Syria’s Christians Fear Collapse of the State

Syria’s Christians have generally stayed out of the revolution, not because they support President Bashar al-Assad, but because they fear the collapse of the Syrian state, Suleiman Youssef writes.

al-monitor A damaged church interior is seen in the old city of Homs, Sept. 30, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Shaam News Network.

Topics covered

syrian, jihadists, disintegration, christians, christian

May 3, 2013

Syrian Christians are integral to Syria’s national fabric. Along with other Syrians, they took part in the national revolutions and uprisings against the colonial invaders. They were the pioneers of freedom and democracy in the region. They played a fundamental role in establishing many political parties as well as national, social and human rights organizations. Because of this, the Christians can only be on the side of change and the popular movement that is seeking to end tyranny and transition Syria to a civil democratic state.

But today, Syrian Christians are being reproached for not actively participating in the March 2011 popular protests against an authoritarian regime and for not fighting alongside the armed opposition — as was expected of them.

This Christian “hesitation” has prompted some Christian opposition elites to form political organizations aimed at nudging the Christians into supporting the revolutionaries and fill the political void that the Christians may find themselves in amid the sectarian and ethnic divisions in Syria.

Foremost among these organizations is Syrian Christians for Justice and Freedom. Its formation was declared in Antakya, Turkey, last February by Syrian dissident Michel Kilo, who said, “I will work through this organization, to which I belong, to close the gap between the Christians who continue to support the Syrian regime on the one hand and the Syrian revolution on the other, in order to form a common position between most Christians and the Syrian majority.”

As a Christian, and having interacted with Syrian Christians, I do not think that the organization Syrian Christians for Justice and Freedom or other Christian opposition parties and organizations that emerged in the revolution can have a significant impact on the Christians’ political mood and push them toward supporting the revolution, especially after it got “militarized.” Moreover, the fruits of the so-called “Arab Spring” in countries that have successfully overthrown their dictatorships (Egypt, Tunisia and Libya) are not encouraging for Syrian Christians.

If the revolutionaries’ main goal is to overthrow the regime and depose President Bashar al-Assad, that is not how it looks to the Syrian Christians. What really matters to the Christians is the Syrian state’s identity and the nature of its social, judicial, political and economic order, where the state would be religiously neutral. What the Syrian Christians want is not power but a genuine Syrian state that is democratic, pluralistic, civil, and provides security, justice and equality for all its citizens and ensures their full citizenship and true partnership in governance.

Unfortunately, the stand of the Syrian opposition, in its various intellectual and political trends, is ambiguous on these key issues, and that is weakening the Christians’ trust in the opposition regarding a civil state and citizenship, which the Christians aspire to. The Syrian Christians’ “dissociation” policy toward what is happening in Syria does not mean that most Christians support Assad’s rule and his dictatorship, as some have suggested.

In the same vein, I do not agree with Kilo’s view that “the Christians who continue to support the Syrian regime are either ‘Shabbiha themselves’ or ‘misguided by the church.’” Such ideological and unfair reading of the Christians is not objective. I admit that some Christians are benefitting from the regime and wish it remains in power, but they are few and their examples are present in all Syrian sects in even higher proportions.

It is true that since the start of the protest movement the regime played the sectarian card and strove to amplify the minorities’ apprehensions about what would follow the regime and the possibility of sectarian strife in order to drive the Christians to the regime’s side, or at least neutralize them in its battle against its opponents. But it is also true that there are objective grounds for the minorities’ fears about where the crisis is heading. The Christians’ are afraid by the rise of militant Islamic groups, such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist Islamic organizations that seek to establish an “Islamic caliphate” in Syria.

In truth, what the Syrian Christians fear is not the fall of the regime and the departure of Assad, as some believe, but the collapse of the Syrian state, which for the Christians has long been a safe haven. Despite being 10% of the population, the Christians feel that they are Syrian society’s “weakest link.”

Unlike most Syrian minorities, the Christians are unarmed. They have no “armed militias” to protect themselves if the security situation falls apart. Also, the Christians have no regional or international ally to protect them. They fear falling victim to either the political and sectarian agendas of the forces battling for power or to regional and international interests. They fear that their fate will be that of the Christians in Iraq: kidnappings, killings and displacement.

There are indications that what the Christians fear may actually be happening. In recent months, Christians in several areas have been attacked. Many priests were kidnapped and killed, such as Father Fadi Haddad, the priest of Qattna, Damascus. Christian organizations and parties (Syriac and Assyrian) declared that hardline Islamic groups have attacked Christian churches and monasteries in Ras al-Ain, Hasakah after they took control of the town. Recently, two bishops were kidnapped near Aleppo.

Unfortunately, instead of empathizing with the Christians, dispelling their fears, and reassuring them of their future by means of nationalist speeches coupled with practical steps to prevent repeating the Iraqi Christians’ tragedy, the Syrian elite is waving around some pro-regime statements by some Christian clergymen in order to portray the Christians as hostile to the “revolution” and to warn them of the consequences if their churches stand with the regime and repeat the Iraqi Christians’ “mistakes.”

In truth, the organized attacks on the Iraqi Christians during the American occupation were not for political reasons or because the Christians sided with the tyrant Saddam Hussein, as some Syrian and non-Syrian writers and politicians claim. The attacks against Iraqi Christians were motivated by religion. The Islamic militant groups that attacked the Christians are hostile to the West for religious and ideological reasons. These Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda, deemed the US-led invasion of Iraq a new “crusade” against Muslims. They looked upon the Christians in Iraq and the Levant as lackeys for a crusading America and West and decided that the Christians should be gotten rid of.

I wonder, are those now accusing the Syrian Christians of siding with the regime and of hindering the “revolution” trying to establish a pretext to systematically target the Christians in the future?

More from  Suleiman Youssef

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