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Matthias Vogt

Church between State Power and Islamist Rebels.

About the Situation of Christians in Syria


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 9/2013, P. 587-596
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The civil war in Syria has claimed already more than 90.000 lives. Matthias Vogt, desk officer for Near East at the aid organization "Missio" in Aachen, gives an insight into the situation of Christians and outlines possible scenarios for the post-war era.


In March 2011, in the context of the so-called "Arab Spring," in Syria first protests began against the government of President Bashar al-Asad. The regime responded to the demands for greater democracy and respect for human rights by severe measures of repression by the state security apparatus {1}.

This led quickly to an insurgency in many parts of the country. "Local coordinating committee" emerged in order to organize the protest and to announce the demands as well as the sometimes violent reprisals by the security authorities. As things developed the result was a militarization of the conflict, due to the fact that military units seceded from the state army, and the opposition was provided with weapons from abroad. Since the end of 2011, there is an open civil war. The state-run army uses heavy weapons against the armed units of the opposition. In street fighting, the insurgents fight against units of the government army. Both sides accuse each other of having used chemical weapons. Both sides show no consideration for the civilian population.


The Government of President Bashar al-Asad

The secular-oriented regime of the Baath Party under Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar guarantees extensive religious freedom to the followers of the Christian churches in Syria: freedom of faith, freedom of conscience, including the right to change religion (i.e. for instance to convert from Islam to Christianity), private and public practice of acts of worship, and other activities of Christian associations (such as Scouts events), freedom of association and granting of legal personality to the churches {2}. The Sunnis, Alawites and Shiites have in practice similar freedoms.

Regarding the granting of extensive religious freedom, the regime in Syria differs significantly from many other Islamic countries in the region. Many church leaders support this policy and derive from it, as a matter of principle, the need to support the system.



In assessing this support to the regime, you have also to take into account that it hitherto was impossible for public figures in Syria to stand in open opposition to the regime without endangering their position or to expose themselves to partly brutal repression.

Various representatives of the church in Syria draw our attention to the fact that the regime admittedly guarantees religious freedom, but it has perpetrated and continues perpetrating massive human rights violations in almost all other areas {3}. Regardless of their religious affiliation, all Syrians are affected in the same way from it.


The Syrian Opposition

The opposition is made up of a number of groups inside and outside Syria. Until the beginning of the uprising in March 2011 it was impossible to organize real opposition groups in the country, due to the extreme pressure exerted by the Asad regime and the secret service's control of any political direction outside of the Baath Party and of the by the regime approved "opposition parties" which accepted the leadership of the Baath Party and are united in the "National Progressive Front" (NPF).

The Muslim Brotherhood was brutally suppressed and controlled by the regime. But due to its tradition and renown as well as to international support by strictly Islamic or Islamist-oriented states and groups it is probably faster than others able to establish an organization in Syria. In the Syrian National Council, the Muslim Brotherhood deliberately plays down its role, but it has significant influence. On 25 March 2012, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has in a "vow" committed itself to values such as building a democratic state, commitment to human rights, legal equality of men and women, and a balanced representation of all religious and denominational groups in a free Syria; and it has recognized the cultural pluralism as a value per se {4}, yet in wide circles of the Christian and secular population in Syria there remain doubts about the sincerity of this affirmation.

The Free Syrian Army is by no means a uniform and hierarchically organized army, as the name seems to suggest this. Rather, it is made up of brigades which are operating relatively independently of each other, and whose political goals are determined by the respective commanders. Combatants of most different origins have joined the deserters' units of the official Syrian Army. This, too, makes the situation in Syria very confusing for observers. Christians, who are particularly dependent on a state that is able to enforce the state's monopoly on the use of force, fear more than others that this is called into question by the heterogeneity of the Free Syrian Army.



