Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Christian safe havens?

A resolution by the European Parliament to create safe havens in Iraq and Syria for minority Christians has been greeted in the region with scepticism, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

A week ago the European Parliament passed a resolution to support the creation of a safe haven in Nineveh in Iraq for Chaldean, Syriac and Assyrian minorities, to protect them from attacks by the Islamic State (IS) group.

The parliament also urged closer cooperation with units of the Syriac Military Council (SMS) and Kurdish People’s Protection (KPP) fighting IS in northern Syria in an offensive aimed at regaining control of 35 Assyrian villages.

The resolution is in response to IS attacks on Yazidi villages in Iraq and Assyrian towns in Syria, during which hundreds were killed or abducted, homes and churches were destroyed, and thousands were forced to flee.

But the attempt to provide protection for vulnerable communities has not been welcomed by all Syrians, including some members of these same communities. Critics of the resolution say that it could undermine the ethnic diversity of the region by isolating selected communities in specified areas.

The resolution, well intended as it may be, could create ghetto-style concentrations of Syria’s vulnerable minorities, displacing them from their surroundings and severing their links with the rest of the country.

Although the resolution is a sign of concern for the physical safety of minority populations, it undermines their cultural influence and their interaction with other ethnic and racial groups in Syria.

What Syrian Christians need is not a plan to relocate them, but to keep them safe in the areas where they have lived for years, critics say.

An implicit assumption in the resolution is that Syrian minorities face risks from the general public or from Sunnis, who are a major part of the revolution against the current regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad.

This assumption is one that many Syrians find distressing. In the four years of armed conflict in this country Christian minorities have never been attacked by the mainstream or Sunni-led opposition. All such attacks have come either from the regime or IS.

Syrian Christians, Ismailis and Druze have never been the target of the mainstream armed resistance or of the Sunni population as a whole. In fact, the Syrian opposition ensures that these minorities are fully represented in all forums. The Syrian revolution is about democracy and freedom for all Syrians, not for any particular sect or faction.

Throughout the years of turmoil, the mainstream armed opposition has refrained from assaulting any village or area inhabited by minorities. The opposition respects the choices of all Syrian minorities, even those who have taken a neutral stand on the revolution.

It has been the regime that has targeted minorities, encouraged the Alawites to engage in indiscriminate murder, bombed churches and killed its opponents at random.

Terrorist organisations such as IS persecute minorities, but even they cannot compete with the Syrian regime’s lethal and indiscriminate use of force. Moreover, such terror groups and the regime pose a grave danger to all Syrians from all sects and not just Assyrians, Syriacs and Chaldeans.

A better course of action for the European Parliament and the rest of the international community would have been to find a way to end the tribulations of all Syrians, minorities included.

Many Assyrians, Syriacs, and Chaldeans have found fault with the parliament’s resolution. Jamil Diarbakerli, from the Assyrian Democratic Organisation and director of the Assyrian Human Rights Observatory, said the resolution was “too little, too late.”

“It is a piece of propaganda that is not binding on anyone,” he said. “Most Christian Assyrians in Syria are not part of the conflict in this region. All they want is to lead a peaceful life in their historic land, communicating with neighbours from other communities within a modern and democratic state that upholds the equal rights of all citizens.

“We still expect more from the West. We expect the West to come up with a clear strategy that supports a modern and democratic state that protects its citizens and their rights,” he added. According to Diarbakerli, removing the minorities from their homes and arming them is not the answer.

The plight of Syrian Christians is part of the plight of the nation. All Syrians have been subjected to murder, abduction, torture and displacement at the hands of the regime and terrorist groups, including IS.

IS has destroyed the cultural heritage of every community in Syria, Sunnis included. IS fighters have assaulted holy shrines, destroyed historical landmarks and sabotaged the artwork of ethnic and non-ethnic provenance wherever they have been. Everyone has been their victim, not just minority Christians.

The Syrian regime has been doing even more damage. Over the past three years, the regime has bombed mosques and churches and wrecked a major part of Syria’s Islamic and pre-Islamic heritage.

Local and international rights groups have blamed the regime for destroying 35 churches and the opposition for destroying three. The regime is also said to have damaged nearly 2,000 mosques and up to one third of Syria’s monuments.

A decade ago, Syria had a population of 450,000 Assyrians. Due to the regime’s actions, the figure dropped to 40,000 before the revolution broke out in 2011. Now IS has forced a further 10,000 Assyrians to flee their homes, about three per cent of the figure the regime had already displaced.

Habib Afram, president of the Syriac League of Lebanon, a community group, also disapproved of the parliament’s resolution. “The resolution was passed after the Christian presence in Iraq became distinct. In Syria, the numbers of Christians have dropped in a terrible way,” he said.

“The Europeans should understand that diversity and pluralism are an integral part of life in this region,” Afram added.

The Assyrians and Chaldeans are among the most persecuted ethnic groups in the Middle East. A century ago, the Ottomans carried out pogroms against them, killing hundreds of thousands and reducing them to minority status.

Soliman Youssef, a Syrian expert on minorities, blames both IS and the regime for the current situation. “Since IS started its campaign, the Syrian army has made no effort to stop it, although it was deployed at distances as short as 15 km from IS positions,” Youssef told the Weekly.

“The Assyrians of Al-Hasakah are the victims of the neglect of the international community and the indifference of their government, which have left them prey to IS,” he added.

Youssef warned that the removal of such communities from their areas could be counterproductive. Instead of protecting the vulnerable, it could “provoke the extremists” to attack them with heightened ferocity.

The best protection of the minorities would be to protect them in the areas where they live, not to deport them to havens elsewhere, Youssef said.

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