In the midst of the civil war currently raging in Syria, the phenomenon of “fighting Christians” has appeared. It is clear that this phenomenon in western Syria is geographically confined to Christian villages in the area of Safita, its extension in Wadi al-Nasara, near the Christian quarter in Damascus, in the village of Saidnaya, in some of its surroundings in the Damascus countryside, and in perhaps limited areas with Greek Orthodox and Melkite concentrations.
In the east, in the al-Jazeera-Qamishli region and Hassakeh, some Christians are taking up arms, but the situation there is more difficult and there is a demographic density of Syriacs, Assyrians and some Armenians.
This is an unusual phenomenon in modern Syrian history. It doesn’t show itself openly because it is limited on the one hand and serious on the other. Lebanon is the only Arab country that has seen a “fighting Christians” phenomenon in the Lebanese regime’s constituent posts since the state of Greater Lebanon emerged in 1920, except for a short experience with a tragic end to the Assyrians in Iraq during the 1930s.
One of the ironies in this recent Syrian phenomenon is that the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), the party that has traditionally been hostile to the Lebanese Kataeb Party, finds itself in the same position as the Kataeb. The Kataeb previously played the key role in the “fighting Christians” phenomenon in Lebanon from 1958 to 1990. And today, the SSNP is appearing as the “fighting Christians” party on the side of the Syrian regime.
Of course, this phenomenon didn’t come from a vacuum. The SSNP in Syria has members of all sects, including some Sunnis. But traditionally, the party has spread among the Christian, Alawite and Druze elites (as have the Communist and Baath parties).
Of course, the Syrian disaster has made victims in all religions and sects. The violence was started by the regime, but killers later emerged from among the opposition a few months after the “revolution” was “militarized,” resulting in a civil war. The extremists disregarded the deep Christian presence in Syria, in the Levant and in Egypt. They also fought anyone who disagreed with them, whether Muslim or not. Well-known examples are the kidnapping of the two bishops, the 10 Maaloula nuns and the killing of the seven Copts in eastern Libya.
The Christian situation in Syria is difficult, part of the general problem-filled situation of the Christians in Egypt and the Levant, including Iraq. To be sure, the Syrian Christian elite is divided regarding its position toward the regime. Some of them, as is known, occupy prominent media positions in the opposition abroad.
Lebanese Christians are deeply divided about the Syrian issue, yet none of the concerned Christian parties have called for fighting in Syria to help the Christians there. All of them agree on militarily dissociating themselves from Syria, contrary to Lebanese Shiites and Sunnis, who got involved in the Syrian war since the first moment in different forms and in close cooperation with regional intelligence organs.
The Lebanese Christians are using their services network in their areas to help the Syrian Christian refugees coming from different regions and classes. They are doing so quietly, contrary to clamor surrounding the refugees in different areas of Lebanon. That difference is understandable given the wide differences in refugee numbers in different areas and the social pressure they are causing.
The Syrian civil opposition inside and abroad, which is calling for a democratic system, has been harmed by the “militarization” of the revolution and should give greater attention and recognition to the Christian Syrian dilemma within the Syrian and Levantine disaster and adopt an active and deterrent discourse at the same time, especially after Syrian churches asserted their “existential” positions behind the Vatican and the Russian church, which made the situation more complicated. But these churches didn’t support military action and rejected it whenever it was proposed.
The fact that Islamic movements, including moderate ones, took the forefront of the democratic waves has diminished the role of civil youth groups in making those waves nonviolent. That was behind the Christian dilemma in Egypt and the Levant. Some fear that the emerging Arab “democracy” will be without Christians. And it will be even more so given the fact that radical movements have become dominant, with some of them having suspicious links to international and regional intelligence organs.
And let’s note how Israel started fishing in troubled waters with its Christian Palestinian citizens by taking actions designed to separate them from Palestinian Muslims despite the depth of the Christians’ integration — elite and regular people — in the Palestinian national struggle. Israel is paying attention to that issue because it is linked to the new atmosphere of civil war and disintegration in the region.
Since the Arab Spring started, it is very interesting that the most secular development came from a country with virtually no Christian presence: Tunisia. That country adopted “freedom of conscience” in its Constitution. That text is not found in any other Arab constitution, whether old or after the Arab Spring. Freedom of conscience goes beyond freedom of worship for individuals and groups to ensure one’s freedom to change his or her religion.