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Otmar Oehring {*}

Threatens the same Fate as in Iraq?

About the situation of Christians in Syria


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 12/2013, P. 606-609
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In many regions of Syria, the situation is completely intransparent and the further development is unforeseeable. This applies to the entire population and not only to individual population groups, as e.g. the Christians. Today it is not possible to speak of a systematic persecution of the Christian churches, but the fear of it is long since hanging in the air. In circles of the Christian churches one is meanwhile quite critically discussing whether the previous way of dealing with the Assad regime is still appropriate.


In early fall, Syria was on everyone's lips. An American military action against the Syrian regime in response to the use of poison gas seemed imminent. After the agreement of the U.S. and Russia on the destruction of the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian regime, you don't hear much about Syria any more. But despite this development, the armed conflict in the country continues. For a while, one could still get the impression that the fear of a gradual takeover by radical Islamic groups would spur efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Syria. But de facto it remains unclear whether and when the next round of talks about Syria - called "Geneva II" - will actually take place.

In the meantime, in Syria the fights, the destruction and deaths continue. Of the approximately 22.5 million citizens of Syria, now seven million are fleeing, about five million are internally displaced. Further 2.2 million have fled to neighboring countries, 813.000 to Lebanon, 545.000 to Jordan, 511.000 to Turkey, about 200.000 to Iraq, further 127.000 to Egypt.

Of the citizens of Syria about 60 percent are Sunni Muslims, 13 percent Shiite Muslims - above all Alawites -, about 10 percent are Christians, 3 percent Druze. By the armed conflicts, which now are soon lasting three years, all the inhabitants are affected to the same extent. Differences are at most with respect to the effects of the armed conflicts by which the individual citizen of Syria is affected.



Those who have lived or still live in one of the embattled cities or regions - as e.g. in Homs, Hama or Qusayr in the west of the country, in Aleppo or Raqqa in the north, in Kamishli, Hassake or Deirez-Zor in the east, in Hauran and in Deraa in south of the country, or even in the at times embattled districts of Damascus - were or are directly affected by the armed conflict. Large parts of the population of these towns and regions have fled - either to other cities or regions of the country or to neighboring countries. Many of those who had fled, e.g. during the battles for Aleppo or Qusayr, to Turkey and Lebanon returned to their homes after the fighting subsided again. Many of the returnees indeed must meanwhile leave their homes again, because the battles flared up again, the front lines have changed, or in a particular region now radical Islamic groups are in charge; and thus a reasonably peaceful life for people who belong to a different religion, as e.g. Alawites, Christians, but also secular Muslims, is no longer possible. In specific cases, as e.g. during the fighting in the north-east of the country, particularly vulnerable sections of the population have even been evacuated by airlift - as for instance the Christians from the region between Kamishli and Hassake who were brought to Damascus.


A Kind of Laboratory for Preventive Reconciliation Work

Notwithstanding the ongoing violent clashes in many parts of Syria's, there are also - on the other side of the anyway uninhabited great Syrian desert - large areas of the country which were and are until now at least not directly affected by the violent clashes. This includes parts of Damascus, the region between Damascus and the Lebanese border, the coastal strip from Tartus via Latakia up close to Banias with the parallel Alawite mountains (Jebel Ansariye) and the "Valley of the Christians" (Wadi Al-Nasarah) which is located east of this area, but also the settlement area of the Druse in the area of Jabal al-Druze in southwestern Syria, in the governorate of al-Suwayda.

All these areas are of course indirectly affected by the ongoing violent clashes in other parts of the country. Many Christians therefore fled during the battles for Aleppo, Homs or Qusayrs not only to neighboring countries but also to the "Valley of the Christians" and the coastal strip from Tartus via Latakia up close to Banias. But also many Muslims have sought refuge in the west of the country during and after the battles for Homs and Qusayr. That's why many of the religious institutions in the "Valley of the Christians" which offered them accommodation - for example in Marmarita and Safita - are in danger of bursting at the seams.

These facilities were once built to make summer camps for Christian school youth who got no Christian religious instruction in state schools. Now they serve Muslims as emergency shelters. Here and in the Alawite-Christian-dominated coastal region of Syria, the Sunni Muslims are now faced with an entirely new and hitherto completely unknown situation. They who otherwise represent the majority in Syria are here in the minority.

