Josef Olmert
Last updated: 3 May, 2012

Syria’s Christians and the uprising

Bab Touma is the Christian quarter of Damascus. Named after Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, it is a suburb characterized by its historic legacy dating back to the early days of Christianity. The connection with those very early days is even clearer at a nearby village called Ma’alula, whose Christian population still speaks Aramaic as their everyday language.

Bab Touma has had its high days, as well as its low times. One of them was in July of 1861, when the civil war that tore the Levant apart, claiming the lives of many thousands of Christians, reached Damascus. In a matter of days, well over 5000 Christians were slaughtered. According to an eyewitness, ‘’the whole Christian quarter is burnt. Not one house remains untouched’’. Today, with all the mayhem taking place in Syria, including in suburbs of Damascus, Bab Touma is an island of peace and tranquility, at least in Syrian terms. Is there a connection between past and present events? In order to be able to answer this, a brief demographic/communal/geographic of Syria’s Christian community is needed, and then an evaluation of the role of Christians in the modern history of Syria.

The Christian population of Syria numbers about 2.5 million, roughly 10% of the overall population. It is as large, if not slightly larger than the Christian population in neighboring Lebanon, though the latter accounts for roughly 40% of Lebanon’s 5 million people. The number of Christians in both the Levant states could have been significantly larger, had it not been for the massive emigration of Christians starting in the late 19th century, as a result of the terrible civil war mentioned above. There are more Christians of Syrian-Lebanese descent in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and the US put together than in the historic homeland.

The Christians of Syria are divided between 8-10 different churches, and the division has religious, as well as ethnic and political implications. There are Arab Orthodox and Catholics, Non-Arab Armenians, and Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriacs, some of which claim to be a distinct ethnic group. Interestingly enough, the Syrian opposition in its Antalya conference in May-June 2011, referred, in what was a blatant challenge to the ruling Ba’athi dogma to the ‘’many ethnicities , Arab, Kurd, Chaldean, Assyrian, Syriac, Turkmen, Chechen, Armenian and others’’.

This was a somewhat confusing document, as the opposition referred only to ethnic minorities, and not to religious ones, such as the Alawites, Druze and Arab Catholic and Orthodox. The Armenians and Chaldeans and Assyrians can be considered ‘’new’’ Syrians, lacking a real tradition of participating in the Syrian political process, both during the French mandatory  government, and since independence in 1946. Armenians in Syria are mainly descendants of the refugees from the Ottoman genocide of the First World War, Chaldeans and Assyrians are refugees from the Iraqi massacre of August 1933, in Shimmel, right after Iraq became independent. The Syriacs are a very small community, and has consequently made a very limited mark on Syria’s political history. Unlike the Kurds, Alawites and Druze who maintain a demographic majority in distinct regions of Syria, and are considered ‘’compact minorities’’, the Christians are spread all over the country, although they have significant concentrations in both Aleppo and Damascus, the two largest population centers.

The diversity described above has had its political implications. The famous Lebanese Christian diplomat/historian, Charles H. Malik, himself an Orthodox Christian, wrote in a moment of self-confession that ’’Lebanon’s Christians do not quite know themselves and they are looking for their place in the world around them’’.

Those words apply to Syria’s Christians as well. During the mandatory period, the French authorities tried to promote the non-Sunni minorities in order to create a counter-balance to the Arab nationalist sentiments, but they found this more difficult to do in Syria than in Lebanon. In Lebanon, there was the Catholic Maronite community with long, historic ties with France, and many religious and political leaders who wanted a state of their own as a means of preserving their identity. So the French created Lebanon.

It could not do the same in Syria, where the Christians were a much smaller minority, lacked a territorial base and were mostly non-Catholics. It was the Syrian Orthodox community which played an important role in Syrian politics. Two people from that community who left a major stamp on Syrian history was Michel Aflaq, the historic founder and leader of the Ba’th party, and Antun Sa’ada, the founder of the Pan-Syrian Social Nationalist party, a man whose intellectual and political legacy has been significant. The Orthodox communities in the Middle East has always been more associated with Arab nationalism, reasons for which are out of the scope of this particular article.

The influence of intellectuals notwithstanding, many Christians, including the Orthodox remained suspicious towards the Syrian state, particularly in its Pre-Ba’th days. That can be related mainly to the legacy of years of persecution under Sunni Governments, back to the Bab Touma events of 1861. Minorities in the Middle East tend to have a pattern of behavior in times of crisis, which reflect first and foremost the memory of the past. Syria’s Christians are no exception.

The Ba’th regime, itself based on an alliance of minorities, mostly Alawites, but also Druze and Ismailli Shi’ites, has diligently tried to foster good relations with the Christians, particularly the Orthodox communities of Aleppo and Damascus. It pays off these days, when the vast majority of Syrian Christians are taking a passive, onlooker view of the uprising and stay outside of it. The regime cultivates this sentiment, by spreading rumors about rebels’ violence against Christians in Homs, and stories about chants in demonstrations such as “Christians go to Beirut.”

Be it as it may, many Syrian Christians remember the past all too well, and seem to prefer the devil they know, the Assad-Alawite regime over another devil that they have good historic reasons to dread, the Sunni Muslims back in power.