In the past seven years, years of conflict, the religious minorities in Syria, Christians in particular, distanced themselves from the spotlight. Each one of the different denominations alienated itself from the happenings in a country that has a Muslim majority, amidst a residing fear of “sectarian” violations that reached religious extremism and intimidation by “extremist” Islamic groups.
Prior to 2011, the numbers of Christians in Syria did not go beyond the 2.2 million, more than 10% of the total population, according to official statistics. They achieved balance in the Syrian society, for they are a crucial component of the Syrian social fabric, despite the fact that they were located in specific towns and cities, with a Christian majority, to the extent that the religious aspect of the city could be known just by seeing its name.
Today, with the demographic changes that befell the Syrian scene, statistics show a decrease in the numbers of the Christian Syrians almost to the half; some have migrated and others were killed in the conflict, according to what the UN. Commissioner for Human Rights of the Russian Foreign Ministry Constantine Dolgov has said during the “Role of Religions in the Modern World” conference in 2016.
Depending on the data of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Dolgov said that “the situation of Christians in Syria and Iraq remains quite difficult. The number of Christians in Syria, since the beginning of the armed conflict, decreased from 2.2 to 1.2 million people.”
However, the government of the Syrian regime has not yet issued any official statistics about the changes in the numbers of the Christian people in the country.
When the Christian people’s Fears Started to Have “Justifications”
Amidst the political volume that penetrated the lives of Syrians after the break out of the popular demands which sought to bring down the Syrian regime in 2011, Christians in Syria adopted a neutral political position. Apart from their participation in the demonstrations that took place in revolutionary areas, there was a marked percentage of people who supported the regime, after the “Islamic State” Organization (IS) became part of the conflict in 2013.
Fear dominated the lives of the Christian people in Syria; they were frightened of extremist groups that would speak in the name of religion, that would rule them and restrict their freedom of worship and religious belief, based on the Iranian and Afghan experiences, which implicitly reject religious diversity and denounce the freedom of religion.
Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa were the two governorates where Christians had the worst of luck, for the blackness of “IS” covered them and forced them to choose either conversion into Islam, paying tributes, or abandoning their houses, otherwise, they might face death, which led to a near-total migration of Christians from their villages.
Old statistics indicated the presence of about four thousand Christians, out of 500 thousand citizens, in the governorate of Deir ez-Zor, which used to be the largest of “IS’” strongholds in Syria. As for Raqqa, which the Organization considered as the capital of the “Caliphate,” the number of the Christen families is estimated as 1500, about 1% of the city’s overall population, which is 300 thousand people.
Christian people’s concerns in the beginning of the revolution, which had “no justifications” for there were no “Jihadists” in Syria and the regime was the only party that committed violence against citizens, have become a reality today.
The Syrian journalist Johnny Abbou thinks that the concerns of the Christians in Syria had two forms: the first is fear of the “secular” dictatorship, and the second is the fear of extremism, manifested by strict religious groups.
In his interview with Enab Baladi, Abbou added that dictatorship and extremism are “two sides of the same coin” for all Syrians despite their sectarian diversity. He pointed out that the concerns of the Christians about extremist Islamic groups are justified, as they are only similar to the fears which moderate Muslims and other shades of the Syrian spectrum have.
Despite the rumors which say that the Syrian Christians have adopted a loyalist attitude to the regime, Abbou believes that Christians developed the same response as all Syrians, some supported the regime, others opposed, and others committed themselves to neutrality. However, he did not deny that the majority of them escaped the opposition-held areas to the ones under the Syrian regime fearing extremism, no matter what shape it took.
“Extremism, whether religious or dictatorial, is a burden on humanity. People often search for moderation in everything,” he said.
Why did not the Syrian Opposition Reassure Minorities?
At a civil level, the Syrian opposition failed to attract Christians or other minorities in Syria by creating an atmosphere of religious coexistence in the areas under its control, even though it did not follow a strict-religious approach similar to “IS’” experience.
The opposition-held areas are almost empty of non-Muslims, non-Sunnah to be more specific, apart from some of the villages in southern Syria, which are controlled by the “Free” Army factions.
In Idlib, the opposition’s largest strongholds, which used to be a huge Christian incubator that vanished in the seven years of war, Christians decided to alienate themselves from the conflicts, to abandon their villages and go the areas under the control of the regime, which they considered as “the most secure.” Most of them went abroad, thus, emptying the governorate of its Christian components.
In the past, al-Qunaya, Yakubiyah and Jdidah towns in Jisr al-Shughur’s countryside, affiliated to Idlib governorate, used to have a Christian majority. Today, despite being controlled by the opposition factions, they managed to preserve their own religious diversity. However, the remaining few Christians prefer not to show their religious teachings in public, according to Enab Baladi’s reporter there.
The situation in the opposition-held areas in southern Syria does not really differ from that in the north, with the exception of the Kharaba village, located between As-Suwayda and Daraa, which is under the control of the “Free Army.” In this village, the bells of the churches are still ringing and Christian people are still keen to be in the place they belong to, according to Enab Balasi’s reporter in Daraa.
