The slow breakup of Syria

Syrian Christians targeted by both rebels and Assad regime.

Free Syrian Army  (photo credit: Reuters)
Free Syrian Army
(photo credit: Reuters)
Of all the trouble spots in the Middle East today, the worst right now has to be Syria, which has been caught up in a bloody civil war for the past 18 months. The fighting pits the ironfisted, secular regime of President Bashar Assad against rebel factions led by the Sunni Arab majority, bolstered by a number of jihadists streaming into Syria from across the region.
Reports indicate atrocities have been committed by both sides, but it’s hard not to sympathize with the bulk of the Syrian people who are longing to be free of the brutal Assad dictatorship, which is dominated by an Alawite minority always viewed as heretics by Sunni Islam. Thus, veterans of “holy wars” in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Libya and elsewhere have made their way to Syria to wage what some prominent imams have declared a jihad against the Assad dynasty.
Iran and the Lebanese Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah also have sent money, weapons and even troops into Syria, in hopes of salvaging their alliance with Bashar Assad. Some of these Iranian nationals have been taken captive alive by rebel forces in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, there are other religious and ethnic groups in Syria who have been caught up in the conflict, including the Kurds in the northeast, some Druse villages in the southern Golan area, and the ancient Syrian Christian community scattered throughout the country. Like the Alawites, the Kurds and Christians each amount to about 10 percent of the population. These communities have been victims of attacks from both the army and rebel forces. As a result, many Syrian Christians have fled into Lebanon and others are starting to seek asylum in Western countries.
Judging by recent developments, including major fighting inside the capital city of Damascus, it appears the Assad family dynasty has been severely weakened and some are speculating that the Alawites may even retreat to their traditional enclave in the highlands along the northwest coast. In short, we may be witnessing the slow breakup of Syria into autonomous areas, much like the division into sectarian areas in neighboring Iraq.
Yet the Christians have no set geographic area where they could find refuge inside the country, and they have no armed militias to provide protection.
So what will happen to the Christians of Syria? Do they still have a future in their native land? And will the Kurds also seek their own autonomous enclave in northwest Syria, given that Iraqi Kurds have carved out their own regional authority across the border? Dr. Mordechai Nisan, a retired professor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has written extensively on the Christians of Lebanon and Syria, provided insights to some of these questions in a recent interview with The Christian Edition.
Nisan first recounted how Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, and his Ba’athist party seized power in Damascus in 1970 in a bloodless coup and began promoting a nationalist pan- Arab identity in order to appear inclusive and to mask his Alawite minority’s religious identity.
“The small Alawite community has held power for so long because they formed a tight-knit group committed to revolutionary goals,” Nisan explained.
“Besides this fanatical loyalty to the clan and to the revolution, they also co-opted some of the patchwork of other minorities by offering a place in the government to the Christians and Kurds and Druse. For the Christians, they feared a Sunni majority state, and so they struck a deal with the Assad regime for their own protection.”
“This has now come back to haunt them,” Nisan added, “since the Sunni rebels see the Christians as longtime partners with the Alawites, while the regime is angry that the Christians, who have never maintained their own militias, have not helped defend the Assad dynasty.”
“Unlike the Alawites, Kurds and Druse, the Christians do not have a g e o g r a p h i c concentration, and historically they have not been armed. These two factors place them at a great disadvantage right now, and they indeed have been suffering at the hands of both sides.”
“The Christians in Syria traditionally have been better educated and held better jobs, and this is a source of resentment among the Sunni majority,” he also noted. “The fact that they have not served in the army and made sacrifices to defend the regime has also now made them a target of the Alawites.”
Thus, Christian neighborhoods in Homs have been heavily shelled and more than 100,000 Christians have fled the city, Nisan maintained.
In a book written years ago on the various religious minorities in the Middle East, Nisan says he predicted that Alawite rule in Syria would not last and they would eventually have to make a stand in their mountainous enclave along the coast.
Meantime, regarding the Kurds, he described them as a proud, resilient ethnic group numbering around 25 million and centered in the border area where Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria come together.
“For over 100 years, the Kurds have struggled and fought for independence.
For the first time, they now have autonomy in northern Iraq, and the question of whether these other Kurdish populations will be able to band together into one state is something that will certainly bear watching,” Nisan assessed.
Other sources also described the Christians in Syria as mostly supportive of the Assad regime, not out of love but rather fear of what will come if and when it is deposed. No doubt, Syria’s Christian population has few good options and is under increasing pressure.
Various reports have recently emerged of Islamist groups among the rebels targeting Christians in areas they have conquered, and openly calling for Syria to become an Islamic state after the regime has been defeated.
“There were always Christians in Qusayr – there were around 10,000 before the war,” Leila Khouri told Der Spiegel magazine in July. “Despite the fact that many of our husbands had jobs in the civil service, we still got along well with the rebels during the first months of the insurgency.”
Her daughter Rim explained that “last summer Salafists came to Qusayr… foreigners. They stirred the local rebels against us. They sermonized on Fridays in the mosques that it was a sacred duty to drive us away. We were constantly accused of working for the regime. And Christians had to pay bribes to the jihadists repeatedly in order to avoid getting killed.”
“Anyone who believes in this cross suffers,” Leila stated.
