Syria's Christians left in limbo
Christians in Syria find themselves damned if they support the regime of President Bashar Assad, and equally damned if they join the rebellion. With both the regime and Islamists looking to settle scores, the future looks bleak.
“Liberated Yabrud welcomes you,” proclaims a sign at the entrance to the Syrian town, located some 60 kilometers north of Damascus. With a population of 20,000, Yabrud has indeed been “liberated” from the rule of Assad’s regime. It is one of the dozens of towns the Free Syrian Army has conquered, established a base in and began organizing the civilians’ lives.
For their part, the civilians have set up a council that is responsible for day-to-day management, formed a local militia − whose members do not bear arms but rather bats − to preserve order, while soldiers from the Free Syrian Army guard against Assad’s army retaking control. Schools have resumed classes and commercial life has also returned, partially at least.
However, last Sunday, when Christian denominations that follow the Eastern calendar celebrated Easter, the Israel Defense Forces allegedly bombed the Syrian Army’s warehouses near a Damascus airport and various sites north and west of it.
“The blasts were heard clearly and the fire was visible from everywhere,” say Yabrud residents, who decided to forgo celebrating the holiday with the traditional midnight mass and made do instead with dinner and watching television, for fear of more bombardments.
Easter celebrations in Damascus were also limited, and holiday events that were set to include performances to which civilians had been invited via websites were canceled. “You can’t celebrate when blood is flowing and Syria is under attack,” Christian civilians told reporters.
Yabrud is a city torn apart. It is home to 4,000 Christians, whose lives remain doubly in danger. Their collaboration with the Free Syrian Army, the enlistment by some of them into its ranks, and their demonstrations against the regime immediately make them an enemy in the eyes of the establishment, which, should it reconquer the town − as has happened elsewhere − will settle accounts with the collaborators. The deeper anxiety, though, is about the Islamist organizations among the rebels that view the Christians as worthy of death, or at least wish to cleanse Syria of their presence.
“The Alawites to the grave, the Christians to Beirut,” is the slogan the Islamists emblazoned on the walls of public buildings, in a town where in the 1990s Christians constituted a quarter of the population. Many of them fled to Lebanon; others made their way to Egypt or European countries. Those still in situ are stuck on the horns of a dangerous dilemma: Adopt the injunction of the Greek Catholic Church or Greek Orthodox Church not to join the ranks of the rebels and preserve neutrality, or succumb to the pressure of Sunni locals and the Free Syrian Army to take an active part in the rebellion.
“The regime is not the one watching over us. My neighbors, those I have lived with for decades, they are my protector,” a resident of the town told a reporter for a Lebanese newspaper. That same individual, who gave his first name as Michel, said he had joined the Free Syrian Army but consequently caused a great dispute among family members. “They are still afraid the regime will return and take revenge on them, or else they remain loyal to it because it protected us,” he explained. But Michel’s family also has practical reasons for supporting the regime. One member of his family works in a Syrian government office and is worried about getting fired because of Michel’s involvement in rebellious activity.
Some of the town’s Christians − those with means − contribute money, food and equipment to the Free Syrian Army, but do not join its ranks; others see the dissident soldiers as a force that might protect them from the Islamists, and are prepared to take part in the public activity it organizes, but many are still hesitating.
Closing the gap
The dilemma and fears of Yabrud’s Christians are typical of the situation Christians face throughout Syria. Last December, an organization of Syrian Christians was formed under the name Syrian Christians for Justice and Freedom. A binding name that indicates where the loyalties of its members lie.
The organization is headed by Michel Kilo, a well-known Christian intellectual, who explained that it was founded “to close the gap between the Christians who continue to support the Syrian regime on the one hand and the Syrian revolution on the other.”
The 73-year-old Kilo is a veteran dissident who was arrested twice, in the 1980s and in the middle of the last decade, for political activity and his involvement in the Syrian movement that called for reforms. He fully understands the enormous difficulty the two million Christians who live in the country find themselves in, having felt safe until now under the protection of the Alawite regime. The rule of the secular Ba’ath Party − which was founded by a Christian, Michel Aflaq − and the fact that the regime itself belongs to a minority, created a sort of brotherhood of minorities against the Sunni majority.
Many Christians were successful in business and thereby created the impression that the entire community is part of an economic elite that enjoys the closeness and protection of the regime. This image was bolstered even more in the last two years, when, for the most part, the Christians stayed away from the protests, distanced themselves from the rebel military activity and thereby aroused the fury of the Sunni majority and became a target for threats by Islamist organizations. Last month, two Greek Orthodox bishops were abducted and have yet to be released. In Aleppo, the Armenian church in the Midan district and the Protestant church in the old city were destroyed, but Christian civilians there prefer to say “these were exceptions” and ascribe the actions to criminals rather than radical organizations.
Christian women and adolescent girls wear head coverings or veils when they are on the streets, and even sound calls against the regime to blend in as devout Sunni Muslims. Many of them fled the country after a string of rape cases.
Christians in the major cities do not have armed militias and they do not have public support, hence their great dependency on the regime’s military. That dependence is also what has put their lives in real danger. More than 300,000 Christians have left Syria since the rebellion began, and the fear is that their fate will be similar to that of the Christians in Iraq, half of whom emigrated, fled or were killed.
The Christian refugees also decline to register with the offices of the refugee welfare agencies in Lebanon so as not to be labeled rebels, in case the Assad regime survives and they wish to return to their homeland. Christians who fled to Egypt or Jordan tell of harassment, fictitious marriage proposals designed to traffic their daughters, and curses and beatings for being Christians.
Kilo’s initiative, which was meant to destroy the image of the Christians as supporters of the regime and create a new image of partners in the rebellion, places the Christians in another bind. Kilo considers the Christians who still support the regime as “either shabiha [paid thugs] or misled by the Church,” by which he means the churches’ directive to remain neutral. Kilo is the recipient of much criticism on Christians’ Facebook pages for accusing the “hesitating” Christians of betrayal or stupidity. “Betrayal of whom?” wondered one surfer on a Christian website, “the regime that until now was our sole protector? A regime which, if it falls, all the Christians will be taken out with it by the Salafist thugs or Al-Qaida’s people?”
The upshot is that cracks are forming even in the tight ranks of the Christians. Those who formerly heralded progress, liberalism, freedom of expression and were the ones to spread democratic ideas, now find themselves being forced to support the regime of oppression or else join a rebellion that itself is a threat to them. To their great despair, the Western powers − those that in the distant past used the excuse of protecting the Christian communities to intervene in the policy of Ottoman sultans − are keeping mum in the face of the massacre. Christian blood is still only Syrian blood.