Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1147, 9 - 15 May 2013
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1147, 9 - 15 May 2013

Ahram Weekly

Christian exodus from Syria

Christians have been fleeing Syria since the uprising against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad began two years ago, with important consequences for the country’s religious diversity, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly



Syria is believed to be the land from which Christianity spread to the four corners of the world, and it is home to a church dating back to the time of Christ’s disciples. It was here that Paul the Apostle began his journey, and the country still hosts some of the world’s oldest churches. Some Syrians still speak the ancient Aramaic language that Christ spoke, and for centuries Syrian Christians were fully integrated into the larger society and co-existed with other faiths and cultures.

However, today Syria’s Christians, along with other segments of society, are facing new challenges triggered by the uprising of the Syrian people against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. They also bear the burden of the distinct challenges that face the continuing presence of Christianity in the Middle East as a whole.

The exodus of Christians from Syria has been increasing over the past four decades since president Hafez Al-Assad, father of Bashar Al-Assad, took power in 1971. When the country became independent in 1945, Christians represented some 20 per cent of the population, but by 1980 this figure had dropped to 16.5 per cent, or around 2.5 million people, and it dipped to 11 per cent in 1990. Today, it is estimated at six per cent of the population, or 1.5 million people.

According to Syrian scholars, the exodus of the country’s Christian community compromises the region’s culture and diverse heritage, and it has taken place despite the fact that the country’s constitution and laws grant Christians full rights. Christians have been appointed to senior government positions, such as the present parliamentary speaker Faris Khouri, and they have served as cabinet ministers, army chiefs of staff, and held senior positions in political, diplomatic and administrative institutions.

However, none of this seems to have stopped Syrian Christians from wanting to leave the country, in search of a better life in Europe or the US. Some have been fearful of the rise of Islamist fundamentalism over recent decades, though this has not been the community’s only concern.

Christians form the second-largest sect in Syria after Muslims, and they belong to many denominations. Eighty per cent are Orthodox (Eastern Church), and the rest are Catholics, Maronites, Protestants, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs. The headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and the East is located in Damascus, and the culture and traditions of Syrian Christians differ from those of Christians in the West. The province of Haska has the highest concentration of Christians in Syria, accounting for 25-30 per cent of the population there.

Syrian Christians, like Syrian Muslims, are found across the political spectrum and have the freedom to build churches and houses of worship that they administer independently. The country’s personal status laws require the Church’s consent to marriage and divorce, but otherwise in the eyes of the law Christian females are treated the same as Muslim women. Overall, co-existence between the religions has been exemplary.


FROM THE BEGINNING TO SYRIAN INDEPENDENCE: Christianity has been a Syrian religion since the first century CE, and the ancient kingdom of Ghassan in southern Syria was Christian, though composed of Arab tribes.

This kingdom was made up of the Tanoukh, Tamim, Taghlab, Kalb, Madr and other tribes, all of which were Christian. These tribes facilitated the entry of the Arabs and Islam into the Levant, and they helped the Arabs defeat Byzantine rule in Syria when Ghassanid Arabs fought against the Byzantines at the Battle of Yarmouk. The Ummayid Dynasty during the first century of Islamic rule in the region also relied on Christians to Arabise the state administration, being favoured by the Ummayids as a result.

Christians co-existed with the new Islamic state for the first four centuries after the arrival of Islam from the seventh to 11th centuries CE, and though they were given full civic rights, they did not enjoy equal political rights to Muslims. Their status deteriorated after the Crusades at the end of the 11th century because they were accused by the European crusaders of aiding the Muslim states, while the Muslims accused them of assisting the crusaders.

While Christians accounted for 90 per cent of the country’s population in the first century CE, their numbers had dropped to half that number by the time of the Crusades. This downward trend continued because of Christian conversion to Islam, either to avoid persecution or to gain privileges that were enjoyed only by Muslims. The country’s Christians were also sometimes persecuted during the Mamluk Dynasties that ruled the country from the 12th to 16th centuries, followed by a period of improvement during Ottoman rule.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the region’s Christians contributed to the Arab nahda, or renaissance, and they worked to raise Arab national aspirations against the Ottoman Empire. They played key roles in the Arab cultural and political revival by opening schools, helping to revive the Arabic language, publishing newspapers, founding associations, and so on, and they also helped found Arab political associations with Muslims and demanded decentralisation and the recognition of Arabic as the official language of the state.