The plight of Syrian Christians like the Khouri family has been confirmed by many other witnesses to the conflict, including Maximos al-Jamal, a Greek Orthodox priest in the war-torn city of Homs, who told the AP that rebel Islamists in that city have held large numbers of Christians as virtual hostages and human shields.
“Gunmen have told the besieged people that if you go out of these areas, we will die,” he said.
“The armed [rebels] in Syria [have] murdered more than 200 Christians in the city of Homs, including entire families with young children,” another priest in Homs told the Barnabas Fund.
“These gangs kidnapped Christians and demanded high ransoms. In two cases, after the ransoms were paid, the men’s bodies were found.”
“Christians are increasingly being targeted and driven out of their homes and districts,” Elizabeth Kendal wrote recently for the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin.
“Some 138,000 Christians have fled Homs, where Christians have been terrorized and churches have been looted and occupied by rebel forces... In areas under rebel control, intolerant, hardline Sunni fundamentalism is making Muslim-Christian coexistence impossible. For the jihadists, neutrality is not an option, and Christians (and Muslims) refusing to support the jihad are being tortured, expelled and murdered.”
“Religious fanaticism is growing across the Middle East and Syrians of every religion dread the establishment of a radical Muslim Syria,” Anglican priest Nadim Nassar told The Guardian in early August. “Although most Syrians fear radical Islam taking power, our greatest worry is that we have no alternative political system to replace the regime when it does fall. We know from our neighbors in Lebanon, Libya and Iraq that countries can descend into chaos and sectarianism when one government goes and there are no institutions to replace it.”
Elsewhere, Agenzia Fides, the official Vatican news agency, reported that “armed opposition… is gradually radicalizing towards Sunni extremist ideology.”
A spokesman for the Franciscan Order in Jerusalem, which oversees Vatican properties in Israel and has contacts with Arab Catholic communities throughout the Middle East, said that “with the outbreak of fighting in Syria, many Christians fled to the ‘safe area’ near the Turkish border, some to refugee camps, and those who could afford to, fled the country, some to Lebanon or Iraq or various European countries.”
Usually they have fled in emergency situations and did not have time to take many personal belongings. Many more have no choice but to stay in Syria because they have nowhere else to go, the Franciscan spokesman told The Christian Edition.
“Civil war in present Syria is not only a war against the Assad regime, it has turned into an internecine struggle between religious and ethnic minorities.
Many Christians have left because they want no part in this fight,” he continued.
Something similar happened with the Christian refugees who fled from Iraq during the war there last decade. Some found refuge in the Gulf states or in Turkey, but many came to Syria. Thus they are now “double victims” of radical Islamists.
The Franciscan brother appealed for Christians around the globe to pray for the beleaguered Christian minority in Syria and throughout the region.
“We can and must pray every day for the safety of the Christian minority and other minorities throughout Syria. Pray that the fighting would cease, that peace and quiet will replace the fighting and violence and the killing will stop,” he pleaded. “We hope the various regimes in the Middle East will recognize minorities and keep them, and let everyone live his faith and [have] the freedom to pray for all people and his religion.”
He also urged that the international community intervene to stop the bloodshed, as “each day hundreds of innocent people are being killed. It is a day of crimes against humanity and must end.”
Meanwhile in Egypt, there are reports that close to 100,000 members of the Coptic Christian community, which numbers over 8 million and comprises some 10% of the overall population, have applied for visas to Western countries following the uprising in that country which resulted in the rise of Islamist political parties.
Despite naming a cabinet in early August which held surprisingly few Islamists and was instead dominated by technocrats and holdovers from the Mubarak regime, Egypt’s recently elected president Mohamed Morsy was criticized by the new pope of the Egyptian Coptic Church for unfairly excluding his community from government.
“I will not congratulate the new prime minister on the formation of the government because it is unfair... This ministerial formation came unjust to Copts,” Egypt’s Al-Shorouk newspaper quoted Bishop Bakhomious as saying in early August. “We had expected an increase in the representation of Copts, especially after the number of ministries increased to 35. But the formation ignored all the known rights and concepts of citizenship. It is not right that Copts get treated in this way.”
Nadia Eskandar Zukhari – the new minister for scientific research, which is considered a minor portfolio – is the only Copt in the cabinet and only one of two women.
Meanwhile, although their numbers in Morsy’s government are small, the ministries handed over to Muslim Brotherhood figures are very strategic; they include the Ministry of Education.
Copts have complained that Egyptian school textbooks which their children are required to use include quotes from the Koran and lionize Egypt’s Islamic past while almost completely ignoring the Christian contributions to Egyptian heritage.
“The general climate is turning against Christians,” Bishop Morcos, a Coptic leader, told AFP. “Assaults on Christians have increased. It’s not just a matter of having one ministry.”
The situation was also noted with alarm by the US State Department in its 2011 Religious Freedom Report, which criticized “both the Egyptian government’s failure to curb rising violence against Coptic Christians and its involvement in violent attacks.”
Ken Blackwell, a human rights expert, summed it up when he wrote recently that “Christians are being ethnically cleansed throughout the Middle East.”
Yet under the Obama administration, the US State Department is reported to have omitted any references to violations of religious rights and freedoms in its latest annual report on the human rights records of various countries. Critics charge that this means the growing plight of Christian minorities in Syria and Egypt, as elsewhere, will not receive the official attention it deserves at this crucial time.