• If Assad falls, how can Christians have any future in Syria when radical Sunni groups kill their fellow Muslim Shi'as and even moderate Sunni rebel soldiers as well?

  • It is a historical irony indeed when it appears the only safe place for a Christian in the Middle East is Israel, a country in large part populated by Jews who themselves were forced to flee Islamic intolerance in the same lands from which Christians now feel impelled to flee.

In late January, a delegation of prominent clerics from Syria's Christian communities visiting Washington, D.C. testified about horrific attacks by anti-Assad rebels against innocent Christian non-combatants. They claimed that both the so-called moderate Free Syrian Army and extremist Islamic factions were guilty of repeated human rights violations against Christians.[1] For Syria's Christians, the outcome of the civil war has existential ramifications.

Dhimmi status [second-class, "tolerated" citizenship for non-Muslim minorities] for centuries under Islam has taught Syria's minority Christian community to be wary of any political change. After the initial invasion in 633 A.D. by Bedouin Muslim Arabian hordes, Syria's Christian communities were late to realize that this was not just another raid by desert nomads. After a month-long siege, on September 19, 634 A.D.[2], Damascus capitulated to the Arabian invaders. Eventually, in most of the Levant Christianity was supplanted by Islam. The era of Eastern Christianity's Byzantine civilization in Syria was at an end. The ensuing slaughter of Syria's Christian faithful was great. The burning of churches, convents, and monasteries virtually expunged any of Christianity's physical infrastructure. The rape and enslavement of non-combatant innocents was enormous. Huge tracts of private land were expropriated and settled by the Muslim conquerors. The Christian populations of Aleppo and Antioch were nearly extinguished.[3]

Those "Peoples of the Book," Jews and Christians who survived the initial massacres, were to be "protected" -- as long as they peacefully embraced their diminished humanity. The Jews of Syria may have fared better than the Christians of Syria, as they merely exchanged one oppressor for another. Christians, however, had not yet discerned the mercurial nature of their so-called "protected" status. During the anti-Christian pogrom in Aleppo's Christian quarter in 1850, their "protected" status entirely evaporated.[4] Whenever fanatical imams deemed it appropriate, they would stir up their Muslim faithful into a mob. Moreover, the political leadership responsible for maintaining Islam's contract with the dhimmi proved to be ineffective and willfully passive in the face of mob fanaticism.[5] Neither could Syria's Christians count on moderate Muslim factions for refuge: they invariably disappeared once the radicals went on the rampage.[6] The pockets of Aleppo-based Christians, however, always managed to survive. Aleppo's Christian communities were able to rebound from massacres, once by the Mongols and later by Tamerlane, as well as several Muslim-orchestrated pogroms. Today's Syrian Christian community is now being tested once more as it seeks to endure the atrocities of Syria's ongoing civil war.

The threat of the stark choice between extinction and exile might explain why many of Syria's Christians support the Assad regime. Nevertheless, there were some Christians who, along with their Shia Alawite Muslim countrymen, were driven by self-preservation to join the ranks of the protestors in the early months of the rebellion against Assad's tyranny.[7] Many Christians may also remain loyal to the regime out of fear, especially with the increased influence of extremist Sunni Muslim factions in the opposition. Groups such as al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS] have committed crimes against innocents and combatants alike. One high-profile crime by Chechen foreign fighters allied with al-Nusra was last April's kidnapping of the Greek Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo.[8] The fate of these two clerics remains unknown. Another crime was the kidnapping of 13 nuns from their convent in Maaloula several months ago.[9] More than forty churches have been burned, rockets fired at an Armenian high school in Damascus killing four students, and several men beheaded just for being Christian. Half a million Christians have been driven from their homes and another 300,000 have fled Syria altogether.[10]

Several of the Syrian nuns kidnapped in Maaloula in 2013. (Image source: YouTube video by kidnappers)

Those who have elected to stay risk forced conversion, death or dhimmitude. After the conquest of Syria's al-Rakaa province by the extremist ISIS, for instance, the Christian residents were told to convert to Islam, face the sword, or agree to become dhimmi. Reportedly, those Christians who opted for dhimmi status agreed to the following conditions: pay the twice annual jizya [poll tax], worship quietly inside their churches, display no outward signs of their Christian faith, not improve or expand upon their existing sites of worship, and not criticize the Islamic faith.[11] This is the historical profile of dhimmitude since the time of Muhammad.