When president Hafez Al-Assad came to power in 1971, his regime claimed to be the guardian of the minorities in Syria in an attempt to gain favour with them. Al-Assad appointed Christians to political positions, though without giving them significant powers, this causing many Syrians to withdraw into intellectual or academic activities and away from politics, and not only Christians.

The country’s Christians did not support the new regime because they realised that it was not the protector of the country’s minorities, but was only seeking to use them for its own ends. They also believed that the regime was trying to take advantage of them to belie suspicions that it was simply a totalitarian regime, and they did not feel that they were true partners in power as a result, suspecting that instead the regime was treating them as second-class citizens. Christians who opposed the regime suffered in the same way as other Syrians for four decades.

Meanwhile, many members of Syria’s Christian clergy supported Al-Assad the father, and, later, Al-Assad the son when he came to power in 2000. This was their way of protecting their freedom to practice their faith, and many of them may also have hoped to benefit from the protection of the regime. They may also have feared the brutality that the regime used against opposition religious figures.

Suleiman Youssef, an Assyrian political activist and an expert on Syria’s minorities, believes that the ruling Syrian Baath Party helped change the Christians in Syria from an integral component of society into a politically marginalised minority. Baathist policies have triggering the departure of around 250,000 Christians from Haska province alone, resulting in new demographic imbalances, he said.

“Christians are an intrinsic and fundamental part of the fabric of Syrian society,” Youssef told Al-Ahram Weekly. “They contributed to building the modern Syrian state, and the Christian elite succeeded after independence in taking advantage of the marginal freedoms granted at the time to promote Christian heritage and culture, as well as the Aramaic language. They founded cultural, social and educational institutions, but unfortunately these things changed once the Baath Party took power in 1963.”

“Most Christian institutions were shut down, or party police forced the Christians to close in on themselves. Many of them later emigrated. In Haska, for example, large numbers of Christians left, most of them Assyrians and Syriacs, all of whom fleeing the Baathist regime.”

Assyrians and Syriacs are among the oldest peoples of the region, and they also embraced Christianity early in its history. They came to Syria from northern Iraq in the first quarter of the 20th century and settled in the northeast of the country, numbering around 50,000 in 1980. Today, only 5,000 remain, most of them older people.


REASONS FOR EXODUS: There have been many reasons for the Christian exodus from Syria. At first, it may have seemed to be a result of personal initiative, but political, security, economic and religious problems in the Arab countries over the last century also caused them to leave.

According to official figures, the reasons for Christian emigration have been given as 44 per cent for employment reasons, 30 per cent to marry and start a family, 15 per cent to study and not return, and 10 per cent for other reasons.

However, these official reasons do not touch on the real reasons for Christian flight, and they merely confirm that the regime has been trying for decades to conceal these real reasons. It has tried to present to the world the idea that Syria is a safe and stable country and one where religious co-existence is guaranteed. But Christian intellectuals attribute the growing emigration from Syria to reasons including their marginalisation as a result of political pressures and their rejection of the growing atmosphere of intellectual and cultural retardation in the country.

Another reason may have been the link between Arabism and Islam, with some Islamist currents in Syria trying to deny Arab Christians an Arab identity.

“Emigration has been directly linked to democracy and human rights,” Youssef said. “The continued presence of Christians in the Levant depends on the establishment of a civil and democratic state that respects everyone’s rights. This state should be based on justice and equality and the principle of full citizenship rights without discrimination.”

“Christian flight has also been triggered by poor economic and living conditions and worse political conditions, as well as intertwined religious and historical factors.”

Razek Siriani, former representative of the Middle East Council of Churches in Aleppo, told the Weekly that the political and economic upheavals in Syria had “added to discord between Christians and Muslims. The political, economic, social and security challenges that have struck the region have stirred up fears among Christian and Muslim youth about their future and the prospects of co-existence with each other,” he said.

