Is it Winter or Spring for Christians in Syria? - Statehood & Participation

By Doreen Khoury

Since the Arab uprisings began, the Western media, in particular the conservative Christian press, has questioned whether the Arab Spring has turned into a ‘Christian winter’, following the tragic outcome of the Maspero demonstrations in Cairo on October 9, 2011. Lebanese Maronite Christian Patriarch Bechara Rai started to stoke fears over Syrian Christians with controversial remarks on the future of Christians in the region during an official trip to Paris in early September 2011. Rai focused on the Syrian uprising, warning that the downfall of the Assad regime would either lead to sectarian civil war, disintegration of Syria into sectarian mini-states or a fundamentalist Sunni regime. The Maspero tragedy, as well as the apparent Islamization of the Arab Spring, with the resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the strong showing by the Islamist Nahda Party in the Tunisian elections, seemed to confirm his fears.

These concerns are certainly legitimate, especially since it is natural for minorities to feel insecure during times of upheaval when outcomes are unclear and the nature of future political systems is still unknown. There is always a sense within Christian minority groups that mainstream Muslim cultural and religious norms will be imposed on them. The events leading up to the Maspero tragedy certainly embody this fear: Coptic Christians were protesting against the destruction of a church in Aswan by Salafists, and were attacked, with up to 27 protesters killed by the Egyptian army.

The Maspero incident focused attention on Christians elsewhere in the Middle East, especially the Christian sects in Syria who roughly make up about ten percent of the total population. The killings of Iraqi Christians and their forced displacement definitely haunts their co-religionists in Syria, especially because of the influx of Iraqi refugees into Syria.

Where do Syrian Christians Stand?

But understanding where Syrian Christians stand vis-á-vis the regime and the uprising is complex. The regime’s ban on foreign journalists entering the country makes it difficult to gauge to what extent Christians genuinely support the regime. Fear of persecution as a minority in a post-Assad Syria has pushed Syrian Christians, particularly some Christian religious leaders, into either actively supporting the regime (because of direct business or power links) or staying at home to wait for the outcome of the revolution. For this reason, Christian areas in Syria have not witnessed protests.

Syrian Catholic archbishop Elias Tabeh for example, in Der Spiegel, called Assad a “very cultured man” and dismissed “demonstrators as terrorists.” But Patriarch Hazim of the Greek Orthodox Church (which represents the biggest Syrian Christian community), whose initial statements indicated support for the regime, has recently been more nuanced in his views on the revolution. Because of his base in Damascus, Hazim’s political statements are usually ambiguous and open to interpretation, but two statements are noteworthy. On October 21 during a radio interview, he said that although he shared Patriarch Rai’s fears of fundamentalists taking power in Syria, he also refuted the argument that minorities supported dictatorships, criticizing the notion that “Christians defend their existence at the expense of freedom and human rights.” Following the Orthodox Antioch Conclave on October 27 he said that “the Church cannot stand helplessly by amid oppression and discrimination from which the peoples and groups are suffering.”

Syrian Christian activists have refused to link the fate of Christians to the Assad regime. Intellectual and dissident Michel Kilo criticized the Maronite Patriarch for his statements, calling for the use of calm language, despite legitimate fears over the current situation. On September 17 a statement by Syrian Christian activists and intellectuals condemned Rai’s interference in internal Syrian affairs, and “stirring up sensitivities between citizens of all sects”. Affirming that Christians are an integral part of the Syrian nation and do not need protection, they also rejected the Assad regime’s ploy in branding itself as the protector of Christians, as the Syrian crisis is political and not sectarian, and the protests are a popular civil revolution. Supporting the popular uprising or not is also a generational issue. While the older generation seems to be wary of the protests, the Local Coordination Committees (grassroots organizations of the uprising) contain many young Christian activists who are frustrated with the conservative stance of church leaders. A Facebook page called ‘Syrian Christians in Support of the Revolution’ which has over 37,000 ‘Likes’, says in its description: “They accuse the Syrian revolution of being Islamist, and this page proves that all sects, including Christians, are at the heart of the revolution.”

Has the Arab Spring been Islamized?

