Christians in Syria Separating Fact from Fiction .

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi .540 readings Thought to comprise approximately 10 per cent of Syria’s population – with a variety of sects, including Greek Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Armenians, Maronites, Chaldeans, and Assyrians – the Christian community of Syria has been the subject of considerable media attention ever since unrest arose against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.
However, rather than looking at claims of incidents of anti-Christian violence and trying to verify them, articles have generally repeated the obvious point that there are concerns that the same fate could befall Syrian Christians, as with the numerous incidents of persecution of Iraqi Christians by Islamic militants and, further, as with the outflow of hundreds of thousands of Christians from the country since 2003.

So, what are the main stories of the persecution of Christians in Syria? And, further to this, how can they be verified?

This year, in March, a story circulated that 90 per cent of the Christians in the city of Homs had been ethnically cleansed by Islamic militants. The story was traced back to a report published by Agenzia Fides – the Vatican news agency – on 21st March.[1] On the contrary, the claims go back to a report put out on 13th March by the website Syria Truth (in Arabic, ‘al-Haqiqa’), which is run by Nizar Nayouf, who was once imprisoned by the regime but who, since 2002, has been living in exile in Europe.[2]

Nayouf’s background notwithstanding, Syria Truth, despite claiming to oppose the regime, routinely recycles regime propaganda. In this case, Syria Truth blamed the supposed mass ethnic cleansing on the ‘Wahhabi’ Farouq Battalion and the aid of Libyan and Iraqi mercenaries.

However, the Farouq Battalion does not have such a hard-line Islamic orientation. On the contrary, it is distinctly aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, promoting a nationalist outlook rather than a Takfiri-jihadist worldview, which would entail, first, imposing jizya on Christians, and then, of attacking and ethnically cleansing them if they failed to pay the extortionist tax. If anything, the evidence suggests that the Farouq Battalion is at odds with these hard-line jihadist types.[3] Agenzia Fides had made no independent effort to try to verify Syria Truth’s story, but rather simply reproduced what had been written on Syria Truth without the proper attribution.[4] In fairness, though, the news agency did subsequently publish a report from Jesuits in Homs, who denied that there had been a campaign of mass ethnic cleansing, alleging, instead, that the Christians had had left voluntarily.[5]

Later to this, David Enders (for McClatchy) interviewed Christian refugees in Lebanon, who denied that the Farouq Battalion had forced them out in a campaign of mass persecution.[6] The reality is that Christians, like other segments of Homs’ population (such as the Alawites and Sunnis), had simply fled in large numbers owing to the intense fighting between regime forces and rebels. Indeed, multiple outlets have reported on the phenomenon of Homs being turned into a virtual ‘ghost town’.[7]

In an article I wrote with two co-authors for Ha’aretz, I criticized the Syria Truth report for making no reference to the impositions of jizya. In response, Syria Truth – just days later – issued another report claiming that the Farouq Battalion has been imposing jizya on Christians in the rural areas around Homs. The same site then put out an exposé of me and my co-authors, purporting to expose me as an Israeli spy operating under a pseudonym in Iraqi Kurdistan, using my profile picture on Facebook as evidence alongside the supposed testimonies of other Iraqis.[8]

Marco Tosatti of the Vatican Insider, which is a sub-outlet of the prominent Italian newspaper La Stampa, plagiarized the story of the alleged imposition of jizya in the Homs area, from Jihad Watch, [9] which, in turn, had reprinted the original story from Syria Truth.[10] Tosatti claimed that the story had been verified by, although without offering any evidence for this. A Google search will, likewise, reveal that has not verified the story at all.

