The Road from Damascus to Maaloula: (The precarious state of minorities in Syria) -
by Krikor Tersakian
The world was particularly shaken when Salafi jihadists invaded the millennia old Christian town of Maaloula north of Damascus. These were unwelcome and mostly foreign fighters, occupying the only village in the world where the western dialect of Aramaic language is still spoken. Jesus spoke that same almost extinct Semitic language, and therefore the whole matter took a much unexpected universal symbolism!
Numerous Christian communities are scattered across Syria. They are under great danger by the local and foreign Sunni extremist fighters who succeeded in hijacking the popular uprising to topple the government in Damascus. These Jihadists come from over twenty different countries from as far as the Maghreb or the Far East. They are funded by various states as well as private donors opposed to the Assad government perceived as being Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam the Jihadists simply consider apostates or heretics at best . The situation has clear parallels with the initial rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the formation of Al Qaeda during the Soviet invasion with foreign help. We know who helped whom and how that unfortunate situation unfolded. Will history repeat itself?
Historical Syria (or Levant) has always been at the epicentre of both Christianity and Islam as major religions. This should come as no surprise. St Paul’s conversion from a Zealot persecutor of early Christians to the single most important figure in Christendom happened on Road to ... Damascus. The first major organised church is believed to be the one established in Antioch, which became the stepping stone of the early missionaries to Asia Minor, all the way to pagan Rome and beyond. Today these denominations include the eastern rite Orthodox churches, the Uniate eastern Catholic churches (Syrian Catholic, Maronite, Greek Catholic), the Syrian Orthodox church as well as Nestorians, Chaldeans, Armenian Apostolic Armenians (Gregorian) and of course the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. The latter, as well as the Melkite Byzantine rite Catholics, still have their respective patriarchate based in Damascus. That is a very strong symbol of historic significance. It is therefore important to appreciate this overall complex mosaic as a testimony to the central role that Syria has historically played in Christianity.
Modern day Syrian territories were largely conquered by the Muslim Rashidun Caliphate forces under the command of the unique commander Khalid Bin Walid. Islam swiftly became the dominant forces starting that decisive battle of Yarmuk in August 636 CE as the Levant (Greek /Eastern Roman / Byzantine) became not only “Arabized”, but Muslim in character. Nonetheless, the Christian communities survived through centuries despite the hardship, discrimination and relegation to mostly second class citizenship under successive rulers. Contrary to popular belief, forced conversions were rather uncommon, though the socio-economical incentives of being a Muslim were (and still are) obvious. Those minorities became kind of a reliable compass of the various rulers and even prospered under a separate system of taxation and governance laws as non-Muslims members of the “People of the Book”, (Jews and Christians).
Today Syria’s minorities are under enormous pressure to emigrate or seek the protection of the central government. These Christian communities are dwindling both in numbers and morale, in one of the most testing times since the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. According to the U.S. Department of State, the various Christians make up ten percent of the population of Syria, which is approximately 1.7 million. Indeed, these communities have survived throughout the Roman-Byzantine Empire, Muslim Omayyad’s, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Ayyubites and Ottomans, to name a few. With the fall of the central Ottoman Empire during WW1, present day Syria and Lebanon were carved out and put until the French colonial mandate in 1920. This eventually morphed into an independent Syrian state. The secular and nominally Pan-Arab Ba’ath party (with many prominent Christians in the leadership) took power over in the 1960’s. Current President Bashar Assad’s father became the absolute leader in 1970.
The ongoing Syrian civil war has indeed lasted much longer and turned out to be much more violent than anybody could have anticipated. After all, Syria was an autocratic state ruled by an iron fist for decades under a one party rule, the military and the security apparatus. The end of the civil war does not seem to be near, even though the toppling of Assad is becoming increasingly improbable.
This bloody civil war has opened very deep wounds within the Syrian as well as along Arab, Muslim and international alliances and conflicting geopolitical agendas. The Christians, as mostly passive citizens, have become one of the most seriously affected collateral casualties throughout Syria. The situation in Syria, as well as neighboring Lebanon as well as Iraq is is precarious. Mass exodus is a tragic reality, and the very existence of these millennia old communities is in jeopardy.
Aleppo and Damascus may have the bulk of Christians, but numerous villages and cities do have sizeable Christian populations with churches, monasteries and attachment to the land. Maaloula, Deir Attiyah, Saidnaya are just a few of the more famous examples. Yet they are all vulnerable to attacks and systematic persecution by various local and foreign jihadists vying to “cleanse” the land. The Syrian civil war is a tragedy of a huge magnitude, but the rebellion was largely hijacked by extremists affiliated to al Qaeda and other similar Salafi paramilitaries. A typical Sunni radical would most surely label the Shia (and the Assad’s Alawite) simply as apostates and non-Muslims. The label Takfiri is derived from their ideology to consider others as apostates and therefore legitimate targets for persecution or worse. The Syrian Government and its secular nature are therefore seen as the only line of defense against the radical forces of the rebels. The minorities overwhelmingly support the government. Assad and his government may well be imperfect, but they win hands down the battle over the protection of minorities.
That begs the question: If the Shia, followers of Ali Bin Abi Taleb (Fourth Caliph and Son in-law of the Prophet) are considered as heretical or apostates, what do these Jihadists make of the Christians? The answer is plain scary. The deliberate burning of various churches and shrines in Syria is increasing, and the accompanying toxic rhetoric and the invasion of villages like Maaloula are becoming the norm. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 1981 comes to mind.
The video of a Christian woman heavily criticizing Senator john McCain over his support to bomb Syria went viral . It illustrated the lack of overall comprehension of many policy makers in the West. The total disregard of the plight of the Christian minorities in Syria is nothing short of scandalous. The West has recently toned down its rhetoric and is no longer demanding the departure of Assad. Both overt and covert support to the rebels in general has apparently slowed down or ceased. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt are no longer on the same wavelength. The hawks from Paris to Washington have come to realize that a “regime” change in Syria will certainly be more than just a routine passage from Scylla to Charybdis. That road looks more like a certified ticket to a Salafi hell.
Assad may not be perfect, but his survival may be the only viable alternative to avoid a repeat of the Taliban / Al Qaeda “experience” three decades ago.