Today, there are about 12 million Christian Arabs out of some 300 million people in the Arab world, or about three per cent of the total population. This figure was much higher in the mid-20th century, but it has dropped because of emigration. Percentages differ from one country to another: in Lebanon, for example, Christians are estimated at 35 to 40 per cent of the population, while in Syria they are only an estimated six per cent.

Christian Arabs are divided among some 11 denominations, apart from Egypt’s Copts. Christians also form various ethnic minorities, such as the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Armenians and some Kurds. Christians in the Arab world are mostly found in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and South Sudan. The Christian presence in other countries is very limited and usually a result of employment, such as in the Gulf states, or of former French colonial rule, as in the Maghreb countries. _Official figures show that Christian emigration has increased over the past four decades, not only out of Syria, but also out of most Arab states. Statistics show that 126,000 Chaldean Christians have emigrated from the town of Tal Faek in northern Iraq, for example, and while in 1975 Christians accounted for 47 per cent of the population in Lebanon, this has now dropped to between 35 and 40 per cent. Some 26 per cent of the country’s Maronite population, 25 per cent of its Orthodox, and 19 per cent of its Catholics have left the country. While there were once five million Christians in Lebanon, today only some two million remain._The first wave of Christian flight from Lebanon was triggered by clashes in 1858, but most of the emigrants left for Egypt and Palestine since it was unusual for them to leave the Arab world, at least until 1871. The first Christian Arab emigrant left Bethlehem for Brazil in 1880, and soon after this emigration to South America picked up, most obviously between 1900 and 1930. The number of Arab emigrants to Brazil alone in 1970 was 1.8 million, rising to 5.8 million in 1986, most of them being Christian._The wave of Christian Arab emigration began to take on a political nature in the mid-20th century, and it started to drain the region of its cultural diversity. While emigration at first was limited and on an individual basis, this soon paved the way for a wider exodus because the first pioneers brought over others after they had found jobs in their new countries of residence. _The number of Arab immigrants in the US at the beginning of the 21st century stands at some three million, two million of them Christian, according to a study by the National Arab Conference in 2000. Father Tony Dora of the Maronite Diocese of Damascus, said he feared that the growing emigration by Eastern Christians would affect the demographic composition of the Arab world as a whole and of the Middle East in particular. Dora said that Christian Arabs had been the victim of lax security in the region, whether because of wars, or political, sectarian or ethnic conflicts._“Christians overall are fixated on the demographic factor,” he said. “The sectarian complexities of the Middle East have triggered new fears among Christians, and the deteriorating security conditions have had a distinct impact on them. Christians have been among the first victims of these conditions, but we remain hopeful that we can maintain the character of our country and its rich diversity, as well as the pursuit of co-existence that has always been one of its most important features.” __Christians and the revolution: Syria’s Christians enjoyed a reasonable level of freedom under the Al-Assad regimes, and they have often remained quiet since the beginning of the uprising two years ago, possibly out of fears of the rise of radical Islamists to power in Syria should the regime fall._However, despite this reluctance to take part in the uprising, the injustices that have been inflicted on Christians in Syria have been no different to those inflicted on other Syrians. They have seen their fair share of arrests, imprisonments and deaths, and Christian protesters have been killed in the ongoing conflict._Because of the diversity of Syria’s Christian community and its diverse political and intellectual composition, it is difficult to talk about a single Christian position on the crisis. In general, however, Christians are largely sympathetic to the uprising, some of them even participating in it to some extent._The Christian community has been divided since the beginning of the uprising into three camps: supporters of the regime; opponents of the regime; and neutral elements. Many Christian clergy support the regime, and they have traditionally been chosen based on their links with the security agencies. They have wanted to prevent Christians from becoming embroiled in a conflict that could cause them great losses. Some opportunistic Christians have supported the regime for personal gain._Yet, the majority of Christians have supported the peaceful protests, many prominent Christian opposition figures demanding a civil democratic state with rotation of power and criticising the clergy for supporting the regime. A third camp has chosen to remain on the sidelines of the conflict, fearing regime brutality against the opposition, though they have also chosen to support the uprising through the Internet._The Christian population as a whole has suffered from the regime’s oppression, and it disapproves of the regime’s military crackdown. As a result, the regime has attempted to gain the community’s support by sowing fears about the revolution’s “fanaticism” and its non-acceptance of the country’s minorities. _“The Church in Syria has abandoned political rights in order to focus on God’s rights,” Michel Kilo, a prominent Christian opposition figure, told the Weekly. “But we refuse to accept that Christian rights be seen as merely the right to worship. We will not accept anything less than full citizenship rights and genuine political participation in the new Syrian state.”_“Many Christians have received threatening messages because they have supported the revolution, these being sent by criminals calling themselves Christ’s Militias. However, the Church will never restore its position as the Church of Christ if its priests do not demand not only the protection of the lives of their Muslim brothers, but also of their own rights and freedoms. It is only in this way that the Church can once again become the Church of Christ.” _Nevertheless, some Syrian Christians remain worried about the future, wanting to know the position of the revolutionary movement regarding the future identity of the state and looking for guarantees that religion will be separated from politics. They want reassurances that Christians have a political and cultural future in the new political system that will be worthy of their heritage. They are no longer fooled by regime claims that it is the guardian of minorities, or that the next regime will be made up of radical Salafis.