More recently, multiple opinion pieces – including two by journalist Kapil Komerredi in The New York Times and Ha’aretz[11] – have claimed that up to 80,000 Christians have been ethnically cleansed from within the Homs area. The claim goes back to one source: Mother Agnes Mariam, who was interviewed back in spring on this very subject by Sky News.[12] Though claiming to be neutral in the conflict, Mother Agnes is most notable for being among the first to push the conspiracy theory that the Houla massacre, which UN investigators have established to be the work of pro-Assad militiamen, was carried out by the rebels. Her claims, however, are based merely on vague anecdotes.[13] As such, given her record of pushing dubious claims, she can hardly be taken as a reliable source, and it is hardly surprising that Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who, having resided in Syria for more than 30 years, was subsequently expelled for his criticism of the regime, has accused Mother Agnes of peddling regime propaganda.[14]

Perhaps the one reliable source for anti-Christian violence in Homs comes from a resident Syrian Christian, who, in a BBC Radio interview, said (without specifying when exactly) that in the neighborhood of Hamidiya, fighters (not thought to be from the area itself) forced some families out of their homes.[15] The interviewee, however, did not speak of mass ethnic cleansing, and did not blame the Farouq Battalion. In turn, the testimony recorded at BBC may be corroborated by a recent report in The Independent, in which Kim Sengupta interviewed Syrian Christian refugees in Lebanon. Notably, Sengupta describes the case of the Haddad family, who claim to have fled from Homs to Zahle in Lebanon amid death threats.[16] The picture that can be composed, therefore, is as follows: the majority of Christians in Homs, like other residents of the city, fled in the face of intense fighting between rebels and the regime, but at some point, certain families may have been forced out by foreign extremists. In any case, the claim that the Farouq Battalion, supposedly with the help of Libyan and Iraqi fighters, was responsible for ethnically cleansing 90 per cent of Homs’ Christian population is plainly false.

Modeled on the story of the ethnic cleansing of 90 per cent of Homs’ Christian population, stories began to circulate that 9000 out-of-a-supposed population of 10,000 Christians had left the city of Qusayr on the basis of an ultimatum issued by a rebel battalion.[17] However, the rebels in Qusayr denied this story. The truth about what happened, most likely, lies in the account given by a couple of reports in the Wall Street Journal: some Christians (namely from the Kasouha clan) were allegedly acting as informants for the regime’s security forces in the town. On the basis of these allegations, “several men from a prominent Christian family have been shot dead, more than a dozen residents have gone unaccounted for and the majority of Christians have fled town, said residents on both sides of the conflict.”[18] The case of the Kasouha family is also referenced by a Christian refugee interviewed in Sengupta’s report for The Independent.[19] That these killings might provoke a large-scale exodus should come as no surprise in an atmosphere of fear in the midst of a civil war.

A small village situated on the Orontes River, Rableh, which is located outside of the Wadi al-Nasara area, was the subject of reports which surfaced in August claiming that rebels had besieged the town and cut-off all of its food and water supplies. Later, however, it was said that the Syrian Army had liberated the town from the rebel siege, beginning with reports on the matter by the pro-Syrian Lebanese news channel, al-Mayadeen, which ran footage of Syrian Army troops in the town and residents expressing delight at their presence.[20] The figure of beleaguered Greek Catholics was put at more than 12,000 by a number of outlets;[21] however, the problem with this figure is that census statistics show that Rableh does not have a population anywhere near 12,000, with the 2004 census charting the total population at only 5,328.[22] Marco Tosatti purported to account for the figure of 12,000, claiming that the village has an established population of 7000 and, further, that the population was bolstered by 5000 recent refugees from Qusayr. However, Tosatti provides demographic divisions that conflict with the established notion of 12,000 Greek Catholics: he claims, instead, that the town has a 50-50 division between Maronites and Greek Catholics.[23] The uncorroborated statistic of 5000 refugees from Qusayr is explained by another outlet: “Some 5,000 Christians from the nearby town of Kusayr [sic] sought refuge in the entirely Christian village after armed opposition leaders ordered them to leave Kusayr.”[24] However, as already mentioned above, the claim that Christians fled Qusayr en masse because of a supposed rebel ultimatum is unlikely to be true. In any case, Tosatti has proven he is not a trustworthy source, especially when we consider his plagiarisms and false claims of verification with the story. Furthermore, the fact that the reports on Rableh cannot get their figures straight with regards to the demographics of the village, throws serious doubt on their credibility.Whilst one can allow for the plausible scenario that the town may have come under rebel fire during fighting between regime forces and rebel battalions, and that the latter were driven back by the end of August, it is highly unlikely that the rebels could have then launched an incursion into the village area the following month (especially whilst still under army control) and have taken 280 hostages in mass-kidnappings.[25] On the following day (26th September), Agenzia Fides reported a mass release of 240 hostages with a joyous reconciliation ceremony.[26]

