This will lead to redrawing the map of the region and it will be without their historical presence, without the diversity and pluralism that the region has had for thousands of years.
The Good Shepherd: A Report on Brutality against Christian Clerics in Syria
Prepared by: Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights
Introduction: Jamil Elias Diarbakerli, Executive Director of the Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights
Cover Photo : Adam Odisho
Monitor for Human Rights
Printing: First / 2018