The Scottish writer William Dalrymple says that Syria has been a kind of oasis for Christians in the Middle East. But Syrian Christians are now faced with a painful choice. They can offer support to a brutal dictatorship that, generally, has protected them but has killed 5,000 of its citizens since calls for change and demonstrations began in the spring of 2011. Or Christians can participate in the opposition, which, if it topples the regime, may bring to power a Sunni-led government that could be ultra-conservative and anti-Christian.
Tourists in Syria
I visited Syria with my wife and daughter in early 2010. We stayed in a Christian neighbourhood in Damascus where after church on Sunday mornings a group of Maronite Catholics — coiffed and middle-aged women wearing slacks and colourful sweaters — gathered in a coffee shop to visit much as they might in Ottawa or Saskatoon. But in the city streets one was more likely to see other women clad in black and wearing the veil.
The Muslim and Christian communities, to all outward appearances, were living in harmony. From the rooftop of a hotel in central Damascus, we could see both the minarets of mosques and church spires. The piercing Muslim call to prayer was matched by the jangle of church bells. There is an historic Christian presence in Damascus, one of the world’s oldest cities. In the Christian quarter, we visited the basement chapel of Ananias, where St. Paul was reportedly cured of blindness, converted and baptized.
Nearby, we visited St. Paul’s Chapel, which purportedly marks the spot where Paul was lowered from the city wall in a basket to escape the city’s Jews who were angry at his preaching a new religion. These buildings and any of the city’s churches, however, are small in comparison to the great Umayyad Mosque, which was built in the seventh century on the site of a Christian basilica that had been dedicated to St. John the Baptist.
Refuge for Christians
Syria became a refuge for Armenian Christians fleeing persecution and genocide in Turkey early in the 20th century, and much later it is a haven for Christians fleeing Iraq and other trouble spots. Writer Dalrymple says that the regime’s accommodation of Christians had a Machiavellian logic for Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970. He was a member of the Alawites, a Muslim minority group in Syria that comprises about 10 per cent of the population and is considered heretical by the majority Sunni population.
Hafez el Hassad ruled with ruthless determination by forming an informal coalition of religious minority groups including Christians, who comprise another 10 per cent of the population. When Hassad died in 2000, his son Bashar succeeded him. There was hope that he would be open to reform and for a time that appeared possible. But he has proven to be brutal as well, or perhaps more accurately he is a pawn of the corrupt military and economic elite, which has much to lose from change.
Any hope of reform has been quashed by the 2011 brutal crackdown on dissent. It has seen an estimated 5,000 people killed and possibly as many as 40,000 arrested. As Canadian Maher Arar who spent a year in Syrian jail knows too well, anyone arrested in Syria stands a good chance of being tortured.
Syria is a police state with a large army and police apparatus, although as tourists we noticed little of that when we were there in 2010. Taxi drivers and the owners of Internet cafes regularly serve as police informants. Security officers wearing civilian clothes mingle with crowds in the souqs and narrow alleyways in Damascus, Aleppo and other cities.
A driver who took us in a van to Mar Musa, a 1500-year-old Byzantine monastery on a mountain not far from Damascus told us that if we had been American tourists, state security agents would have followed his vehicle. While he waited for us to return from our climb of 800 stone steps to the monastery’s perch, they would have questioned him closely about our conversation with him.
Christians on both sides
The New York Times reports that there are Christians represented in the opposition to the regime, and that among those who support it “loyalty to the government is often driven more by fear than fervor.” The newspaper continues: “For many Syrian Christians, Mr. Assad remains predictable in a region where unpredictability has driven their brethren from war-racked places like Iraq and Lebanon, and where others have felt threatened in post-revolutionary Egypt.”
The Times story raises an unpleasant question. Does it take a strongman to protect the community (in this case the Christians) from the more dangerous, more intolerant currents in society? Clearly, the Maronite Catholic patriarch believes so. In September, Patriarch Bishara Boutros al-Rai urged Maronites to offer Assad another chance. Those comments prompted a rebuttal from Syrian Christians involved in the opposition. But the patriarch stood firm. “We do not stand by the regime, but we fear the transition that could follow,” he said. “We must defend the Christian community.”
This strategic support of the regime may well have been overtaken by events. The killing has continued and the call for international action has grown louder. Former allies, including Turkey and Russia, have become critical. The Arab League has sent in a team of observers and imposed limited sanctions. Assad’s days appear to be numbered but Christians fear that they might suffer a savage backlash when the dynasty falls.