Fortune, misfortune of Syrian Christians communities

  • Written by:

Olivier Rey / Red Dirt Report
Christian Sahner speaking at OU on Tuesday.
NORMAN, Okla. – Christian Sahner is a historian of the Middle East at the University of Cambridge was the invited guest of the University of Oklahoma Department of Classics and Letters to talk on the evolution of the Christian community in Syria in modern history on Tuesday.

Sahner who has been to Syria three times before the beginning of the civil war in 2011 said, “Christians have known their share of melancholy.”

Representing about 10 percent of the Syrian population before 2011, the Christians living in Syria has decreased by more than 50 percent in a few years. According to Sahner, one of the main responsibilities for the Christians exodus is the Islamic State that controlled at its zenith in 2014 an area larger than Great Britain straddles in Syria and Iraq.

However, Sahner said the situation of the Christian community in the Middle East has not always been so dangerous in the last 200 years, especially when the Ottoman Empire was ruling the Middle East. In the rise of civil rights in Europe and America during the mid-19th century, the Ottoman Empire gave full rights and citizenship to non-Muslim, called the “Tanzimât.”

Syria was during the 19th century (until the civil war in 2011) an important microcosm of the various Christian communities such as the Armenians, Greeks Orthodox and Catholic, Maronite, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Roman Catholic and even evangelicals. Each one of these communities having their own culture and language.

Sahner said the Syrian Christian community was more prosperous than other Christian communities in the Middle East. And Christian wealth average was better than Muslim average.

The Ottoman Empire reforms (Tanzimât) was not very appreciated by the Muslim majority who saw it as Western interference into the Muslim world.

Sahner said the negative perception of the Tanzimât by a majority of Muslims led to numerous acts of violence and pogroms against the Christian communities such as in Damascus and Mosul where entire Christian neighborhoods were destroyed.

“In the 19th century, Christian communities lived as insiders and outsiders as the society changed,” Sahner said.

Then Sahner said the rise of Arab nationalism in the early 20th century provided an opportunity for Christians in the Middle East to be treated equally among other Arabs. Two important figures of the Arab nationalism were Christians, George Antonius (1891-1941) and Michel Aflaq (1910 – 1989), the founder of the Arab Ba’ath Party.

“Christians, among other minorities, played a key role in spreading Arab Nationalism,” Sahner said, adding, unfortunately, the Ba’ath Party in Syria eventually became controlled by one religious group, the Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam.

Sahner said Syrian Christians had no other choices than supporting the Alawites domination for their own good; as a result, the Christians started to be seen as part of the oppressing regime.

“Despite the political imbalances that existed in the state, Syria was a place where Christians and Muslims lived together in relative harmony,” Sahner said.

But Sahner said the civil war had eventually broke the fragile solidarity among oppressed minorities and gradually Christians became the target of Muslim extremists such as ISIS.

To conclude, Sahner said we are assisting at the final extinction of non-Muslims minorities in the Middle East, which started long before the Syrian civil war. More than 100 years ago, the Christians represented 21 percent of the population in the Middle East; today it is less than five percent. A step necessary for the creation of homogenous state and therefore strong state such as happened in Europe before.

“Syria is one chapter of this tragedy,” Sahner said.

Sahner is the author of two books: Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (Oxford/Hurst, 2014 and Christians Martyrs under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World (forthcoming).