In recent years, the Government of Syria has supported al-Qaeda training camps in the country. Under the impact of the Arab Spring, in July 2011 the al-Qaeda leadership has made a policy shift in its Syria policy. In order not to lose prestige in the population of other Arab-Islamic countries, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, called upon the units in Syria to end their cooperation with the Asad regime and to begin the armed struggle. The Free Syrian Army does usually not cooperate with al-Qaeda units. Al-Qaeda's objective is not a democratic overthrow but the long-term destabilization of the state {5}. This is confirmed by a report of the UN Commission on Human Rights, which in September 2012 visited Syria, headed by Paulo Sérgio Pinheiroa. The report speaks of a dramatic increase in tensions between the religious and ethnic groups ("sectarian tensions"). Foreign radical Islamists and jihadists had invaded Syria in order to fight against the government of President al-Asad {6}.

The influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the infiltration of Islamist fighters gives in parts of the Syrian people - especially among Christians - the impression that the opposition is dominated by Islamist groups. They fear a takeover of power by these groups, with negative consequences for the religious freedom for all non-Islamic or non-Sunni communities. Under these conditions one has to be prepared that non-Sunni religious groups, particularly Christians, will become victims of terrorist attacks in Syria, if the situation should continue to be instable. Despite the involvement of al-Qaeda units in the struggle against the regime, however, it is by no means possible to describe the entire opposition and insurgency as "terrorist", as it is done by the propaganda of the Asad regime.

Due to the militarization, the civilian opposition has largely receded into the background. But it must not be forgotten that the uprising in Syria has its origin in civilian protests for greater democracy and respect for human rights. It was supported by many Syrians at home and abroad, regardless of their religious affiliation and political orientation.


Confessionalization of the Conflict

As part of the militarization of the conflict, the Kurds have set up their own militia. It controls parts of northern Syria and certain neighborhoods in Aleppo. The aim is to prevent the infiltration of Islamist and of elements that are ready to use violence. The Kurdish Democratic Union, which is behind these militias, basically rejects both the Asad government and the opposition.



Since September 2012, in various cities also Christians organize "People's Committees for self protection." In recent months, Christian communities were repeatedly victims of violence, especially in the "Valley of the Christians" (in the west of the country), in the old city of Aleppo, and in the suburb Jaramana in Damascus. Despite repeated calls of the Syrian bishops not to resort to arms, such self-defense groups were created especially within the Greek Orthodox and Armenian community. In Aleppo Armenian units fought for some time on the side of the government army against the insurgents.

The Alawites are currently represented by the state security apparatus and by the Shabiha militias. The latter are irregular units which often, in the sense of the regime, execute operations that are against martial and international law. In case of the collapse of the Assad regime, it is expected that the Alawites will build their own militias from the remnants of those instruments.

The increasing confessionalization the conflict is not only due to the fact that increasingly Islamist groups are gaining influence and Christians more and more become the target of attacks and assassination attempts. It has also to be taken into account that the propaganda of the Asad regime has responded to the non-religious demands of the demonstrators for more democracy, freedom and "dignity" by stirring up fear of denominational clashes, terrorist activities by Islamists, and general chaos - as in Iraq. Especially in Christian and Alawite circles, this "sectarian speech" of President Bashar al-Asad and his followers has effected a diffuse fear of uncontrolled changes. Meanwhile - quite in the sense of a self-fulfilling prophecy - many things have become reality, which initially were only a propaganda tool of the government {7}.

On the side of the regime of al-Assad, at the latest since May 2013, also the Lebanese Hezbollah intervenes. With its massive military support, the regime succeeded in recapturing a number of key positions, and in gaining apparently a better position for possible negotiations with the opposition under international supervision. The intervention of the Shiite Hezbollah fuels fears of a further confessionalization of the conflict between Sunni Islamist fighters on the side of the opposition, and a Shiite-Alawite alliance on the government's side.


Attacks on Christians and Christian Institutions

The fact that since 2012 increasingly targeted attacks on Christians take place causes great anxiety among the Christian population of Syria. The kidnapping and murder of a Greek Orthodox priest in a suburb of Damascus, as well as the kidnapping of two priests in the vicinity of Aleppo in February 2013 are symbolic for it.



These kidnappings of symbolic figures of the Churches reached on 22 April 2013 a sad climax by the abduction of the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo and Iskenderun, Boulos al-Yazigi, and the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mor Yuhanna Ibrahim. As in many cases, the identity of the kidnappers remains unclear. There is speculation about whether the perpetrators are foreign Islamist fighters or criminals who want to demand ransom.