Contradictory statistics exist as to the number of hostages supposedly taken anyway: The Daily Star in Lebanon, quoting an unspecified ‘Lebanese security source’, stated that 218 Syrian and Lebanese citizens were taken hostage, only to be released the next day.[27] Meanwhile, Syria Truth claimed that 170 hostages were taken and that some were immediately released, so that there were a remaining 120 hostages as of 25th September. As usual, the outlet pinned the blame on the ‘Wahhabi’ Farouq Battalion (which it also held responsible for the siege of Rableh in August[28]), and also, on the ‘Khalid bin Walid’ Battalion.[29] A further account comes from a report in the Spectator, in which a Christian refugee in Lebanon, who fled from Rableh in May, claimed that 250 residents were taken hostage in the fields.[30] Yet another discrepancy undermining the credibility of the whole story, in all the various accounts, is where exactly these hostages were taken. While Agenzia Fides cites ‘local sources’ to claim that the hostages were crammed into a school in the village of Gousseh, Syria Truth says that the hostages were taken to an unknown location. At best, the story of mass hostage taking and starving appears to be based in uncorroborated rumor, even as it is clear that there has been fighting between regime forces and rebels in the area.

In my work elsewhere, I have referred to the foreign jihadist element in Syria as a localized phenomenon: that is, rather than being spread in significant numbers all over Syria, it is primarily concentrated in Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor.[31] In this context, the claims by the Syriac Orthodox bishop of Aleppo on the kidnappings of Christians in the city (along with other residents, of course) make sense.[32] The same goes for the reports on the formation of Christian defense militias in the city,[33] as well as for ones reporting the flight of many Christians from the city to Tartous.[34] That said, there is no evidence, as of yet, of the destruction of churches as targeted operations conducted by rebels, foreign jihadists, or otherwise.[35]

The evidence, rather, points to heavy damage being sustained from indiscriminate mortar-fire by the rebels, a common complaint among residents of all stripes in the city. Specifically, vis-à-vis the Christians, this observation can be corroborated by a recent article in The Daily Beast, where a Christian opposition activist in Aleppo – identifying himself only by the name ‘George’ – was interviewed. He noted an incident he had witnessed whereby rebels indiscriminately fired mortars into a Christian district in the city, ostensibly targeting the security building, though actually hitting several Christian homes.[36]

One should also note the targeting of the Armenian community by rebels in Aleppo. Notably, the St. Gevorg Church in the Nor Kyugh district was recently desecrated.[37] In a similar vein, a bus carrying several Armenian Christians on the way to Aleppo was stopped by unidentified anti-Assad forces, and the passengers were taken hostage, but it is not clear if all those on board the bus were Christian.[38]

Qastal al-Burj
Qastal al-Burj is a small village in the Hama area. It was reported by UPI, in May, that militants had evicted 10 Christian families.[39] This story appears to have been corroborated by, whose sources at the same time denied that there was an organized campaign of anti-Christian persecution in Syria, stating that the main sectarian dynamic at play was rather the Sunni-Alawite dichotomy.[40]

The evidence surveyed here does not, as of yet, suggest the existence of an organized campaign of militant Islamic persecution of Christians throughout Syria, especially along the lines of what has happened in Iraq since 2003. Indeed, one should not overlook the fact that Christians have been playing active roles in the opposition.[41] At the same time, disinformation exists about this phenomenon too.[42] Have there been incidents of anti-Christian violence in Syria? Undoubtedly, but one should always be alert to those pro-Assad propaganda outlets which are willing to exploit, for their own ends, what they see as Western concerns about the status of Christians in the country. In addition, analysts should be more nuanced, looking at which Christians might be more inclined to support the regime, and examining the reasons for such support.[43] At the same time, one must avoid complacency: the ever-growing infiltration of Syria by foreign jihadists (e.g. from Jordan to the south) poses an increasing threat to the survival of the various Christian communities of Syria.