Syrian Christians as a whole have not thrown their support behind either side in the Syrian war. Nevertheless, Christians in Syria have been subjected to a lot of pressure by both the regime and the opposition, which failed to give them (or any religious or ethnic Syrian component) any assurances or support.
Some armed groups have accused the church of supporting the regime. And many of the opposition’s statements and video clips do not reassure minorities that they will be participants in the new Syria.
The political opposition: failure without borders
In the revolution’s first months, Christians did join the protests in various towns and villages. One day of protests was even called “Good Friday.” In several areas, the churches opened their doors to displaced persons and those affected by the war, as in Daraa, Aleppo and Hama. But when the revolution was militarized and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed, Christians started fearing for their future role in light of the growing Islamist trend in the various armed opposition battalions.
Matters became worse after some oppositionists in the field accused the regime of supporting the Christians, citing celebrations in al-Kassa’a and Bab Touma in Damascus. Christians’ fears were reinforced after bombings, shelling and clashes broke out at churches in Damascus and other sites such as Irbeen in the Damascus countryside, Homs and Deir ez-Zor.
In addition to all that, the political opposition has failed miserably to reassure the Christians and has neglected to address many worrisome events. Father Fadi Haddad was killed in Katana, in the Damascus countryside. Bishops Boulos al-Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim were kidnapped in Aleppo. Father Paolo Dall’Oglio disappeared in Raqqa. Clashes recently reached Maaloula in the Qalamun. And there was news about attacks on churches and monasteries in Ras al-Ain.
When the two bishops were kidnapped, the Syrian National Coalition and Syrian National Council (SNC) accused extremist armed groups of kidnapping and possibly killing them. Then both groups backpedaled and said that the regime was behind the crime, to scare the Christians into supporting it. The opposition did not promote a discourse emphasizing loyalty to the homeland over religion. It took no concrete steps to prevent a repeat of what happened to the churches in Iraq and the subsequent waves of Christian migration.
The National Coalition and the opposition abroad thought that placing a Christian figure in a leading position would reassure the minorities, so George Sabra was elected to head the SNC. They also promoted Michel Kilo, who made great efforts to showcase the role of Christian activists in the revolution. Kilo asserted that the Christian street disagrees with the church’s position. Activist Ghassan Saltana made the same claim.
But on the ground, nothing changed. The opposition simply kept repeating that the only guarantee for the minorities is to participate in the revolution. Some activists have tended not to blame the National Coalition, and the political opposition in general, because its popularity on the ground is almost nonexistent and thus its positions mean nothing. Neither the bishops’ kidnappers nor the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) responded to the opposition’s calls, assuming they even recognize it.
Things were made worse by the performance of the opposition media. It presented the popular movement as a Sunni “revolution” against the Alawites, or that the Sunnis were being killed while other sects enjoyed calm, thus placing religious sectarianism above national belonging.
Regarding the political opposition inside Syria, such as the National Coordination Committee, its role is limited because it has stayed away from any street action and because of the weakness of its media. The net result is a major failure by the opposition in dealing with Syria's societal components. The opposition has limited itself to repeating slogans that do not have any actual effect on the ground.
The armed opposition and the church: All eyes on Maaloula
For the last two years, the gunmen haven’t stormed any Christian-majority area, even within the liberated areas. So the FSA’s position toward the Christians depended on the first contact on the ground between Christians and opposition fighters, despite that faction leaders have praised the role of “our [Christian] brothers in the context of the revolution.”
The commanders of the Islamist brigades, who have declared more than once that their project was to establish a caliphate, have repeatedly indicated that no one will persecute the Christians or drive them out of their homes because they are “people of the book” and dhimmis (non-Muslim citizens of the Islamic state), so there are no problems with them, unlike the rest of the communities such as Shiites, Alawites and Druze.
ISIS has another position. Unconfirmed news from Raqqa indicate that Father Paolo was killed in accordance with a decision from the “emir” on the grounds that “the Christians have betrayed the covenant,” and should therefore be killed. But that news has not been verified, and ISIS has said nothing about Paolo’s disappearance so far.
But with the entry of the FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra to Maaloula in the Qalamun mountains near Damascus, there is a lot at stake. While opposition activists in the region have strongly denied (by posting dozens of video clips) any assault on the monasteries and churches in the town, the appeals by the FSA and the gunmen have failed to reassure the people there.
On the other hand, a YouTube video showed an FSA gunman blowing up a church in Aarbin in the Damascus countryside and burning it completely. The clip shows the church destroyed and some of the icons burned.