Published on September 5th, 2013 |
by Usman Butt
The Syrian Quagmire: The Christian question
The Obama administration is pushing for ‘punitive strikes’ against the Assad regime, to punish but not remove him for his use of chemical weapons in Damascus on 21 August. U.S. Intelligence indicates that 1, 400 people were killed in the attack, but the possibility, of western strikes has opened discussion on the possible side-effects of any such action. One concern raised is, that if the U.S. strikes and the regime is toppled, what happens to the country’s minorities? Some have asked what will happen to the Christians? It is impossible to tell what might happen, for most Syrian Christian are caught between a rock and a hard place. One the one hand, they are concerned for the survival of their community in the country, on the other hand, they are known for being nationalistic and wanting what is ‘best’ for their country.
There are 2 million Christians inside Syria, which means they make up 10% of a population of 22 million, and they are mostly geographically concentrated in the urban centres of Syria from Aleppo, Damascus, Latakia, Homs, Tartus and others. Because of their urban concentration they are proportionally better educated than Syrian Muslims. Historically, they tend to work in commerce and trade and today they tend to hold ‘white-collar jobs’. Many live alongside and have good and warm relations with Muslims (there is also a lot of secret dating between the two, especially amongst the young), but at the same time they are afraid of the Muslim majority, and it is these internal contradictions that colours Syrian Christians attitudes towards the uprising, which is composed of largely Sunni Muslims.
Christianity in Syria pre-dates Christianity in Europe, in Damascus and Maloula there are churches older than the Vatican. Damascus is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, its’ history can be traced back 5, 000 years and many places and streets in the city can be found in the Bible (Old Testament and new). From a ‘Street called Straight’ to the tomb of St George (patron saint of England), it also contains the tomb of John the Baptist, as well as, many other important historic and religious figures. It was ‘on the road to Damascus’ when Saul had a vision of Christ and became Saint Paul. What this represents is how deeply embedded Syria and Damascus is in the Christian tradition.
There are 6 to 7 different dominations of Christians in Syria; Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch being the largest, followed by, Melkite Greek Catholic Church, Oriental Syriac Orthodox Church, Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church and some Protestants too. There is a lot of rivalry between them and sometimes Muslims are called in to resolve the tensions between the Churches. While they all Speak Arabic, many Syrian Christians preserve ancient minority languages too. Some speak Koine Greek, Armenian, Latin and Aramaic (the language spoken in Palestine in the time of Jesus). In Maloula Aramaic is an active language of the town. The trouble for the west is that their actions, along with the takeover of the country by the opposition, could lead to the destruction of this ancient community.
It is important to point out here that there are many Christians inside the civic opposition, but not in the armed opposition. Part of the problem is that the rebels and the civil opposition have no unified body, to add to this, most oppositional groups are geographically confined. There are 150, 000 Syrian rebels and 7, 500 foreign jihadists fighting in Syria, and the jihadist are a group the Christians fear the most. Although many Christians claim to be neutral, a visible number are supporting the regime’s attempt to crush the rebels.
In times of strife Muslims become very suspicious of Christians and in many cases this is linked to confrontation with outside powers. From 1099 to the 13th century, European Christians fought the Crusades and occupied various parts of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. They tended to brutalise the local populations, regardless of religion; there are records of Crusaders entering the Syrian city of Homs and cannibalising the locals. 500 years later European powers began interfering in Syria again, when in the 19th century the French declared themselves the protectors of the Christians of the Ottoman Empire. This would eventually lead to the colonization of the region. And again in 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq with Bush making constant references to Christian beliefs. What all of this means, is that the local Muslims see Arab Christians as potential subversives, due to them sharing a ‘faith’ with these invaders.
Any Western action should consider the consequences of military action against Syria, there is a danger that the ancient communities could find themselves being forced to leave.