If Assad falls, how can Christians have any future in Syria when radical Sunni groups kill their fellow Muslim Shi’as and even moderate Sunni rebel soldiers as well?
It is a historical irony indeed when it appears the only safe place for a Christian in the Middle East is Israel, a country in large part populated by Jews who themselves were forced to flee Islamic intolerance in the same lands from which Christians now feel impelled to flee.
The Choices for Syria’s Christians
In late January, a delegation of prominent clerics from Syria’s Christian communities visiting Washington, D.C. testified about horrific attacks by anti-Assad rebels against innocent Christian non-combatants. They claimed that both the so-called moderate Free Syrian Army and extremist Islamic factions were guilty of repeated human rights violations against Christians. For Syria’s Christians, the outcome of the civil war has existential ramifications.
Dhimmi status [second-class, “tolerated” citizenship for non-Muslim minorities] for centuries under Islam has taught Syria’s minority Christian community to be wary of any political change. After the initial invasion in 633 A.D. by Bedouin Muslim Arabian hordes, Syria’s Christian communities were late to realize that this was not just another raid by desert nomads. After a month-long siege, on September 19, 634 A.D., Damascus capitulated to the Arabian invaders. Eventually, in most of the Levant Christianity was supplanted by Islam. The era of Eastern Christianity’s Byzantine civilization in Syria was at an end. The ensuing slaughter of Syria’s Christian faithful was great. The burning of churches, convents, and monasteries virtually expunged any of Christianity’s physical infrastructure. The rape and enslavement of non-combatant innocents was enormous. Huge tracts of private land were expropriated and settled by the Muslim conquerors. The Christian populations of Aleppo and Antioch were nearly extinguished.
Those “Peoples of the Book,” Jews and Christians who survived the initial massacres, were to be “protected” — as long as they peacefully embraced their diminished humanity. The Jews of Syria may have fared better than the Christians of Syria, as they merely exchanged one oppressor for another. Christians, however, had not yet discerned the mercurial nature of their so-called “protected” status. During the anti-Christian pogrom in Aleppo’s Christian quarter in 1850, their “protected” status entirely evaporated. Whenever fanatical imams deemed it appropriate, they would stir up their Muslim faithful into a mob. Moreover, the political leadership responsible for maintaining Islam’s contract with the dhimmi proved to be ineffective and willfully passive in the face of mob fanaticism. Neither could Syria’s Christians count on moderate Muslim factions for refuge: they invariably disappeared once the radicals went on the rampage. The pockets of Aleppo-based Christians, however, always managed to survive. Aleppo’s Christian communities were able to rebound from massacres, once by the Mongols and later by Tamerlane, as well as several Muslim-orchestrated pogroms. Today’s Syrian Christian community is now being tested once more as it seeks to endure the atrocities of Syria’s ongoing civil war.
The threat of the stark choice between extinction and exile might explain why many of Syria’s Christians support the Assad regime. Nevertheless, there were some Christians who, along with their Shia Alawite Muslim countrymen, were driven by self-preservation to join the ranks of the protestors in the early months of the rebellion against Assad’s tyranny. Many Christians may also remain loyal to the regime out of fear, especially with the increased influence of extremist Sunni Muslim factions in the opposition. Groups such as al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS] have committed crimes against innocents and combatants alike. One high-profile crime by Chechen foreign fighters allied with al-Nusra was last April’s kidnapping of the Greek Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo. The fate of these two clerics remains unknown. Another crime was the kidnapping of 13 nuns from their convent in Maaloula several months ago. More than forty churches have been burned, rockets fired at an Armenian high school in Damascus killing four students, and several men beheaded just for being Christian. Half a million Christians have been driven from their homes and another 300,000 have fled Syria altogether.