And yet, quite a few of them had got to like the idea, as a result of the current conflict in Syria, to shake off the power of the Alawite-dominated minority regime of Bashar al-Assad and to be able to assume power in the country. The coastal strip of Syria, at least the part which until now - not least because of the uniform Alawite-Christian population structure - has been spared by battles, has thus become a sort of laboratory for preventive reconciliation work. For, independent of their religious affiliation, all who are living here are in agreement that they want to be spared by the violent clashes which now are raging for more than two years in the east - at the other side of the coastal strip, the Alawite mountains and the "Valley of Christians."

But even if those regions have until now been spared by violent clashes, the people who are living here have of course not been spared by the impact of the bloody conflict. The influx of large numbers of refugees into this area has already been mentioned. The population numbers of Marmarita and Safita are supposed to have more than doubled. But also the coastal towns, especially Tartus and Latakia, are hardly able to take in more refugees.

At the same time, there are time and again reports that the Mediterranean life in those coastal towns almost reminds of the life in the classy-infamous Beirut in the time before the Lebanese civil war, and that there are no supply problems throughout the coastal region. What is true is that life here goes almost on as usual, and especially in the port cities business is going partly better than ever before.

But it is also true that this cannot be enjoyed by the majority of the refugees, because apart from their own lives they have lost everything: close relatives, their possessions, their home, their future. At the same time, life has become extremely expensive in regions which were until now spared by the violent clashes. This has to do with supply and demand, with the business acumen of the mercantile Syrians, but especially with the economic sanctions which the U.S. and the EU imposed on Syria. They have led to a massive decline in the value of the Syrian currency. In view of the current developments, those who have never done business or do now not benefit from the misery of others but get only a salary from the State, as e.g. officials, or are living as pensioners on public assistance - and also have no foreign exchange - are hardly able to survive. This applies to Alawites, Christians and Sunni Muslims alike.



In other parts of the country, in consequence of the violent clashes not only the lives of all people but above all the social fabric is completely out of joint. In many parts of the country, where previously the Sunni Muslim majority peacefully lived together with Alawites and Christians, the religious structure of the population has completely changed - due to the result of the clashes and to the fact that these areas are now controlled by partly radical Islamic opposition groups.

In Homs and Hama, in Qusayr, in Raqqa east of Aleppo, in parts of Aleppo, as well as in parts of Damascus, there live almost no Christians; it is impossible for them to live there. And the few who still remained there are waiting for an opportunity to leave these places. It is uncertain whether they will ever be able to return. In other places there is already an answer to this question, as e.g. in the Kurdish-dominated north-east of the country between Hassake and Kamishli. Here, the Kurdish PYD has expelled the radical Islamic opposition groups and - as it is officially known, in agreement with the Assad regime - took control. Those Christians who left the region during the clashes between the opposition groups and the by the Kurdish PYD supported government troops might now return - so at least the announcement of the PYD. But it is uncertain, whether one may already trust such announcements. It is unlikely that those Christians who have been rescued by airlift to Damascus will go back. And those who have fled to the neighboring countries Iraq and Turkey will also not do it - at least for now.


Should there be no longer room for Christians in Syria?

These few examples show that the situation in Syria is completely inscrutable and that the further development is unforeseeable. This applies - it is necessary to point this out time and again - to the entire population of Syria, and not only to individual population groups, as e.g. the Christians. Of course, it is to be feared that the life and survival for those who are not willing to become partisans of the radical-Islamic forces or recognize their rule, will be more difficult, perhaps even impossible, if the violent clashes in Syria continue and the influence of radical Islamic forces in the no longer by the Assad regime controlled areas is further extended. Affected by such a development are not only the minorities, the Alawites, who are lumped together with the hated Assad regime, or the Christians who are seen by some people as partisans of the Assad regime. It affects everyone who does not want to bow down to the crude rules of the radical Islamic groupings.

At least at this point it seems advisable to deal more in detail with the current situation of Christians in Syria. Not least due to the fact that interested parties report repeatedly of targeted attacks on Christians, and this in a way as if Christians had now become, in the same way as after 2006 in Iraq, the target of systematic attacks. It is true that Christians since the beginning of the violent clashes became directly and indirectly victims of this violence in Syria. In general, one will have to assume that Christians in terms of their share of the population are to the same extent direct and indirect victims of violence as Muslims.

