Christian minority under pressure from both sides
Syria’s Christians, who account for 10 per cent of the population, feel caught in the middle. CAELAINN HOGANreports from Beirut
SINCE JULY, the sound of gunfire and artillery from clashes between government and rebel forces in Syria has surrounded the Christian area of Bab Touma in the old town of Damascus.
“They want us in this war, they are pushing us,” says Msgr Samir Nassar, the Maronite Archbishop of the Syrian capital.
The Christian minority, who account for 10 per cent of Syria’s population, are under pressure from both sides to join the conflict, according to Nassar, though he speaks primarily of the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. “If they are planning to put Christians in the war, they can do it. Syrian secret service, they can do it.”
After 17 months of conflict, his congregation are suffering from unemployment and lack of food and basic necessities, and now face being caught in the crossfire.
A new phenomenon of kidnapping and ransom has also terrorised the community.
Entrapped by the conflict, a bewildering lack of knowledge about what is really happening beyond their streets compounds their fears.
“There is no freedom in Syria, so we don’t have any information,” says Nassar. “The revolution says something you can’t verify, the government says something and you can’t verify either.”
Many Christians have supported the revolution and spoken against the regime from the beginning, though the majority have tried to distance themselves from the conflict, and are often labelled regime sympathisers as a result.
Unlike those openly rebelling, Christians caught in the middle still have much to lose.
“We shut our mouths,” Nassar states bluntly. “Damascus is still under government control, we are not free to show what we think.”
Nassar speaks proudly of Syria’s Christian heritage – Damascus is the site of St Paul’s baptism, for instance – and both the need and challenge for Christians to remain.
“Every centimetre of our area in Damascus has the blood of martyrs,” he says, relaying the history of the 11,000 Christians killed in Syria and Lebanon in 1860. “They fear we will have more martyrs.”
Najla Chahda, director of the Caritas Migrant Centre in Lebanon, says the Christians who have fled Syria are frightened to say they are refugees or to register with charities.
“They are too afraid to share their names with the UNHCR,” she explains. “They think their names will be shared with the Syrian government.”
Chahda personally believes Christians are against the opposition because they fear the regime. On the dusty road leaving the historical city of Baalbek in Lebanon’s Bekaa region, where thousands of Syrians refugees have come across the border, a large poster depicts Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Assad side by side, exhibiting local loyalties.
Qaa, a quiet, predominantly Christian village surrounded by vast agricultural fields in the shadow of a nearby mountain range, just beyond which lies Syria, has become a refuge for many fleeing the conflict.
With no hospital in the village, local priest Fr Elian Nasrallah has converted a school into a makeshift medical centre. He is still working tirelessly to raise funds for a surgery room and an ambulance to collect the wounded from the border.
“The majority of the Christians have left but they don’t talk about it,” says Fr Elian, who is providing support for Syrian refugees of all denominations, including more than 40 Christian families.
“Christians in this region of the world are not involved in the problem but are paying the most every time.”
George Khouri left his home and farmland in the Christian town of Rableh in Syria for Qaa in February, taking with him his 82-year-old mother Adiba, his wife and their four children. His young daughters had been terrified by the sound of nearby bombardments.
“They want the Christians to Beirut and the Alawites to the tomb,” says Khouri, claiming this is a slogan of the opposition, though he has not heard it himself first hand.
Other reports claim government workers were paid by the regime to paint the slogan on walls to incite fear of the opposition, which it denounces as Islamic extremists and terrorists.
Adiba had lived in Rableh since the day she was born, but says if the revolution is successful she would not return. “This issue is clear,” she says. “If we are not supported by the Syrian regime we will not be able to stay.”
She has been frightened by stories her nephew told her of the opposition occupying Christian areas in Homs.
“We feel stuck in the middle,” says Khouri. “Not with the Sunni [Muslims] are we safe and not with the [pro-Assad] Alawite.”
Since the secular rule of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, Khouri says Christians have felt protected, though he admits the regime has faults.
“The regime and the army don’t want us to leave,” he says carefully, echoing Nassar’s fears of the Christian minority becoming embroiled in the conflict.
“The regime is expecting us to honour the past – we were on your side, now you have to be on ours.”
The future of Syria’s Christian minority contributes to a wider fear of the church itself for its position in the shifting political landscape of the region.
“Nobody is with the dictator to oppress his people,” says Fr Paul Karam, head of the pontifical mission for the region in Lebanon. “The big fear of the church is, what will be next? No one knows what will be next.”