In any case, the Christian population is severely worried by such attacks, because they demonstrate them that they are at the mercy of armed groups in this situation of chaos and violence. However, kidnappings and assassinations befall not only Christians but all Syrians. Thus, several imams are in the hands of unknown persons; and in March 2013, the well-known preacher of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Muhammad al-Buti fell victim to a bomb attack.

Into the central Syrian provinces Idlib and Hama, which are held by the rebels, more and more Islamist fighters infiltrate who want to establish an Islamic state there. They besiege Christians and Christian villages. There are repeatedly bloody attacks, most recently in an attack by Islamist fighters on the Franciscan convent in al-Ghassaniya in the province of Idlib. On this occasion, a monk was shot dead, the monastery partially destroyed. Also the "Jesuit Refugee Service" (JRS) bewails attacks on civilians in northern Syria. The Free Syrian Army would admittedly condemn such actions and ascribes them to criminal gangs and extremist groups, but it would be unable to prevent them {8}.

Also in the area of Hassake and Deir al-Zor at the Euphrates, the situation for Christians is becoming increasingly critical. Church leaders from the region warn against the increasing influence of Islamist fighters who would threaten the Christian population. Thus, all Christians were expelled from some villages near the Turkish border. Anti-Christian graffiti on the walls would document the radical Islamic background of the rebels there.


Statements by Representatives of the Church in the Syria Conflict

Church representatives have repeatedly warned of a coup d'état, most of them advocate a gradual and peaceful transition. There is obviously great fear of a decline of the country into chaos and violence in case of an overthrow of the regime. The warnings go straight through the Christian churches. The Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mor Yuhanna Ibrahim is quoted accordingly - as well as the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III. Laham and the Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, Jean-Clément Jeanbart. They vehemently advocate reforms within the existing system.

However, the more violent the fighting in Syria and the more uncertain the situation also for Christians becomes, the more Patriarch Gregorios distances himself from the government.



In July 2012, he called for an immediate end to the fighting and emphasized that the Catholic Church in Syria demands "reforms, freedom, democracy, fighting corruption, promoting development, and freedom of speech." Supplying the opposition with weapons from abroad would destroy the opposition and undermine national unity.

After a bomb attack in Aleppo in February 2012 with 28 dead, the Chaldean Archbishop of the city, Antoine Audo, warned against a confessionalization of the conflict, and against clashes between Christians, Sunnis, Shiites and Alawites. He called on foreign governments to promote the dialogue between government and opposition, rather than to support one side at the expense of the other one. This policy threatens to plunge the country into chaos like Iraq.

In an interview in July 2012, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Djazira and Euphrates, Eustathius Matta Rohan, emphasized that not all Christians supported the regime of al-Assad. There were also Christians in opposition. For many of them the introduction of reforms, which lead to more democracy and freedom is at stake. But these efforts are jeopardized by the civil war. The opposition had no clear program for a liberal and secular order of the state, and for the coexistence of different religious groups. But Christians would oppose the regime's use of violence against its own people.

The Holy See is firmly committed to a negotiated solution, and is worried about the peaceful coexistence of religious communities. This has been repeatedly expressed by the papal observer at the UN Human Rights Council, Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi, and the Apostolic Nuncio to Syria, Mario Zenari. The latter also firmly calls for greater commitment of the Church in Syria to the values of Catholic social teaching. Army, intelligence agencies and Shabiha militias would abuse children as human shields.

Church observers from Lebanon who can speak more freely than the Syrians who must reckon with measures of repression by the Assad regime emphasize that the Syrian Church representatives' call for reforms would also point to the unfairness of the current system. In an interview with Vatican Radio, the Armenian Catholic Patriarch of Cilicia, Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmuni (residing in Beirut), has encouraged the Christians of the Middle East to understand the upheavals in the Arab world as an opportunity. The time has come to replace the authoritarian military regimes in order to establish juster and more human power structures. What mattered for Christians was not to retain special rights or in any case to be on the side of the stronger party. However, he also expressed understanding for the concerns of many Christians, because they are numerically in the minority and therefore fear Islamists who had come to power by elections.



Also individual church representatives from Syria anonymously criticized the Asad regime. It would succeed in presenting itself as the only guarantor of freedom of religion and minority rights. Rather, a State must be established, which is based on equal rights for all {9}.