Over the past few months, Christian neighbourhoods in Syria have been the target of car bombings. The regime has accused terrorists of targeting Christians, but the majority has been unconvinced. Instead, the attacks have had the reverse effect to the one that was presumably intended, with more and more Syrian Christians now supporting the revolution.

Meanwhile, church committees in areas with high concentrations of Christians, especially in the north of the country, have formed the Social Relations Council for Christian Churches as a way of supporting the revolution, of protecting Christians, and of bolstering relations between Christians and Muslims.

Christians from many villages have fled in large numbers after the regime began bombing residential areas with heavy artillery, destroying many churches and monasteries as it did so. Many have abandoned their homes in areas where the regime has committed massacres against Sunni Muslim civilians, out of fears that they will suffer a similar tragedy. Meanwhile, large numbers of Christians have also left areas that have fallen under the control of the armed Islamist opposition out of fears of being ruled by Islamic law.


NOT BETTING ON THE REGIME: Last September, the Syrian opposition formed the first armed Christian brigades affiliated to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Damascus under the name of Allah’s Warriors in order to defend civilians and fight against regime forces.

The joint command of the FSA welcomed these brigades, describing them as “confirmation that the Syrian Revolution is the revolution of all Syrians, which undercuts the regime’s lies.” It called on Syrians “to ignore the calls for division that the regime has been trying to propagate to ignite a sectarian war,” saying that “post-Al-Assad Syria welcomes all opinions, sects and faiths.”

“A key factor that has affected the general mood has been the regime’s attempts to drag Christians into its war,” said Adel Bishara, a Christian opposition figure. “Although the revolution has become militarised, the opposition has become armed, and there has been a rise in homegrown and foreign radical Islamist jihadist and Salafist groups, in the eyes of many Christians the regime is the culprit for the continuing violence.”

“The regime is also the primary suspect in the bombings of Christian areas, with the intention of deepening fears about alternatives to the Al-Assad regime and trying to bolster up its claims of being the guardian of Christians and minorities and the guarantor of their security. History has shown that minorities are the primary victims of tyranny and dictatorship, and everyone benefits from co-citizenship, justice, law and democracy.”

 “It is not true that Syrian Christians have been counting on the regime to protect them, or that they have linked their future with its fate,” Youssef said. “Never in history have dictatorships and oppressive regimes protected the rights of minorities. In fact, minority rights have always been a bargaining chip between authoritarian dictatorships and their political rivals.”