Even fighters of the more moderate Free Syrian Army [FSA] have reportedly committed atrocities against Christians. A survivor of an alleged massacre of Christians in the Syrian town of Yakubiyah, for example, who escaped across the border to Turkey, claimed that the FSA beheaded six Christians there.[12] It is likely that most Sunni Muslim opposition fighters now perceive Christians and Alawites as principal pillars of domestic support for the Assad dictatorship.

The fate of Syria's Christian population may be similar to those of Iraq.[13] Reportedly, only a quarter of Iraq's 2003 population of one million Christians remains in country. Agenzia Fides [Faith Agency], an international Christian aid foundation, accuses the rebels in Syria of having engaged in massive "ethnic cleansing" of Christians. One report claims that opposition military units have reduced the Christian population of Homs from over 150,000 to 1000 souls.[14]

If the Syrian government does collapse, safe alternatives for Syria's Christian minority are extremely limited. They could either flee the country or migrate to a possible smaller Alawite-ruled Syrian entity. If Syria's civil war continues, it is even more likely that the country's Christian minority will join the hundreds of thousands of their brethren, mostly Iraqi Christians, who have also abandoned their homeland. This migration is likely to be the safest alternative despite Vatican appeals for the region's Christians to remain in their home countries.[15] If Assad falls, how can Christians have any future in Syria when radical Sunni groups kill their fellow Muslim Shi'as and even moderate Sunni rebel soldiers as well?[16] It is historical irony indeed when it appears the only safe place for a Christian in the Mideast is Israel, a country in large part populated by Jews who themselves were forced to flee Islamic intolerance in the same lands from which Christians now feel impelled to flee.

[1] "Syrian Christian Leaders Show Hope in Face of Despair" by Andrew Harrod. Religious Freedom Coalition, 31 January 2014.
[2] Early Islam, by Desmond Stewart, Time Incorporated: New York, 1967, p.56. Damascus surrendered to the Muslim army led by General Khalid ibn al-Walid and his Deputy Abu Ubaidah; The Oxford History of Islam by John Esposito. Oxford University Press. UK, p.311.
[3] The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude by Bat Ye'or. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press: Teaneck, N.J. 1996. p.47.
[4] The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam by Bat Ye'or. Associated University Presses: Cranbury, New Jersey. 1985. p.242.
[5] Ibid. p. 242
[6] Ibid. pp. 242-243.
[7] Religious Freedom Coalition 31 January 2014. Statement by Dr. Riad Jarjour, former General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches.
[8] Middleastlive: "Syria Crisis: Aleppo Bishops Kidnapped". 23 April 2013.
[9] The nuns were released on 9 March, crossing the border into Lebanon the next day. Their release along with three attendants occurred following an exchange of prisoners between the Assad Regime and the rebel group that was detaining the Sisters. Damascus released some female and child relatives of rebel fighters in the exchange. New York Times, March 10, 2014. "Nuns Released by Syrians After Three-Month Ordeal," by Anne Bernard and Hwaida Saad, p1.
[10] Statement by Delegation of Syrian Christian Clerics visiting Washington D.C. January 26-29, 2014. Westminster Institute and Barnabas Aid.
[11] Times of Israel, "Syrian Christians Sign Treaty of Dhimmitude" by Elhanan Miller. 27 February 2014.
[12] The Daily Beast, "Syria's Christians Flee Kidnapping, Rape, and Execution" by Jamie Dettmer. 19 November 2013
[13] The Institute on Religion and Democracy Blog. "Will Christianity in Iraq Survive?" by Dennis Crowley, 1 February 2014. "Since Saddam's overthrow Iraq's 1 million Christian population is down to 200,000."
[14] Agenzia Fides claims that the region of Homs in Syria once held about 160,000 Christians but now the population has been reduced to only around 1000.
[15] "The Fears and Future of Religious Minorities in Syria" by Ammar al-Mamoun, Fikra Forum. March 13, 2014.
[16] "Western-backed Syrian Rebels Massacre Shia Villagers". BBC: Alan Newman, 13 June 2013. The Associated Press and the New York Times covering the same massacre in the Syrian village of Hatia described rebels displaying the signature black flags of al-Qaeda as they rejoiced denouncing the slain Shia "dogs and apostates." The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that almost 500 Syrians were killed in the first week of January this year as fighting intensified between the radical rebel group, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and moderate Syrian rebel troops. Russian Times, 11 January 2014.

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Related Topics:  Persecution of Christians, Syria
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