In summary it can be said about the mental attitude of Christians in Syria - and this applies not only to representatives of the churches but to a large part of the Christian population: it is less dependent on their political beliefs than on hypotheses regarding the outcome of the conflict and its consequences for their living conditions in Syria. In particular, the lack of clarity about the goals of the opposition after al-Asad's overthrow is the reason that most of them are reluctant to work for the opposition {10}.


Christian Peace Initiatives and Proposals for a Solution to the Conflict

Since March 2012, representatives of the churches are committed to local peace initiatives, named musâlaha (reconciliation). The movement was created in Homs as peace initiative by religious leaders of the Sunnis, Alawites as well as Catholic and Orthodox Churches representatives together with civil society groups. Subsequently, in other regions and cities in the country, as e.g. in Damascus, similar initiatives got together under the same name. Some people criticize the initiative as loyal to the regime. While the initiative itself emphasizes its independence: what only matters for it is to save human lives and to enable dialogue and peace.

In July 2012, the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, Mor Yuhanna Ibrahim, called on all conflicting parties in Syria and abroad to form a round table in order to deliberate on the establishment of a National Council - a council that was capable of restoring "trust and respect" in all citizens of Syria. What matters in particular is to define basic principles of a new constitution that guarantees all citizens equal rights, to develop a program for Syria's future domestic and foreign policy, to overcome the splittings in the army, and to elaborate a "code of conduct" for the security and intelligence services in order to "prevent the mistakes of the past." He called for the preparation of free and fair parliamentary elections, and for the election of a President who would be able to "maintain the interests of Syria and to build a safe, stable, peaceful, democratic state." The Metropolitan appreciates the motives of the demonstrators and indirectly criticized the existing system in which since the 1980s serious mistakes were made, caused inter alia by the high level of corruption.

In September 2012, the Catholic bishops of Aleppo have called upon all parties to engage themselves in a "serious and effective dialogue for national reconciliation." Pope Benedict XVI has confirmed this at the beginning of his journey to Lebanon on 14 September and called for a halt to the deliveries of arms to Syria; these would be a "grave sin".



Instead of them, "ideas of peace and creativity" must be brought to Syria {11}. In the first months of his pontificate, also Pope Francis has repeatedly called on all conflicting parties to be ready for reconciliation and reminded of the suffering of the civilian population. There must be put an end to violence and "any religious, cultural and social discrimination" {12}. The calls for peace and reconciliation which come from high-ranking church officials, and the practical initiatives could be a starting point for the integration of the churches and Christians into a new political system in Syria. At the same time, however, peace initiatives are also exposed to the criticism by members of the opposition. They interpret them, whether rightly or wrongly, as an attempt to help to stabilize the Assad regime.


Possible Scenarios

1. Military suppression of the uprising and stabilization of the Asad regime: If the system should succeed in stabilizing itself, a ruthless "cleansing" must be expected. It will affect all actual or alleged supporters of the uprising regardless of their religion or ethnicity. This will also affect Christians and church representatives who have not or not consistently supported the Assad regime through the vigour of their statements - as expected by the regime. The resignation of leading church representatives could lead to a severe weakening of the churches and undermine the faithful's sense of security.

In the medium term, it may be reckoned with a guarantee of freedom of religion - as before the uprising, albeit with a massive violation of all other human rights. This will happen even more so than before the revolution attempt - in order to prevent further uprisings. A free and independent work of the churches can not be expected - due to the intelligence monitoring, and the measures of repression which are to be expected.

2. President al-Asad resigns and leaves the country and a former partisan of the regime is appointed head of state. The latter is principally able to reach consensus and is seeking cooperation with the opposition: Only this scenario would allow it to bring the conflicting parties together and to initiate a stable transition. It will hardly be possible to build a Syria against the former regime and those who have benefited from it - not only because of the security apparatus which are closely linked to the system. Readiness to engage in dialogue and the radical transformation of the system are the only way to involve the Alawites, and to turn back the confessionalization of the conflict. In such a scenario, minority rights and religious freedom could basically be secured in politics and judicature.