Today, Kharaba is an example of the coexistence which Syrian Christians wished for to happen after the Syrian revolution, especially as it celebrates the Christmas, the scene which went completely missing from the opposition-held areas since 2011, the areas where churches have turned into educational institutes and centers for offering humanitarian aid.
At the political level, the Syrian opposition, basically, attempted to attract the elite Christians who choose the revolution, by including them in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the High Negotiations Committee and the rest of its establishments.
In this context, several prominent Christian politicians, including George Sabra, Michel Kilo, Abdel Ahad Sattouf and others who opposed the regime, have emerged in the political scene.
Johnny Abbou, who preferred to talk to Enab Bladai as a Syrian citizen before being a Christian, said that the opposition did not manage to win the religious minorities to its side due to weak performance and the superiority of the Syrian regime, which invested in these minorities.
He explained that Christians’ choice to leave the moderate opposition-held areas is a translation of the minorities’ sense of the uselessness of the fight, in addition to feeling that their share will not be much better than theirs prior to the revolution.
“I wished that the Syrian opposition gave a stronger message to reassure all the shades of the Syrian spectrum that there will not be sectarianism in futuristic Syria,” he added.
Christians are a Winning Card in the Hands of the Syrian Regime
To prove his legitimacy and right to rule in Syria, Bashar Assad sought to portray himself, to the West, as the protector of religious and ethnic minorities. His approach to the Christian faith appeared clear over the past years using it as a card that some see as winning against “religious extremism “.
The scene, which was absent in the opposition areas, was strongly present in the regions of the regime, through Assad’s frequent “family” visits to churches and monasteries and honoring Christian clergymen in an attempt to convey the image of a “harmonious, healthy society” in the areas under his control.
He also tried to satisfy this spectrum of Syrians by granting them positions in his government. The most recent was the appointment of Hamouda al-Sabbagh, a Christian, as president of the People’s Council of Syria, to reassure the Christians about their political positioning in futuristic Syria.
Today, the regions under the Syrian regime, especially Damascus and Aleppo, are witnessing Christmas celebrations, as is the case every year. The scene that drew Western media is considered a challenge to the Syrian citizens who were able to stand up to the war and its consequences under the roof of the regime, to which ally countries, so far, could not find a legitimate alternative.
Christian Refugees.. and Efforts to Empty the Middle East
The issue of asylum has had an impact on the lives of Syrians of all denominations, without distinction between Christians and Muslims. The statistics estimated the number of Christian refugees to be half a million out of the total number of Syrian refugees which went beyond the five millions, who are spread in many countries around the world.
European societies that apply the civil law and respect the human right to freedom of belief have attracted Syrians, Christians and Muslims, but with the widespread belief that Syria has become a source of radical Islamists, ideas prevailed that Christian refugees are having exceptional status and facilities to reside in Europe, Canada and the United States.
The logic here says that governments are quick to accept Christians’ applications for asylum because they would not be forced to make sure that the person seeking asylum in their countries is not an “extremist,” especially with the “terrorist” attacks on Europe that were adopted by Syria, and Iraq.
However, European countries have not explicitly declared their preference for Christian refugees to others, except for repeated demands to protect religious and ethnic minorities in Syria.
In this regard, the Syrian refugee in Germany, Omar Shihab, said that he had witnessed several privileges obtained by the Christian Syrian refugees in Europe, both in terms of the speed of access to asylum or the duration of residence on the territories of the European Union.
However, the German government, which has received more than half a million Syrians, says it has opened its doors to Syrians on the basis of humanitarian needs and not on sectarian religious grounds, while Omar Shihab sees that priority is given to Christians, not only in government institutions but also with German employers who offer work to Christian refugees before Muslim ones.
The Syrian refugee Jamie (who wishes to hide his surname) says that he or his acquaintances, in Germany, has not received additional privileges, pointing to the complexities of the lives of the Syrians there, regardless of their religion.
Jamie told Enab Baldi that European privileges are offered to refugees on a number of grounds, including language, occupation, and education, regardless of the denomination which the refugee belongs to.
But the most significant statement in this regard is issued by the Lebanese Minister of the Displaced, Mouin Merehbi, pointing out that the United Nations resettlement programs for Syrian refugees from Lebanon to Western countries gave priority to Syrian Christians.
During his meeting with the Swedish Coordinator for Migration and Refugee Issues, Nicola Clase, last October, Merehbi said that Western countries’ focus on Christian refugees alone would “empty the East of Christians.”
Back then, she added that “Christians are the foundation of this East, and their presence in it is enriching and profitable for Lebanon in particular, and for the Arab countries in general.” However, the United Nations, which has adopted several programs for the resettlement of Syrians from the Middle East, has not denied or disproved what the Lebanese minister said.
Speaking of futuristic Syria, regardless of who would be ruling it, it is expected that the focus would be directed to the Christians who remained in the country to keep the balance in the Syrian community, amidst calls to support the church and create consensus among different religions within the country.