Claims that the Arab Spring has been Islamized and that democratic gains have been reversed have to be put in perspective. First of all, the Muslim Brotherhood is by no means the biggest component of the Syrian opposition, and as its leadership has been outside Syria for 30 years it is difficult to assess its popularity on the ground. There is also no information on the actual number of Salafists in Syria, other than the regime’s claims, which are aimed at scaremongering.

Because demonstrations are coming out of mosques on Friday, many are automatically characterizing the uprising as Islamist. First of all, ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islamist’ are being used concurrently, as if all Muslims are Islamists. The two are separate distinct identities. Moreover, it is perfectly natural for demonstrations to come out of mosques, as they are often the only safe places where people can gather.

Secondly, the uprisings are overturning not only political systems but also old mindsets and imposed ideologies. While many Syrian Muslims may be religiously devout, it does not necessarily mean that they will accept ideological repression, especially as the Arab revolutions opened the public sphere to free expression and mobilization.

The Assad regime, like most Arab dictatorships, quashed any religious or cultural identities, primarily to establish tight control over society. So it is not surprising that when repression is lifted, these identities seek to openly express themselves, culturally and politically. These manifestations include Islamism. Burhan Ghalyoun, leader of the Syrian National Council, has noted that Muslims are essentially Syrian citizens and have the right to be fully represented; “the new Syria cannot be ‘new’ if it discriminates between Muslims and non-Muslim and in any case, during elections the Syrian people will decide who rules them.”

Has the Assad Regime Protected Christians from Sectarianism?

The pan-Arab ideology of the Baath regime was historically attractive to minorities as it allowed them to transcend sectarian identities, and advance socially and politically in a region where the Sunni Arab identity dominates. But the Assad regime, in order to entrench itself in Syrian society, has succeeded in convincing some Syrians, especially minorities, that it is the only alternative to chaos, by highlighting the risk of civil war and stressing society’s fundamentalist and sectarian elements. This rhetoric has worked with three groups who fear Islamist rule: minorities, the business class and the urban middle-class.

The Baath regime constructed a top-down ordering of society, creating divisions by fostering direct bilateral ties of loyalty with these groups and convincing them that their survival is dependent on it. As Damascus-based Syrian cultural researcher Hassan Abbas writes, the regime manufactured these social groups “as a support base and an intermediary through which to protect the regime.” Because of the continued support of these groups, the regime has been able to claim that it has not lost legitimacy. The regime has heavily relied on the shabiha and the state media to portray the uprising as dominated by two feared entities: foreign conspiracy and Salafists. This not only intimidates people, but isolates these social groups from mainstream Syrian society. Thus when religious leaders like Elias Tabe or Bechara Rai fear the ‘end of Christianity’ this is a sectarian position against Muslims, mostly fed by the regime.

Nir Rosen’s two-part feature on the Alawites for the Al-Jazeera English website shows how the Assad regime by aggressively promoting the interests of the Alawite sect and pushing them mostly into the state security, also entraped them and isolated them. “Assadism” became the Allawite religion and their identity. “Assadism filled the gap left by the negation of traditional Alawite identity.”

Moreover, the regime’s main line of defense, that it installed a secular state which protects minorities and does not distinguish between sects, is also open to scrutiny. According to Syria’s ‘secular’ constitution, the president has to be Muslim, and the basis of jurisprudence is Islamic Shari’a Law. Syrian civil activist Maan Abdul Salam says that the regime organized annual conferences on ‘brotherhood’ between Muslims and Christians. By propagating the idea that the two sects should tolerate each other it deliberately enhanced sectarianism. If the regime was genuinely concerned with eliminating sectarianism, it could have instead passed a civil personal status law which would link citizenship and belonging to the state and not to sect or religion.

Thus even as the Assad regime presented itself as a protector of the Christians, it also succeeded in instilling a sense of their isolation from mainstream society. The argument propagated by the Assad regime, and supported by some Christian leaders, that the regime should be maintained because it guarantees social cohesion must be seen clearly for what it is: Blackmailing religious minorities into supporting the regime.

