By Amy Fallas
On April 13, a U.S.-led coalition launched airstrikes on strategic targets in Syria. The attacks were a response to growing evidence that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against civilians in Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold east of Damascus. A coalition of Syrian Christian patriarchs from Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Greek-Melkite Catholic branches quickly denounced the air raids as an act of “brutal aggression” against a “sovereign country.” In the same breath, these leaders also promptly denied the role of the Assad regime in orchestrating attacks on its own citizens.
The assertive anti-American, pro-regime sentiment from Syria’s most vulnerable religious minorities runs contrary to the policies advanced by the current U.S. administration’s renewed commitment to confront Assad while protecting the country’s beleaguered Christian communities.
Since 2011, Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on dissent combined with ISIS’s aggressive expansion has dispossessed nearly one million Syrian Christians from their ancestral homeland. While Assad portrays himself as the vanguard of the country’s religious minorities, Christians have suffered considerably during the ongoing civil war. Up to 60 percent of the country’s churches have fallen as a result of the war, and many Christians — including human rights lawyer Khalil Maatouk and activist Bassel Shehadeh — have been detained or killed by the regime.
The spread of the Islamic State into northeastern Syria along the Iraqi and Turkish borders beginning in 2014 contributed to the systemic devastation of Christians in those areas, with nearly one million forcibly removed, killed, or abducted. Those who stayed lived under a draconian interpretation of Islamic law, forced to pay the jizya tax to live while others were sold off as slaves or kidnapped for ransom. According to a joint report by Open Doors, Served, and Middle East Concern, Christian communities in Syria have experienced widespread displacement — by some estimates, nearly half of Syria’s Christians have left since 2011.
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Given the extreme physical and existential threats facing Christians in Syria, support for Assad and the Syrian Army likely come as a surprise to those who view the state as a primary cause for the community’s plight. Why would a group frequently targeted for state-sanctioned violence continue to pay lip service to a murderous regime?
Philippe Nassif, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based human rights and advocacy organization In Defense of Christians, contends that reasons for Syrian Christian support of the Assad regime are complex and often misunderstood. After Syrian Christians voiced opposition to U.S.-led attacks in April, Nassif encouraged policymakers and concerned citizens in the U.S. to consider the conditions facing religious minorities in Syria. He said U.S. reactions over the pro-regime statement revealed a lack of understanding of the duress Christians experience in their relations with the state: “I got calls from Members of Congress…they didn’t understand that these [Syrian Church leaders] are forced to say these things,” Nassif said.
The Damascene leaders who collectively released the statement represent three of the largest Christian denominations in Syria. Their statement is not the first time the patriarchates of Antioch in Damascus have made a joint expression of solidarity: In August 2016, they issued an appeal to the international community to “stop the siege on the Syrian people” by calling for the removal of economic sanctions on Syria. But their newest statement offers a more audacious and political tone, by explicitly underscoring Christian support of Assad and denying his role in the country’s social and political unraveling.
According to Nassif, state-sponsored extortion and fear tactics against Christian leaders are also behind Syrian Christian communities’ tendency to be “friendly to autocratic leaders.”
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Mirna Barq, president of the Burbank, Calif.-based Syrian Christians for Peace, explains that in Syria, liturgies, church services, and even Sunday schools are monitored by the government to ensure that anti-regime content isn’t disseminated to parishioners. In private, friends and family warn each other not to make political statements. In public, she said, they “pray for the president for his protection of Christians.”
Other Syrian Christian leaders fear that if they denounce their own government, they will find themselves in the same situation as Iraq’s Christians following the U.S.-led Iraq War. The prospect of state collapse, sectarianism, and forced diaspora contributes to Syrian Christians aligning themselves with a leader who they believe can help prevent these outcomes.
Bishop Antoine Audo from the Chaldean Catholic Church of Aleppo supported the joint statement on the basis that Syrians should resist the fate that befell Iraq’s Christians. “What they [Americans] did in Iraq, they’re doing now to Syria,” he said in April.
Yet some in the Syrian Christian diaspora are challenging the notion that all Christians unequivocally support Assad. Following the joint statement by the Syrian patriarchs in April, Syrian Christians for Peace issued a press release to present an alternative Christian perspective:
“We affirm that this [joint statement] does not represent the position of all Christians as we believe in Syria’s right to prosperity and strive for it. The existence of the Assad regime with the backing of sectarian Iranian militias poses the largest threat on the lives of the Syrian people, which has been confirmed by the governments and organizations of the international community.”
The loss of popular and national sovereignty to foreign influence at the behest of Bashar al-Assad is a prevailing concern for Christians in Syria. As such, they fall along a similar spectrum of political opinion as their Syrian Muslim neighbors.
Barq believes the diversity of her country is integral to a democratic future for all Syrians. “Without Christians, the mosaic of Syria will disappear,” she said. While the future of Syria remains unclear, the country’s Christians are reckoning with the possibility that the preservation of their community depends on more than state-sanctioned protection.