Let’s Protect, Listen to Syria’s Christians

WEA-RLC Research and Analysis Report - 4/2012

Extremist Islamist forces in Syria’s opposition movement have attacked local Christians due to the notion that they back the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The country’s largest denomination, the Syrian Orthodox Church, recently highlighted “an ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians” allegedly by members of an al-Qaida-linked militant Islamist group, Brigade Faruq, in the city of Homs, an opposition stronghold. Catholic news agency Fides reports that over 90 percent of Christians in Homs have fled to Jordan and their homes have been grabbed by the militants.

Christians elsewhere in Syria are not safe either, due to threats and incidence of targeted abductions, killings and bombings.

The perception that Christians are entirely pro-regime is simplistic. It’s true that they are hesitant to back the opposition in its current composition, but their concerns are rooted in facts and are shared by other minorities.

It is estimated that about 10 percent of Syria’s 23 million people are Christian, and another 10 percent of the population is from the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot. And another 10 percent, or more, are non-Arab ethnic Kurds, who are mostly Sunni Muslim but have their own language and culture, and are seen as secular and western-oriented. The rest, about 70 percent, are largely Sunni Muslims.

President al-Assad is an Alawite, and is supported by Iran as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah among other Shi’a groups. London’s Guardian newspaper, which gained access to a cache of thousands of emails received and sent by al-Assad, recently revealed that the President received advice from Iran or its proxies on several occasions during the revolution.

The opposition movement, on the other hand, is aided by Saudi Arabia and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab nationalists. Especially the Free Syrian Army, a paramilitary composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces personnel and run by the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), has Saudi Salafi elements. Many Saudi mosques and clerics have also openly supported the rebels.

It’s an exclusive opposition grouping. For example, the progressive minority of Kurds, which has been struggling to gain legal recognition and identity in Syria and neighboring countries in the face of Arabization, is kept on the margins of the movement. This is because the United States has reportedly asked its ally Turkey (the SNC is based in Istanbul) to strengthen the Syrian opposition. Turkey has repressed its own Kurdish minority and cannot be expected to support it in Syria.

The SNC is locally not seen as a native, homegrown campaign against al-Assad, and lacks a mass appeal, even among Sunni Muslim youth, in Aleppo and Damascus, the two major business and religious hubs of Syria.

There are progressive and liberal people in the opposition, but they have not been able to form their distinct identity as opposed to the extremist elements. For example, when al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a video message posted on YouTube in February backed the rebels in Syria and called on the opposition not to rely on the Arab League or the West for help, there were no attempts to distance the opposition from extremism.

From the perspective of the Christians, the Kurds, the Alawites and even secular-minded Sunni Muslims, it makes more sense to seek stability within al-Assad’s regime until and unless there is a viable and safe alternative. The minorities anticipate complete uncertainty and chaos after the ouster of the President, which could bring with it sectarian bloodbath and/or a dominant political force that will refuse to recognize minorities and their rights and protect them. Developments in Iraq and Egypt confirm their fears.

Father Gregorious Yohanna Ibrahim, the Metropolitan of Aleppo, recently told BBC that Christians want dialogue that will include “everybody who represents the opposition, not just those the government calls the opposition.” Christians had genuine concerns, he said, as “we can’t wish the Iraqi model for anyone and the Christians of the region also feel uneasy with what happened in Egypt recently… Our concerns are not related to who will come to power, we are afraid that whoever will come may close their eyes and ears, or will not like to deal with us… We don’t fear the Islamists, we fear the violent extremists who will not accept the other.”

Time is running out in Syria. The United Nations estimates that more than 9,000 people have been killed since the revolution stared in the country in March 2011. And now, despite a UN-brokered ceasefire that was announced on April 12, violence and tensions continue with the al-Assad regime breaching the agreement. The increasing violence can compel the international community to go for intervention like in Libya or for arming of the opposition fighters.

However, before any of the two options are resorted to, it must be ensured that there is a unified, inclusive opposition with a clearly laid out agenda for political process that will follow to ensure freedom for and safety of all communities, including Christians and other minorities. Efforts are being made, but they need to be accelerated further in light of the crisis Syria is fast slipping into.

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