 “Christians in general will not object to the overthrow of the incumbent regime or mourn it. They have been eager to leave the country precisely because of persecution, ethnic oppression and political marginalisation. The regime has caused hundreds of thousands of Christians to flee Syria since the 1963 coup. What they are most worried about today is the security and political vacuum that could follow from the overthrow of the regime, especially if it is removed through violence or foreign military intervention.”_The Syrian political opposition does not draw a distinction between Christians and Muslims, and its leaders embrace different faiths. The current chairman of the National Syrian Council is a Christian, George Sabra, and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces includes several Christian leaders. The leading figure in the Democratic Forum is also Christian. There are many Christians in leadership positions in the National Coordination Committees.

European diplomats working on immigration matters and human rights recently visited northern Syria, the stronghold of the country’s Christians, to explore the reasons behind the emigration from these regions to Europe. They found that Christian flight was directly linked to democracy and human rights, and that Christians staying in Syria depended on establishing a civil democratic state that respected the rights of everyone.

The international NGO Human Rights Watch recently warned that the mass exodus of religious minorities in general, and Christians in particular, from Syria was a result of armed clashes and assaults on religious sites in areas where the population was mixed. The group blamed these on the regime and armed forces “that operate in the name of the opposition.”

Human Rights Watch said that the reasons behind recent raids on Christian churches had been simple robbery and religious motives had not been involved. It asked opposition fighters to protect religious sites in areas under their control and emphasised the need for “the opposition to follow through on its promises to protect the rights of minorities and defend places of worship by reprimanding those who try to attack them.”

Despite domestic and international warnings that the Syrian revolution could disintegrate into sectarian warfare, there has been no evidence of this thus far. The armed opposition, which is mostly Sunni, has not conducted any attacks of a sectarian nature or targeted Christian towns and villages, even in the regime’s Alawite strongholds.


A LESS ENRICHING SCENE: Syrian intellectuals have recognised the threat that Christian flight represents for the diversity of the region, and they have emphasised that the Christian presence in the Levant bolsters the modern state, cultural diversity, pluralism and democracy.

The Syrian scene will change culturally and in human terms if the Christians leave. It would be a huge loss if Levantine Christians felt they and their children had no future there. Yet, while such intellectuals argue that the presence of Christians in Syria is essential for the vitality of Arab and Islamic culture, others have been warning of possible persecution, even though representatives of all the churches have asserted that such persecution does not exist.

“Boosting the Christian national presence requires a policy that takes into consideration this community’s social and cultural character and the sensitivity of its position as a religious minority,” Bishara said. “It also requires a balanced national policy that places their cause in the proper nationalistic framework and guarantees that they have genuine opportunities to participate in political life. This would deepen their relations with other components of Syrian society, end their exodus, and boost their determination to remain in their homeland of Syria.”

Meanwhile, the regime has been indirectly encouraging Christians who have left not to return by requiring them to check in with the security agencies upon their return to Syria and generally making their lives as difficult as it can. It has forced expatriates to exchange money at official rates, lower than actual prices, and it has monitored money transfers and forced Syrians to undertake compulsory military service.

Instead of seeking to gather them together, the regime has sought to divide the country’s Christian communities by sowing the seeds of suspicion among them and recruiting them to act against each other. There are no Syrian clubs, societies or institutions abroad to bring expatriates together, as there were during earlier waves of emigration. The data show that the numbers of clubs, newspapers and institutions founded by the early migrants were many times greater than those that exist today.

Syria throughout its history has been home to many sects who have co-existed together for hundreds of years. This presence was not affected by the political, economic or cultural disputes in Syria until the beginning of the 1970s. After independence in the 1940s, the banner was raised that “Religion is for God; the Homeland is for All.” Christians were chosen to serve in the highest offices of government, including as prime minister, as cabinet members, as parliamentary speaker, and as military chiefs of staff in a country with an overwhelming Muslim majority.

This confirms that sectarianism is not the foundation of the nation, but that citizenship is, even as the regime has done its best over the past four decades to sabotage the co-existence and harmony that has existed for hundreds of years and divert it from its natural path.

Today, many Syrians are concerned about their Christian brethren, wondering whether they will be able to return to their homes when the fighting stops. Will they be the latest chapter in the tale of the vanishing Christian population of the Middle East?


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