3. Overthrow of the regime and establishment of a (relatively) stable system under the leadership of Islamist forces: the complete collapse of the previous system of rule is admittedly not likely, but in such a case a similar development as in Egypt is to be expected. It is probable that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood or a party founded by it and formally independent of it will emerge victorious from free elections and take over the leadership of the government. It will seek the dialogue with representatives of the churches and try to integrate them into building of a new Syria.

However, there is left no doubt about the leadership of Islam and the implementation of basic Islamic legal conceptions in everyday life. All denominations outside of Sunni Islam are de facto forced into the second row, even if the equality of citizens is expressed in public discourse and in some key articles of the constitution. A severe discrimination by legislation and administrative action is nevertheless probable. Persecution by the State is admittedly not to be expected, but the security agencies will certainly not with the necessary consequence protect life and limb and property and other rights of non-Sunni minorities. It is to be expected a high emigration of Christian families to Lebanon as well as to the western countries.

4. Further confessionalization of the conflict with virtually no longer existing state power: Regardless of whether the Asad regime formally continues to have the governance in Syria resp. some part of the country or has been completely overthrown and replaced by an opposition-led government, which is unable to enforce the complete control of the country and the state monopoly on the use of force, the slipping of the country into a confessionalized civil war (as in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990) or into chaos with terrorist attacks and kidnappings (like in Iraq) would be the worst case for the Syrian Christians.

In such a situation it is very likely that Salafist and jihadist groups purposefully attack, kidnap and kill Christians, Alawites and Shiites, with the aim of establishing a Sunni Islamic state in Syria. All non-Sunnis would therefore be asked to leave the country, and forced to do so by spreading terror. In parts of the country, for Christians and other religious minorities it is therefore to be expected a situation that is similar to a persecution.



{1} About the developments in Syria until May 2012 see Carsten Wieland, A decade of lost chances: repression and revolution from Damascus Spring to Arab Spring. Seattle 2012, 16-44.

{2} About the situation of the Christians in Syria at the time of Hafis al-Asad, see Habib Moussalli, I cristiani di Siria, in: Andrea Pacini (ed.), Comunità cristiane nell’islam arabo: La sfida del futuro. Turin 1996, 311-319. However, the description of the situation seems very positive, and so you may suspect also political reasons behind it. It gives nevertheless a good insight into the self-assessment of Christians in Syria at this time, and partly to the present. - About the situation of Christians in Syria in the time of Bashar al-Asad, see Wieland (note 1) 85-92.



{3} Non-church reports of human rights violations by the regime: Amnesty International, Deadly Reprisals: Deliberate killing and other abuses by Syria’s armed forces, 14. 6. 2012; and the report to the UN Human Rights Council: ‹› (accessed on 28th June 2013).

{4} Ivesa Lübben, Die syrische Muslimbruderschaft: Auf der Suche nach einer neuen Rolle, in: Larissa Bender (ed.), Syrien: Der schwierige Weg in die Freiheit. Bonn 2012, 83-96.

{5} Hans Krech, Al Qaeda in the Levant and the Civil War in Syria, in: Orient III/2012, 45-50.

{6} ‹›, 62 f.

{7} About the confessionalization of the conflict as a "trump card" of the Asad regime, see Wieland (note 1) 39-42, 56. - A similar view is presented by the special report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom of April 2013: Protecting and promoting religious freedom in Syria, in: ‹› (accessed on 29th April 2013).

{8} See Luciano Larivera, Dare un futuro alla Siria, in: La Civiltà Cattolica 164 (2013) II, 561-570, 565.

{9} ‹› (accessed on 26th July 2012)

{10} So Najeeb George Awad, I cristiani e il futuro della Siria, in: Vittorio Ianari (ed.), Primavera araba: Dalle rivolte a un nuovo patto nazionale. Mailand 2013, 76.

{11} Press Conference with Pope Benedict XVI during the flight to Lebanon, 14th September 2012, in: ‹› (accessed on 28th June 2013).

{12} Thus, during the Angelus prayer on 2nd Juni 2013, in: ‹› (accessed on 28th June 2013), and in his address to the representatives of the Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches (ROACO) on 20th June 2013, in: ‹› (accessed on 24th June 2013).


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