There are, however, no proofs that Christians have already become more frequently and purposefully victims of violent attacks than other parts of the population. It is of course true that for instance on 9 February 2013 the Armenian Catholic priest Michel Kayyal and his Greek Orthodox confrère Maher Mahfouz were kidnapped, and on 22 April 2013 the Syrian Orthodox Bishop Hanna Ibrahim and his Greek Orthodox confrère Boulos Yazigi. And it is, of course, also true that both cases must be understood as a signal of the kidnappers and their backers to the Christians of Syria - a signal that also has been understood by the Christians in Syria. Many of them see it as an indication that now there is no longer room for Christians in Syria. In other cases, Christians have admittedly also become victims of violent attacks, not because they were explicitly Christians, but they rather became targets of terrorist attacks because they were representatives of the regime. Thus, on 18 July 2012 in a bomb attack which was aimed at representatives of the Assad regime besides seven other major figures of the regime also the Greek Orthodox Syrian Defense Minister Daud Radscheha was killed. In other cases, Christians were simply victims of snipers. For example, on 22 August 2012 in the village Rableh, west of Qusayr, in the region of Homs, where three Christians were shot by snipers.

During the violent clashes, in many places also churches and church buildings were damaged or desecrated and used for other purposes. It cannot be excluded that in these cases, among other things, the fact might have been of importance that these, for instance, were Christian sacred buildings. It is without a doubt true that certain in Syria active radical Islamic groups deliberately choose the "Kufar," i.e. the infidels and their religious sites as a target, and accordingly also deliberately attack or profane them by "rededication."



Nevertheless, it is fortunately even today not possible to speak of a systematic persecution of Christians and Christian Churches in Syria. But the concern that this could happen and the Christians and the Christian churches in Syria might, based on the model of what has happened in Iraq after 2006, become the target and the victims of targeted violent actions of radical Islamic forces is long since hanging in the air. Of importance for such fears was always also the reproach that the Christian churches had a certain proximity to the Assad regime and the fact that Christian church leaders until the recent past have repeatedly openly taken a position in favor of the Assad regime.

In fact, under Hafiz al-Assad in the years 1970-2000 and since then also under his son Bashar al-Assad, Syria was a more or less secular state. It conceded great freedoms to the prevailing religious communities, partially generously supported them, but at the same time also kept them under surveillance. Outwardly, this meant that the churches were able to handle their own affairs without disturbance as long as they did not interfere in politics. However, this also meant that even church leaders were not immune against falling victim to one of the numerous intelligence agencies, against being arrested and never reappearing again.

The churches therefore knew quite well what they were allowed to do and what not, and how they had to behave. The same applies, by the way, to the Sunni Islam. It was largely forced into line. It is well known how the state treated those Muslim groups which refused to accept to be forced into line.

In circles of the Christian churches one meanwhile definitely also discusses critically whether the churches' previous way of dealing with the Assad regime is still appropriate. For it is obvious that it is hardly possible to bring the regime's way of dealing with its opponents in accordance with Christian values. The clinging to the former way of dealing with the regime - for example by the Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory II - is now criticized not only by laymen but definitely also by official representatives of the churches.

The clinging to the former way of dealing with the regime has to do not only with the obstinacy of individuals or even a certain obstinacy of old age of such persons. It mirrors also the concern - perhaps one should even speak of fear - to lose control of one's own flock. Thus, even Christian oppositionists - as e.g. Michel Kilo, but also others - are reviled by individual church leaders as communists and atheists, and they are accused of having not been seen for ages in the church, and that's why they were not allowed to speak for Christians.

It is certainly possible to say a lot about the Christian oppositionists, especially those who have long been living in exile abroad, and critically scrutinize their real impact on the future of Syria. But one may also ask who is to represent the interests of the Christians in Syria, if it comes some - hopefully near - day, when the guns have fallen silent, to negotiations on the future of Syria. If certain church leaders would not only cling to their old positions but actually think about the future of Syria, i.e. the future of coexistence between Christians and Muslims in Syria, then they would try to initiate as broad as possible a dialogue among all Christians of Syria about their future in the country. If they do this not in due time, then they run the risk of gambling away the future of Christians in Syria. And this applies particulary, if the Assad regime, which at present seems to have its position rather strengthened again, is in the end not able to resist the radical Islamic groups and Syria would fall into the hands of these groups.


    {*} Dr. Otmar Oehring (born in 1955) is working as Resident Representative for the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Amman/Jordan since the end of 2012. Since 2001 he was head of the Human Rights Office of Missio in Aachen; previously he was since 1983 lecturer and subsequently head of the foreign department of the Internationales Katholisches Missionswerk. Oehring lived for many years in Turkey.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'