Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 June - 4 July 2012
Issue No. 1104
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

United against the regime

Syria's Christians have sometimes been slow to join the uprising against the regime, owing to concerns about their position in the country in the years to come, writes Bassel Oudat

A few days ago, Paolo Dall'Oglio, an Italian priest who has lived in Syria for the last 30 years at the Mar Moussa Monastery north of Damascus, left Syria at the government's request because of his statements supporting peaceful democratic change. "I am very sad for this divided country," he said before departing.

"Syria is suffering and is wounded. I often think of the young people languishing in jail. Syria's Muslims are weeping over the bodies of their dead sons, saying they want a democratic Syria and equality for all the country's communities, whether Muslim, Christian or Alawite. The bombs and tanks do not make a distinction between Muslims and Christians. Automatic weapons and helicopters are not smart enough to inspect people's IDs."

The priest spent his last days in Syria in the city of Homs, which the Syrian opposition says now hosts some 160,000 Christians who have relocated there from elsewhere in the country. He was in Homs to try to help the city's Muslims and Christians, for months the target of daily bombing by heavy artillery and other weapons.

Since the uprising against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad early last year, the country's opposition has been accusing the regime of terrorising Syrian Christians by planting booby-trap bombs in their neighbourhoods, among them the Al-Qassa district in Damascus.

Sources in the opposition say that the regime is trying to prevent the country's Christians from joining the ranks of the popular movement, because then its claims of protecting the country's minorities will no longer be viable. The regime is playing the sectarian card, opposition sources say, in an attempt to forestall revolution. Al-Assad's appointment of a Christian minister of defence is part of a ploy intended to convince Christians to continue to support the regime.

Earlier this week, pro-regime clerics claimed that an armed opposition group had taken control of a church in the town of Al-Qosseir near Homs and demanded that Christians should leave the town. The priests pleaded against any desecration of places of worship or of holy sites sacred to all religions during the ongoing conflict.

Opposition sources were quick to deny the clerics' claim, saying that it had been regime artillery that had targeted churches in the town and rural areas, destroying parts of them. The Vatican's ambassador in Syria, monsignor Mario Zenari, denied that Christians in the country were being discriminated against by armed opposition groups, adding that "Christians share the same sorry fate as the rest of the Syrian people" and that "there is no specific discrimination against them."

Also this week, 800 Christians and Muslims trapped in Homs sent an appeal for help to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, saying that since they live in mixed neighbourhoods they are subject to the same bombings by the regime.

Abdel-Ahad Astifo, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) and director of the Europe branch of the Christian Assyrian Democratic Organisation, said that there were concerns that Christian and Muslim places of worship were being attacked by regime forces.

"The regime's forces and death squads are bombing both churches and mosques in several Syrian cities, with the aim of blaming others and injecting sectarian discord into the country," Astifo told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We must be cautious about attempts by the regime to undermine national unity by targeting places of worship, and we must bolster solidarity and unity among all elements of society."

Some two million Christians live in Syria, making up some eight per cent of the country's population. They have various ethnic origins, and they are divided among 12 sects or denominations. Because of this diversity, there is no single Christian position on the Syrian crisis. However, in general the Christian community in Syria is sympathetic to the uprising, to some extent taking part in it.

The initial uprising triggered a variety of reactions among Syrian Christians, with one camp supporting the uprising and its goals of freedom, democracy, dignity and the overthrow of the regime, and another allying itself with the regime. This second group has been represented by the clergy, a group that historically has tended to be associated with the regime.

The clergy in Syria "have forsaken political rights and embraced divine rights," as one Syrian Christian thinker put it in an attempt to explain why the church in Syria has tended to remain silent about the abuses carried out by the regime. However, the majority of Syrian Christians reject the view that rights can be confined to the right of worship. Many Christian intellectuals declare that they will not accept anything less than full citizenship rights and genuine political partnership in the new Syria.

Nevertheless, some Christian clergy have sided with the regime, even handing over protesters who have taken refuge in churches to the security agencies. They have tried to spread panic in their congregations about the aims of the uprising, claiming that it could be a threat to the existence of Christians in Syria. Many clergy adopt the same rhetoric as regime propaganda.

"Some church leaders in Syria have been flagrantly supporting injustice similar to that inflicted by the Roman Empire against the early Christians," said Michel Kilo, a prominent Christian opposition figure.

"They have allied themselves with worldly power. One bishop in Damascus even called the security forces to his church and handed over young men who had come to protest against the church's support for the regime during the ongoing conflict," Kilo said. "People have received threats from thugs who describe themselves as 'Christ's militias,' saying that they will be killed if they support the revolution."

Kilo said that the Christian church in Syria "has long made Christians partners with Muslims in culture, history, and aspirations, and it has encouraged Muslims to open the doors of their mosques for Christian prayers, weddings and funerals."

"But the church will not recover its role as the church of Christ if the priests do not take to the streets to demand not only protection for the lives of Muslims, who are their brothers in humanity, but also their own rights and freedoms and an end to oppression and killing and the restoration of dignity. Syrian Christians must boycott the church until it is restored to the people and becomes the church of God and not that of the regime intelligence agencies."

Christian fears that Islamist fundamentalists could take power in Syria should the regime fall have been among the main reasons why the clergy have been supporting the regime, which claims to be the protector of minorities. However, the majority of Syrian Christians want to get rid of regime even if they remain silent, this silence by no means meaning support for the regime. Instead, it is rooted in the character of the Christian community, as well as in fears of what could be the alternative to the Al-Assad regime.

Some Christians are fearful of the future and want to know the position of the revolutionary movement about the country's identity, seeking guarantees that religion will not play a part in politics. They also want reassurance that the country's Christians will have a future in any new political system that is worthy of their heritage.

"Christians have legitimate and justified fears to some extent," Suleiman Youssef, a Christian expert on minorities in Syria, told the Weekly. "But their fears should not be a reason for them to stay away from the revolution, or participate in the revolutionary movement that aims to overthrow the dictatorship and remove Al-Assad from power, helping the country on its transition towards democracy, a civil state and political, national and cultural pluralism."

Rodeif Mustafa, a SNC member and Kurdish human rights activist, told the Weekly that "we in Syria may differ in religion, sect and doctrine, or in political views and class, but we have one goal in this revolution, which is to overthrow the tyrannical and corrupt regime, along with all its symbols. We share a common dream, as Muslims and Christians, which is to build a democratic state in Syria. Therefore, our fate is one, and the Syrian people are one."

The Syrian opposition of every religious and ideological stripe continues to assert that Syria is a country of moderate Christianity and moderate Islam. It has long been a melting pot for both religious heritages. Syria gave the Roman Empire three emperors, opposition figures say, and it was the launching point for Muslim conquests that spread Islam. In the light of this heritage, all Syrian people want a country that does not discriminate on the basis of faith or sect.

By Bassel Oudat

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