Christian Syrians: Between the Past and the Future

On 9 March, CNEWA’s Michel Constantin, who directs agency initiatives in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, delivered an address to representatives of Aid to the Church in Need in Kaslik, Lebanon.

I. Historic background

In order to better foresee the future of Christianity in Syria and in the Middle East, it is indispensable to look back and learn how Christianity flourished and suffered, but most importantly it survived and remained an important component of the tapestry of the Syrian cultural, religious and economic society.

I will not dig too deeply into history, but rather just give a few examples to show the role of Christians in Syria under the first six decades of Islamic rule and also in modern history.

a) With the Umayyad state: Muawiyah, who was the founder, made little effort to convert Christians to Islam and cultivated the goodwill of Christian Syrians. He recruited them for the army at double pay, and appointed Christians to many high offices, and most importantly he appointed his son Yazid I by his Christian wife Maysun bint Bajdal al-Kulaibi al-Nasrania as his successor.

In the administration of law, the Umayyads followed the traditions set by the Hellenistic monarchies and the Roman Empire. The conqueror’s law — in this case Muslim law (sharia) — applied only to Muslims. For non-Muslims, civil law was the law of their particular millet (separate religious community, also called milla); religious leaders administered the law of the millet. This system prevailed throughout Islam and has survived in Syria’s legal codes.

During the 89 years of Umayyad rule, the country prospered both economically and intellectually, and educated Jews and Christians, many of them Greek and Syriac, found employment in the caliph courts, where they studied and practiced medicine, alchemy, and philosophy.

St. John of Damascus — a doctor of the church whose fields of interest and contribution included law, theology, philosophy, and music — had served as a Chief Administrator to the Muslim caliph of Damascus before his ordination.

In Islamic Spain, the cultural golden age was with Muslims, Christians, and Jews living in harmony. Spain was the only territory long under an Islamic rule where Christians did not (from the pressure of taxation, law and periodic massacre) eventually dwindle into a helpless minority.

b) Under the Abbasid caliphate established in 750 A.D., philosophy and religious discussion flourished for a time in Baghdad. How this struck more hard-line Muslims is shown in an account by a visitor from Spain, Abu Umar Ahamad ibn Muhammad ibn Sadi who said, “I witnessed a meeting which included every kind of group, Sunni Muslims and heretics, and all kinds of infidels: Majus, materialists, atheists, Jews and Christians.”

It is well known that the West rediscovered ancient philosophy, notably the writings of Aristotle, via Arabic translations. The majority of the translators of Greek texts into Arabic in the lively early Abbasid translation movement were Christians.

One major translator was Patriarch Timothy I of the Church of the East who ruled his church for 43 years. He lived in the generation after John of Damascus, and he transferred his See from ancient Ctesiphon in Persia to the new center, Baghdad. He translated Aristotle’s “Topics” for the caliph al-Mahdi.

The number of Christians in the territories of Islam declined with the 13th century Mongol invasions, followed by a rigorously hostile interpretation of proper Islamic relations with Christians, advocated by the influential Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) who sought the return of Islam to what he viewed as earlier interpretations of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Religiously, the Mongols were polytheistic animists; Hulagu himself even had a very deep hatred for everything attached to Islam. Much of this came from his Buddhist advisors who influenced his policies. The Mongols in Southwest Asia slowly converted to Islam and became absorbed in a Persian/Turkish culture. But there is no denying the immense negative effect the Mongols had on the Muslim world culturally, economically, and even religiously. The effects are still being felt today.

c) In modern history and after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the end of the First World War, Syria became the main refuge for all Armenians and Syriacs who escaped and survived the persecution and the genocide. More than 25 percent of Aleppo’s inhabitants were Armenians in 1925. This embrace from the Muslim population of Syria to the persecuted minority was manifested again following the massacre committed by the armed forces of the Kingdom of Iraq during a campaign systematically targeting the Assyrians of northern Iraq in August 1933. As a result more than 22,000 Assyrians found refuge in the northern part of Syria.

And finally: it is worth mentioning that the tolerance for minorities is also extended to reach other Muslim rites and groups such as different Shia rites, including the Imamis or Twelvers (1.1 percent), the Ismailis (1.0 percent), also called Seveners and the Alawi (11.0 percent) in addition to the Druze, Jews, and Yazidis.

All this leads us to conclude that the current wave of fanaticism and outrageous violence is very strange to the nature of the Syrian population. It is not targeting only minorities; rather, the most affected group would be the moderate Sunnis or Muslims who are being affiliated with the fanaticism. I believe all different minorities should not ally only with each other’s, but rather should ally with the great majority of the Syrians who are tolerant, moderate and just. All together should act as a great majority to defeat the fanatical minority.

