On eve of Orthodox Easter, Syrian Christians feel the strain

Pressure mounts on Christian community that prospered under Baath party rule

Syrian refugees injured during the conflict, rest on their beds at a post-traumatic care centre yesterday. Photograph: Reuters

Syrian refugees injured during the conflict, rest on their beds at a post-traumatic care centre yesterday. Photograph: Reuters


Orthodox Christians in Syria, along with brethren the world over, celebrate Easter tomorrow but, due to the conflict gripping that country, most will attend an evening service rather than the traditional midnight Mass and some will not be able to go to church at all.

Over the past few decades, Egyptian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Palestinian Christians have left the region for North and South America, Europe and Australia but Syrian Christians have largely stayed put.

However, since unrest erupted in the country 25 months ago, Syria’s minorities, which have benefited from secular Baath party rule, have become targets for attack, abuse and kidnapping by increasingly radicalised Muslim fundamentalist rebel factions.

Christians and heterodox Shia Alawites feel most threatened by Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq. The smaller Druze and Circassian minorities are also unsettled.

Syria’s Christians fear they could suffer the same fate as Iraq’s equally ancient Christian community, which has been halved since the 2003 US invasion and occupation.

Just three months after the conflict began in Syria, the bishops of Damascus urged their flock to avoid getting involved in the brutal power struggle destroying the country.

‘Emptying the region’
Last December, France and Germany were castigated by Rev Abraham Nusseir, head of the Evangelical Church in Aleppo, for encouraging and facilitating Christian emigration. He said such policies were not “made out of concern or love for us but to implement a plan aimed at emptying the region of its Christians”.

In mid-April, as pressure on Christians continued to mount, Greek Catholic patriarch Gergory III Laham stated, “There are between 1.5 and two million Christians of various denominations in Syria”, more than in any Arab country other than Egypt.

The future of the Syrian community, he added, “is threatened, not by Muslims, but by the current crisis, the chaos, and the arrival of rival fanatical fundamentalist . . . groups.”

He said there had been thousands of victims, and hundreds of thousands had been displaced within the country or left altogether. Christians cite a slogan – “Alawites to the tomb and Christians to Beirut” – adopted by extremists early in the conflict as a cause of flight.

Christian concerns were heightened by the kidnapping of Aleppo’s Syrian Orthodox bishop, Yohanna Ibrahim, and Greek Orthodox bishop, Boulos Yaziji, late last month while they were on a mission to negotiate the release of two priests abducted earlier. Radical Chechen fighters have been blamed. The bishops are still being held.

While Syria’s Christians have generally enjoyed excellent relations with Muslim countrymen, radical fundamentalists, many of whom come from poor rural communities and urban slums, hold grudges against Christians.

Pros perity
Until the conflict, Syria’s Christian community was prosperous. Christian villages in the well watered Orontes Valley earned their living from agriculture while Christian businessmen in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus engaged in manufacturing and commerce.

Many Christians joined the secular Baath party, its ideology developed by Michel Aflaq, a Christian from Damascus educated in Paris. It is significant that all three 20th century secular nationalist pan-Arab parties – the Baath, the Arab Nationalists and the Syrian Social Nationalists – were founded by Christians – Aflaq, George Habash, and Antun Saadi. Christians also played key roles in local communist parties.

These secular parties persecuted or sidelined the Muslim Brotherhood and its radical Salafi offshoots in the name of modernity, tolerance and inclusiveness.

Christianity’s original churches have expressed serious concern that their flocks may be forced to flee the region where the faith emerged more than 2000 years ago.