Christians are fully integrated in Syria society, and participate in all of walks of life, so why link this to the benevolence of the regime, and not to the fact that Syrian society is tolerant in general? Despite the dozens of articles that have appeared on the ‘plight’ of Syrian Christians, there are no credible reports since the start of the revolution of sectarian attacks against Christian villages, property or churches. Most articles contain interviews with Christians who express their fear, but do not report on any sectarian targeting or harassment. Mount Lebanon Greek Orthodox Bishop George Khodr has said that although Christian Copts in Egypt have recently experienced sectarian violence, the same cannot be said for Christians in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. He notes that the Church is in constant contact with Christians in Syria, who have not been subject to sectarian pressure, even in cities like Homs and Hama which have witnessed mass protests.

The irony, notes Nasser Weddady of the American Islamic Council, is that “when the Assad regime says it is protecting Christians, this sets up a false equivalency: because at the end of the day, this is a dictatorship, and the Baath regime is an equal opportunity torturer: if you oppose them, they will attack you.” The regime has been brutal to any form of Kurdish opposition for decades, and it has imprisoned Christian and Alawite dissidents, such as Michel Kilo, and recently Louay Hussein.

In November, the Syrian government expelled Jesuit priest Paolo dall’Oglio for criticizing the regime’s violent crackdown on protestors. Dall’Oglio was a renowned promoter of dialogue between Christians and Muslims and had been engaged in efforts for internal reconciliation, particularly in the current crisis. His expulsion sent a clear message that the regime’s support of Christians is not unconditional and that those who publicly addressed the oppression of the Assad regime would be deemed members of the opposition.

Here the Maspero incident can be tied in, because it showed that just as regimes can protect minorities, they can also choose to discriminate against them, as it was state authorities, namely the army, who were responsible for the attack on the Copts. There is always the danger that if the regime becomes increasingly cornered, both regionally and internationally, it could resort to instigating sectarian violence itself, and pinning the blame on Islamists or foreign conspirators. The Assad regime has long and extensive experience in inciting sectarian strife; it actively participated in the Lebanese civil war and its aftermath, meddled in Iraq, and armed factions against each other. It will be a leading instigator of civil war in Syria, if it feels that this is the only way to retain power.

Can Christians, on a Strategic Level, Afford to Side with a Dictator and Adopt a Negative View of the Arab Spring?

The revolutions have been about freedom of expression, more socio-economic rights, more control for people over their lives, the end of state corruption and more access to and representation in public life. If Christians are an integral part of Syria, they cannot limit their rights or role to whether they can pray in public or not, but have to consider all the political, social and economic rights associated with citizenship. Cultural and religious rights are fundamental rights, not a privilege that Christians should feel lucky to have.

Several analysts have warned of the negative repercussions of Christians appearing to send a message to Syrian protestors that Christians back a dictator against their demands, and thus committing them to such a controversial stance. If Christians are perceived to identify too much with the regime, there is a possibility of a backlash against the community if the regime falls. On the regional and international levels, supporting an increasingly isolated regime might also have negative consequences.

Christians cannot limit their view of the Arab Spring and the Syrian uprising in particular to a primarily narrow sectarian perspective based on Christian existential fears, whereby the only outcomes they can conceive of are conservative Islamic states hostile to religious minorities. Although a sectarian civil war in Syria cannot at all be dismissed, it is not inevitable that the Lebanon and Iraq scenarios of sectarian strife will unfold in Syria. We should not ignore a probable scenario in which Syria could transition to a freer, democratic and just system, which is fair towards minorities. Syrian opposition leader Bourhan Ghalyoun and the Local Coordination Committees have constantly reiterated the opposition’s guarantees of a civil state, a national pact between representatives of sects and religions and his belief that the success of the revolution depends on the involvement of all segments of the Syrian population so that all are represented.

Fear of repressive Islamists does not only apply to Christians, as moderate Muslims and secular liberals, both are by no means a minority in the Syria, also feel threatened and have an equal stake in opposing the rise of more extreme forms of Islamism. Thus, Christians as an integral part of Syrian society cannot afford not to support Syrian uprising. Ultimately they have to look forward, because by isolating themselves from the uprising, they risk losing out on playing a leading role in a future Syria.

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About the Author

Doreen Khoury was Program Manager at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s office in Beirut from 2009 until August 2012. Prior to that, she worked as researcher and elections specialist at the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies (LCPS) and served as executive director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections. She specializes in elections, governance, anti-corruption and social media issues. In April 2013, she finished a fellowship at the German think-tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik in Berlin