By: Pierre Atallah
A shrine dedicated to the prophet Elijah in Syria. (photo by REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri)
A joint delegation of Syriac, Chaldean and Assyrian Christians from Syria recently visited Christian political leaders in Lebanon to demand fair representation for these groups in the Lebanese parliament. According to an activist present at the meeting, the leader of one Lebanese Christian party asked the delegation about the stance of Syrian Christians toward loyalists to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“What kind of position is this? It is against history, geography and logic,” said the leader.
The question sparked a heated debate between a number of members of the delegation and the Christian party leader. They responded that Syria’s Christians are very worried, and stated that their conditions under the Assad regime are not good. They claimed that Christians in Syria do not enjoy any national, democratic rights, and that there has been a lack of reform in this regard.
The delegation claimed that while Christians would prefer not to live under this regime, they are observing developments [in Syria] with great caution. The delegation said that they “prefer the state to no state at all, and order to disorder. They are also concerned about the potential alternatives to the current regime, especially since none of the forces calling for change have clearly revealed their identity or their plans, and have so far only made general announcements.”
The source present at the meeting-turned-debate said that the Lebanese-Christian leader listened to the members of the clergy who were part of the delegation. They spoke of the changes that have taken place across the Arab world that have led to the rise of political Islam to power in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. They claim that the ideologies of these groups and the actions they have taken so far do not bode well for [Christians], although they did concede the role that moderate Islamic movements and civil society forces have played in condemning extremist practices by these groups.
The discussion between the delegation and the leader then shifted to a senior clergyman giving a detailed explanation of the situation of the Christians in Syria. The clergyman said that Syria’s Christians have no desire to take sides in the conflict. He said that they know the makeup of their country better than do Lebanon’s Maronites, and that while they are for democracy in Syria, they are staunchly opposed to theocracy.
The delegation also informed their hosts that “The Syriac churches in Syria and Iraq are a synonym for persecution and suffering. They cannot overlook or deny what is going on around them or shed themselves of all responsibility. Thus, they are treating daily developments in Syria with great caution.”
In Lebanon, apartments and houses are being purchased by Syrian Christians who can afford to do so in a number of Christian majority areas around Mount Lebanon, the north and the Bekaa valley. Some Syrian children are being enrolled in Lebanese schools for the 2012-2013 academic year.
Some of those in attendance at the meeting refused to disclose their names. They said that the things “do not bode well, and the Christians are not on the map of [religious] balances. They are caught up between the regime forces on one hand, and the rebels who enjoy considerable support on the other hand.”
The events that have taken place in Homs and its suburbs are proof of this. The Christians left and returned to their villages and towns after they were caught between the hammer of the Syrian regime and its supporters and the anvil of the armed rebels.
Some Syrians who have fled to Lebanon say that regime’s weakness and the lack of an existing alternative that is able to reassure the public is gradually reinforcing Kurdish nationalist sentiment in the areas adjacent to the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq (Qamishli and its suburbs in particular, where there are large concentrations of Assyrians and Syriacs). More specifically, the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO) — which is a faction within the Syrian opposition with a representative in the Syrian National Council, Abdel Ahad al-Saifi — is strongly involved in the peaceful protest movement against the Syrian regime.
However, the ADO has not yet to taken up arms against the regime like some of their compatriots in the Syrian opposition. However, the organization does not necessarily reflect the general sentiment among the region’s Christians, who are dealing with the Syrian developments with caution. They are haunted by an obsessive fear of a possible repetition of the Iraqi model [in Syria] and the mistreatment suffered by their fellow Christians — the Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriacs — on the part of all parties during the post-Saddam Hussein era.
According to some who have arrived from Syria to Lebanon, what worries Syrian Christians is the malfunctioning of Syrian state institutions and some of its apparatuses as a result of the crisis. Syria’s Christians depend on, and have always depended on Syria’s state institutions and departments. Contrary to Lebanon’s Christians, Syria’s Christians have never had political organizations reflective of their their identity, nor have carried out independent military struggles like the Christians of Lebanon, who fought repeatedly in the years 1958, 1969 and 1975. The notion of ??organizing the Syrian Christian community is very difficult given that they are spread out across the country.