The future of the Christians in Syria is only with the moderate Muslims who always have embraced — and will continue to embrace — all kind richness of all minorities.

II. Current situation

In fact, the Christians are geographically dispersed and politically diverse communities, unlike the Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds and Druze.

Map of places in Syria with significant Christian populations In Syria, there are different Christian communities, and they are scattered across a varied political, religious and ethnic landscape.

  1. The Greek Orthodox, the largest Christian community in Syria, is primarily concentrated in the western parts of the country and in Damascus. That means they are in areas currently controlled by the regime of President Bashar el Assad and his Alawite minority.
  2. The Syriacs, who form the second largest Christian community in Syria, are primarily concentrated east of the Euphrates River. They live in a large swath of fertile land that is bordered by Kurdish-majority areas in Turkey to the north and Iraqi Kurdistan to the east. Northeast Syria is mainly Kurdish and effectively autonomous today.
  3. As for a majority of Catholics and Armenians, they are concentrated in Sunni-dominated middle Syria, principally in Aleppo province, which is close to Turkey. The area is heavily infiltrated by the Free Syrian Army and has been the scene of intense fighting.

Therefore, the Christian tapestry in Syria shows specific concentrations in three distinct areas, each with its own political, sectarian or ethnic particularities. Given that the current conflict will likely endure in the absence of any dramatic foreign intervention in the Syrian conflict, it becomes apparent that no single policy can safeguard all the Christians of Syria.

III. Humanitarian crisis

After more than three years, the conflict between the regime and the opposition in Syria has escalated to a full-scale civil war. Army defectors along with Islamic militants formed armed groups that wage a guerrilla war on government forces, but it seems that the sectarian conflict between the Alawite and the Sunnite was pulling fighters from across the Middle East and North Africa into the fray as well.

The latest estimates published by the UNHCR, shows that 6.8 million people in Syria are needy, 5.25 million people internally displaced and an additional 2.2 million seeking refuge in neighboring countries from a conflict that has reportedly killed over 130,000 people.

Some areas face food shortages, and even areas that have been spared large-scale violence like Damascus lack sufficient quantities of gasoline, heating oil and cooking gas. U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said that by the end of 2014 around 70 percent of the Syrian population will need emergency food help.

Harsh winter weather had made matters worse, and people lack winter clothes, blankets and fuel, with women and children particularly at risk.

In the large city of Aleppo, a battle zone for the past 18 months, the price of bread has climbed in some places more than 15-fold to 250 Syrian pounds ($3.50) a kilo, while it is estimated that half of public hospitals have been damaged by the conflict.

The Syrian displaced families in general and the Christians in particular are facing serious challenges to provide the basic necessities for their children. The need is further inflated when it comes to families who found refuge within their confessional communities and remained unknown — not registered with an international organization whose main activities are concentrated at the large refugee camps.

IV. CNEWA/Pontifical Mission’s response

In March 2012, CNEWA/Pontifical Mission launched an appeal to help the local church in Syria to provide emergency help for all those who needed aid because of their displacement from their houses and properties in the city of Homs city and the town of al Qusayr.

By May 2012, CNEWA/Pontifical Mission started to receive positive answers to its appeal. So far, we have been able to reach about 18,000 families and 12,000 children with different types of assistance, including food and non-food items, clothing, winter kits, fuel for heating, stationary, books and other aids to facilitate the entry of children to schools.

In order to reach out to the needy Christian displaced families, CNEWA/Pontifical Mission partnered with 11 different active partners from the local church. The approach is very simple: all Christian families when displaced refer back immediately to the nearest church, where they register their names. Our partner in that area collects all names in unified lists and conducts a social inquiry and home visits to classify the needy families according to certain criteria and prioritize the lists.

All names are referred to CNEWA/Pontifical Mission office in Beirut, along with a specific request of the needs — taking into consideration the services provided by other NGO’s.

As for the criteria of selection, the following guidelines are being taken into consideration by all social workers for the selection of needy families.

  1. Families with large number of children.
  2. Families with infants below 2 years of age.
  3. Families with members with special needs (i.e., handicapped).
  4. Families whose main bread earners are widows.
  5. Families with members injured because of the military actions in Syria.
  6. Families who lost all sources of income due to displacement and military events (mainly those working in the private sector).

The activities included emergency help to needy families with food and non-food items, school kits for displaced students, winter kits, and occasionally medicines and components to help in the healing of trauma.

The program targeted displaced families from the battle zones, especially from Homs, Qusayr Deir el Zor, Damascus, Aleppo, Houran and different areas in Lebanon.

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