- Bashar al-Assad - Christians - Christmas - Syria
In unsettling times, Syria’s Christians walk a tightrope
As they face an uncertain future, Syria’s minority Christian community has legitimate fears. But is embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad manipulating an ancient community in an ancient land?
It was an unusual religious service in so many ways. On Tuesday night, Syrian state television broadcast a so-called Christmas service in a Damascus Catholic church - except it was nearly two weeks before Syria’s Catholics celebrate Christmas.
But that was just one anomaly. Even more surprising was the heavyweight gathering of senior Syrian Catholic religious leaders - respected figures who lead services for a diverse congregation that includes Melkites, Maronites and Chaldeans – but rarely do it together, except for very solemn occasions.
Tuesday night’s service was led by Patriarch Gregory III Laham, leader of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, and it was concelebrated with around a dozen other senior religious figures.
The kicker though came shortly after the service, which was identified in Arabic by the state TV as “prayers for Christmas and for peace in the country”. That’s when the state broadcaster interviewed the gathered spiritual leaders about their views on peace and political reform – inside the church.
To a man – and they were all men – the religious leaders spoke about their hopes for a return to peace. Some of them said they supported the reform process and claimed many of their followers voted in Monday’s municipal elections.
In Syria today, the rhetoric of reform is minefield territory. Since the uprising against his regime began in March, embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made several gestures of reform – including Monday’s municipal elections.
But the Syrian opposition wants nothing less than the regime’s downfall, with opposition groups boycotting Monday’s polls and activists inside the country saying voter turnout was low. Foreign journalists are either barred from entering Syria or tightly controlled inside the Baathist-ruled country, making it difficult to accurately gauge turnout figures.
All quiet on the Christian front
“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” is the most widely quoted biblical dictum establishing the separation of church and state. But in Syria these days, there’s a battle for the hearts and minds – if not the souls – of the country’s estimated 2.5 million Christians.
Since the Syrian uprising broke out, the UN estimates that more than 5,000 people have been killed in brutal security crackdowns that have nevertheless failed to deter protesters from taking to the streets in numerous Syrian cities and towns such as Deraa, Homs, Hama and parts of the capital Damascus.
But most of the predominantly Christian areas – including villages and urban neighbourhoods – have been noticeably calm, according to reports from inside the country.
Syria is a predominantly Sunni Muslim country that has been ruled for 40 years by the Alawite Assad family. Political domination by the minority Alawite sect has fuelled seething resentments with widespread fears that the current unrest could exacerbate sectarian tensions, which could spiral into civil war.
Corralling and manipulating minority fears
But while the discourse has focused on the majority Sunnis and the politically dominant Alawites, Syria’s diverse religious minorities have often been overlooked. The country’s 22-million-strong population includes minority sects such as the Druze and Yezidis as well as a small Jewish community.
Christians comprise approximately 10 percent of the population and have had a presence in this ancient land since the Apostle Paul is believed to have made his flight to Damascus around 2,000 years ago.
Under the current president – and his father, Hafez al-Assad - Syria’s Christians have been protected and allowed to freely practice their faith. Christians have also fared fairly well in Syria, with many Christians holding senior positions in government and the private sector.
Many experts believe Assad has been adept at playing up minority fears that the only alternative to his rule are Sunni Islamists, particularly the powerful Muslim Brotherhood.
For many Syrians – Christians and non-Christians, inside and outside Syria – Tuesday’s display of Christian religious leaders on state TV is a manifestation of the regime corralling and manipulating minority fears to appear as support for Assad.
“Of course Assad is using the power of fear to manipulate the Christians. He is directing these bishops and patriarchs to say what suits him,” says Pascal Gollnisch, a Catholic priest and director of l’Oeuvre d’Orient, a Paris-based organisation that aims to protect Christians in the East – primarily the Middle East – which functions under the Archdiocese of Paris.
Fearing ‘the Iraq syndrome’
It’s difficult to gauge the level of Christian support for the regime or the opposition. There have been reports of some Syrian Christians who have joined opposition demonstrations. Among experts, opinion is divided over whether the Christians are merely hedging their bets in these terrifying times or whether they actively support Assad and the security his regime grants their communities.
At least two senior Christian religious leaders have publicly voiced their support for Assad. In an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel last month, Gregorios Elias Tabé, the Syrian Catholic archbishop of Damascus, called Assad “a very cultured man," and dismissed the demonstrators as nothing but terrorists.
In September, Bishara Boutros al-Rai, the Lebanon-based patriarch of the Maronite Church - who is the leader of the Maronites in Lebanon and Syria – sparked controversy when he called on his community to give Assad’s proposed reforms a chance.
Responding to criticism from across Lebanon - a country that has been under Syrian hegemony for nearly 30 years - al-Rai responded, “We endured the rule of the Syrian regime. I have not forgotten that. We do not stand by the regime, but we fear the transition that could follow.”
Syria’s Christians need only look at Iraq and Egypt to draw disturbing lessons of what the fall of a dictator – no matter how brutal – could spell for the region’s minority Christians.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians fear that the first free election after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak could see the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood or the more hardline Salafist groups.
Iraq’s ancient Christian community has dwindled since the fall of Saddam Hussein, another tyrant who nevertheless protected minority rights in his country.
It’s a prospect Gollnisch calls “the Iraq syndrome” and it’s one he hopes the Christians of Syria will avoid.
"Christians, like all minorities in the country, are vulnerable and fear a collapse of the security structures of the state," said Gollnisch.
But Gollnisch believes that Syria’s Christians could also make ideal arbiters in what he calls the “age-old conflict” between Sunnis and Shiites, such as the Alawites.
“The army is dominated by the Alawites close to the Assad regime and the intellectuals in Syria are not as powerful. They could play the role of mediators in the country,” said Gollnisch referring to the Christian community.
But even if they were to take on the challenge, Syria’s Christians know that the path to peace is strewn with obstacles.