Syria’s religious fault lines: the plight of Christians in the Middle East

Reportedly, members of the Free Syrian Army massacred the entire Christian village of Al- Duvair. Later, Catholic priest Francois Murad was murdered by jihadist militants purportedly linked to the main Islamist group, Jabhat al –Nusra, opposed to Assad.

By Georgiana Constantin | July 16, 2013

Though the Syrian civil war continues to rage, it’s mostly defined as a Sunni versus Shiite conflict, where the plight and suffering of this country’s ancient Christian communities is increasingly becoming an influential factor.

Originally viewed as neutrals in this bloody conflict, the Syrian Christians have begun to organize in support of President Bashar al-Assad, as a reaction to the hostile treatment apparently levied against them by factions inside the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).

On May 27, 2013, it was reported that members of the Free Syrian Army massacred the entire Christian village of Al- Duvair. Later, on Sunday, June 23rd, Catholic priest Francois Murad was murdered by jihadist militants purportedly linked to the main Islamist group, Jabhat al –Nusra, opposed to Assad. These horrific cases are but a few examples of the growing hostility between the pro-democratic forces of the FSA and Syria’s ancient Christian community.

Apart from any type of political preference, it would seem Syrian Christians, which are 10 percent of the population of 23 million Syrians, have no choice except to stand by Assad, as, during his rule, jihadist extremism was, in fact, kept under control.

With funding from the Syrian government, Christians, along with other religious minorities such as Alawite and Druze Muslims, have formed the Lijan militias to defend their neighborhoods from the incessant hostility of the FSA. Despite these provisions, abuse, murder and rape remain commonplace against Christians.

The UK Guardian elaborates on these problems stating that Christians who are regarded as traditionally loyal to Assad are now “facing aggression from Islamist rebels,” and that, “whatever their sympathies,” they are “becoming a trapped minority in a disintegrating country.”

The Arab Spring (also referred to as the “Christian Winter”) is said to be causing a great exodus from the Muslim world as Christians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Syria are reportedly fleeing the persecution in extremely high numbers.

Recent history provides several examples of similar controversial situations taking a turn for the worst for Christian communities. Fox News described Iraq as “the earliest indicator of the fate awaiting Christians once Islamic forces are liberated from the grip of dictators […]” In fact, Andrew Doran writing for the American Conservative revealed that Pope John Paul II had dispatched his Vatican emissary to Washington in March of 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war, to plead with President George W. Bush “not to invade” fearing “a protracted war, significant casualties, violence between ethnic and religious groups, regional destabilization, ‘and a new gulf between Christianity and Islam.’” Indeed, Doran, who served in the U.S. Department of State elaborates, “Amid the chaos and sectarian violence that followed, Iraq’s Christians suffered severe persecution. Neither the military nor the State Department took action to protect them.”

FrontPage Mag makes a noteworthy point. As Egyptians of all factions were preparing to protest the Muslim Brotherhood and president Morsi’s rule as recently as June 30th, Anne Patterson, the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt was trying to prevent them and the Coptic Christians from demonstrating. Since the United States has been in solidarity with citizens opposing their dictatorial leaders (Gaddafi, Mubarak and Assad), in the name of freedom and human rights, this new development begs the question: why is it that the Obama administration does not want Christians opposing their Islamic rulers?

Fox News reports that “In 2003, Iraq’s Christian population was at least one million, today fewer than 400,000 remain,” as the result of an “anti-Christian campaign which began with the U.S. occupation of Iraq.” After the fall of Saddam Hussein, countless Christian churches were bombed and countless Christians killed, including by crucifixion and beheading. The American Conservative also calls the Iraq war a “war on Christians.”

Christian Today suggests that Christianity in Afghanistan, Iraq and Egypt “could be eradicated in our lifetime” as a consequence of these extreme circumstances.

President Assad’s sympathy towards the minority groups is in part due to the fact his family belongs to the Alawite religious sect, a branch of Shi’ite Islam that makes up approximately 11 percent of the total Syrian population. However, Assad’s tight control over Syria’s security services has generated resentment among Sunni Muslims, who make up about three-quarters of Syria’s population and Syrian Kurds, who have protested over ethnic discrimination and the negation of their cultural and language rights.

The European Union, the United Nations, the Arab League, and many Western governments have condemned the Syrian government’s vehement response to the uprisings and have expressed support for the protesters’ right to exercise free speech. Additionally, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation suspended Syria’s membership. Originally, though several Middle Eastern governments supported Assad, they rapidly switched sides, after the death toll increased.

The official position of the United States of America is one of support toward the Syrian rebels. Unfortunately, even with the stated intent of maintaining freedom and human rights, it is precisely these two values that have suffered the most as a result of the West’s support for Syria’s civil war. Will the future bring a U.S. intervention in Syria similar to the one in Libya, under the R2P responsibility to protect doctrine? Moreover, what might that mean for the Christians in the country, taking into account the current state of affairs?

Georgiana Constantin is a Romanian law school graduate and has studied European, international and Romanian law. She recently completed her thesis on the UN and global governance at the Romanian-American University in Bucharest. Ms. Constantin, who is based in Romania, is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.