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Assad or the Islamists? Christians weigh their options

February 19, 2016

The realpolitik of life in Syria means that individuals and groups are, at a time of deepening crisis, being forced to choose between support for the Government or one of the opposition groups.

 

On a trip to Syria, in which we visited Christian communities urgently in need of emergency support, many Church leaders and faithful made clear that, in the face of the threat from Daesh (Islamic State) and other militant groups, their only hope was that Assad forces emerge triumphant.

 

Not that Christians are blind to the atrocities carried out by the Baathist leader and his military machine, and most we spoke to said that once a lasting peace had been secured, Syria should have the right to consider a future without Assad at the helm.

 

As for the present, they fear that the Church, which is already in a precarious situation, would be completely extinguished were Assad’s bitterest enemies to turn the tide and secure victory for the forces of extremist Islam.

 

Christians numbered about 1.25 million until the outbreak of conflict in March 2011 and some reports suggest as many as 700,000 have fled with an upsurge in displacement of faithful in recent months.

 

Put simply therefore, Christians told us that if Assad doesn’t win, Islamism will not only reduce one of the world’s oldest Churches to its knees, it will effectively erase it from living memory.

 

Essential to the view of many we spoke to, including bishops, priests, Sisters and lay people, is that moderate groups, in the ascendancy early on in the conflict, have lost viability as extremist and government forces have squeezed them out.

 

This assessment is not only significant for one particular faith group in Syria but – given the threat of extremism to diversity even within Islam – it speaks volumes about how religious plurality in all its forms is under attack.

 

As for the Christians in this country of scarcely paralleled suffering, even some of the youngest have some sense of where their community's loyalties lie.

 

Describing their family’s flight from Aleppo, one mother of five I met in Damascus described how their bus was stopped by extremists.

 

Brandishing rifles, masked men stormed in and demanded to know which of the passengers were supporters of Assad.

 

The mother, whose name cannot be given for security reasons, said: ‘It was just as well my youngest, aged four, was asleep.

 

‘Had he been awake, he would have immediately put his hand up and said he liked President Assad.’

 

While failing to explicitly signal their support for President Assad, Church leaders will nonetheless defend many defining characteristics of his rule, especially noting evidence that up to eighty percent of Christians in Syria have fled their homes since the start of the conflict.

 

With reports suggesting that the Christian exodus was proportionately higher than Muslim groups, Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, said: ‘We believe our salvation is to have a strong government with a strong army so people are treated equally based on citizenship.

 

‘We don’t believe an Islamic regime would treat us equally. We believe in a secular regime.

 

‘I am not supporting Assad in particular but I am supporting a government that shows respect to Christians in the way Assad has done.’

 

And, historically, this support has been far from notional. In an interview, Patriarch Gregorios III, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, told us that shortly before the war the Church organised a congress in which the Assad regime funded up to fortycardinals and bishops from around the world to attend events in the Syrian capital marking the Year of St Paul.

 

The activities, attended by up to ten thousand people, concluded with a meeting with President Assad attended by Patriarch Gregorios and other Church leaders.

 

To see why Church leaders and faithful alike might prefer the Assad regime to the Islamist alternative, you need only go to towns and villages seized by extremist groups.

 

On our final day in Syria, we travelled to Maaloula, a town set among mountains north-east of Damascus and long venerated as a place of pilgrimage for Christians, and one of three remaining centres where the ancient Aramaic language of Christ is still spoken.

 

In September 2013, Maaloula was seized by opposition forces including Al Nusra Front. In the nine months that followed, the extremists ransacked churches, notably the mountaintop Monastery of SS Sergius and Bachus, stealing ancient icons, blowing up the church dome and the rear wall.

 

In churches in Maaloula, religious imagery had been desecrated, faces scratched out, with bullet holes removing all trace of eyes.

 

Nearly five hundred homes were destroyed or damaged and in the months since Government forces retook Maaloula in April 2015, the process of rebuilding has only just begun with the return of only a thousand of the town’s three-thousand-strong Christian community.

 

We visited Maaloula in the company of Maria Saadeh, an Independent MP for Damascus. The journey to this tranquil spot, darkened by tragedy, was made safe by a large military presence.

 

The Christian politician, who in May 2014 went on record as saying that ‘the presence of President Al-Assad in power has become a necessity’, stated as we walked around the patched-up church buildings that the Government wanted to preserve Syria’s Christian antiquities.

 

Identification of Christians with the Assad regime is not just the preserve of parliamentarians. Priests we spoke to in Damascus explored evidence that the reported starvation of aid-deprived people in nearby Madaya, was exaggerated.

 

They highlighted reports that aid convoys greenlighted by the regime were stopped by extremists who prevented the supplies from reaching the people, possibly selling it off to the highest bidder.

 

The clergy also suggested that photographs purporting to show children on the verge of starvation were not from Madaya and in any case dated back to 2008.

 

While Western media focused on events in Madaya, it appeared to overlook similar problems affecting Kefraya and Foua, two villages which significantly were besieged by opposition forces rather than the government.

 

While arguing that the regime’s opponents have twisted and demonised the regime in a successful act of propaganda uncritically absorbed by Western media, Church sources we spoke to in Syria were under no circumstances prepared to deny atrocities laid at the door of Assad.

 

Military

 

The cost of the Church’s historic and ongoing sympathy with the Assad cause is not simply the violence inflicted on it by the regime’s enemies.

 

As big a threat is military service. Everywhere we went, bishops, priests and lay people warned of how the threat of being called up to indefinite periods of military service was driving more and more young men away.

 

Added to that is the threat of injury or death while in the military. In Marmarita, the principal town in the Valley of the Christians, a rural sanctuary for thousands of people fleeing a four-year siege in the nearby city of Homs, we met a displaced family who described how their oldest son was badly injured during military service, and had gone to hospital in Damascus for treatment.

 

Marmarita was one of the few places where we saw any sizeable numbers of young men, with the reason given that army recruitment was comparatively lax in a comparatively rural back water.

 

We were repeatedly told that reported support for Assad explained why young Christians in particular are afraid to register in UN camps, even if it means missing out on free aid.

 

The concern of refugee Christians in the likes of Lebanon and Jordan is to remain isolated from groups of refugees who perceive them as pro-Assad and therefore an enemy in their midst.

 

This is one reason why, instead of seeking sanctuary in official displacement and refugee centres, Christians arriving in Lebanon have turned to the Church in the hope of finding rooms in the homes of co-religionists.

 

There we found them living up to fifteen to a room, with no more than a small annexe room used for washing and cooking.

 

Kidnapped

 

Perhaps the last word should go to the father of one of the families we met living in such cramped conditions in the Lebanese city of Zahle, close to the Syrian border.

 

The man, who asked not to be named for safety reasons, told how he had had to flee his home town after he was kidnapped by extremists who had captured his home town.

 

I asked him what would persuade him to go back to Syria. He said: ‘If only peace could be secured, we would go back.

 

‘And the only person who can bring that peace is Assad. If he doesn’t stay, we will never go back. We were treated very well by Assad.

 

‘At least we had some freedom of speech. At least we could go to church. At least we had some citizenship. What is the alternative? – the end to everything we had.’

 

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