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Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, Christian leaders have been divided over whether to support Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. Historically the Christian community (mainly those affiliated with the Orthodox Church) have enjoyed certain privileges and protections from Assad’s secular-leaning regime, serving in important security, economic and political positions. Whilst Christians were barred from serving as President due to their religious status, they were able to practice their religion freely.
With each passing day the Assad regime looks weaker, and indeed many policymakers and pundits are now talking about when rather than if the Assad regime will collapse, especially following the recent wave of defections. The majority of Syrian Orthodox Christians, much like their brethren in Egypt and in Iraq, now find themselves on the wrong side of history. Will they now decide to throw their support behind opposition forces, thereby ensuring that they have a seat at the post-Assad political table or will they simply flee?
Christians’ Critical Situation
The Christian community in Syria constitutes around 10 percent of the population (approximately 2.6 millions). The majority of Christians belong to the Orthodox Church (approximately 60 percent), which has historic links and ties with Russia. As is well known, Russia is not only a significant political ally of the Assad regime but it is also an important trading partner to Syria. The Assyrians, Protestants and Catholics comprise Syria’s other main Christian denominations.
Low birth rates and immigration to Europe, US, Canada, and Australia especially since the military coup in 1970 that brought the Assad’s dynasty to power has resulted in a steady decline in its numbers vis-a-vis Sunnis and other groups. Nevertheless, Christians continued to enjoy a relatively privileged position under Assad. Understandably the majority of Christians in Syria fear a loss of this status and worse still, potential reprisals from the majority Sunni and opposition groups in the event of the collapse of the Assad regime.
Rather predictably, the Assad propaganda machine has played upon these fears and attempted to present itself as the ‘bulwark against Sunni extremism’ – arguing that life under Assad is better than under a Sunni-dominated government. The view from neighbouring Egypt is hardly an encouraging one for Christians, where the parliamentary and presidential elections won the Muslim Brotherhood and more extreme Salafi parties political power, leaving Egypt’s Christians and secular forces concerned about the possibility of further Islamization of Egyptian culture and open discrimination against religious minorities.
Whilst Syria is not Egypt, the Assad regime’s claims of a sectarian war has been greatly assisted by reports suggesting that Christians have been targeted and killed by Syrian opposition groups.
On July 25, Der Spiegel reported that thousands of Syrian Christians have fled the country to neighbouring Lebanon due to attacks waged by rebel forces. “Thirty-two Christian families have found shelter and asylum in Qa, which is located only 12 kilometres away from the Syrian border.’’ According to one refugee, Christians don’t have much choice other than to align themselves with a strong leader who can protect their interests. “The rebels haven’t managed to convince me they are fighting for more democracy.”
Christians and the Russian Orthodox Church
The Russian Orthodox Church has historic ties to Middle Eastern Christians. In 1774, after the treaty of Kucuk Kaynara, the Russian Federation became the official protector of the Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. Accordingly, Russian became a stakeholder of domestic politics in countries including Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon.
The influential Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill I, has publicly opposed any “international intervention” (read Western intervention) in Syria and has offered its support to the Assad regime out of fear that Christian interests will be much diminished or even extinguished in a post-Assad Syria. A report suggests that during the Patriarch’s recent visit to Syria, Christians expressed concern over the possible loss of basic freedoms and the protection of their religious rights. Furthermore, there is increasing anxiety and concern regarding the growing militarisation of the anti-Assad uprising and the failure of opposition forces to engage with Christian intellectuals and local leaders.
The Russian government has actively encouraged the Orthodox Church to speak out against opposition forces in an apparent effort to obtain some “cover” for its continued support of the Assad regime, including the repeated blocking of UN sanctions. Reports suggest that the Russian Orthodox Church has been working closely with the Russian Foreign Ministry in an effort to ensure that Syrian Christians concerns and voices are heard. The Church recently hosted an exhibition near the Kremlin dedicated to Syrian Christianity. Speakers at the event were reported as repeatedly expressing great concern about the fate of Christians and Christianity in Syria.
Nevertheless, a growing number of Christians, including George Sabra, Fayez Sara, Michel Shammas and Michel Kilo have joined opposition groups like the Syrian National Council and the Assyrian Democratic Organization, which has openly opposed the Assad regime since the initial uprising last year, in clear defiance of the official Church.
Sabra in particular has argued that the Christian community has not been served well by its leaders, and the Orthodox Church’s hesitancy in aligning itself with revolutionary forces may be a significant strategic error as it potentially leaves the majority of Christians politically isolated in a post-Assad Syria.
Indeed, the Orthodox Church appears to be ignoring the fact that continuous fighting has led to senior Christian figures being exiled from Syria, including Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who was exiled in June after criticising Assad. The Assad regime has also been accused of firing rockets on Churches who they claim have been financially supporting the opposition. Additionally, security forces killed Priest Basilius Nassar while he was helping an injured Christian during clashes between government and opposition forces. There have also been reports that security forces have entered Orthodox Churches and stolen its contents, leading to anti regime protests by some Christians.
Orthodox Christians and their leaders would be much better served if they reached out to opposition groups, including Assyrian Christians who have been advocating for a secular Syrian state that protects and respects the rights of all minority groups, including Christians. Christians could be an important ally for the opposition groups, given the Syrian Orthodox Church’s historic connections with Russia.
The Orthodox Church may be able to put pressure on the Russian government to support any future proposed United Nations sanctions directed against the Assad regime, thereby adding more pressure to an already embattled government. Further, given the perilous state of the Syrian economy, foreign investment, including investments from Russia will be critical to supporting and sustaining many businesses and key sectors of Syria’s economy, which has been badly damaged by years of failed state-led policies and now due to internal conflict.
Christian groups and leaders should also be reaching out to their counterparts in the West and elsewhere by advocating for future foreign aid and investment to be linked to the protection of minority rights. Christians have important cards to play, but they need to be played carefully. Christians need to develop allies and push to ensure that their rights are respected and that they can live with dignity and respect. It’s going to be a long and difficult path ahead, and one that few have traveled. It is vital now more than ever that Christians from all denominations come together and agree the way forward for their community through a national dialogue.
While the West is currently nurturing relationships with the new Syrian leadership, mainly the Sunni-dominated Syrian National Council, it is important that the West also lends support to minority groups, including Christians – in order to avoid a repeat of the Iraqi case where violence and religious persecution followed the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime.
Christian politicians and intellectuals have been the main source of liberal and progressive enlightenment in many parts of the Levant following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and have made an enormous contribution to Arab cultural, and the economy. Whilst the collapse of Arab secular-leaning dictatorships in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and possibly now Syria presents many challenges for Christians, this important community must be allowed and encouraged to play an important political role in shaping the post-Assad era.