Christians in Syria: escape, decimation and fear of Assad’s return

It is March 7th 2013. In a few short months Father Paolo Dall’Oglio will be taken prisoner by ISIS in Raqqa, right at the beginning of his mission to save others who had been kidnapped in Syria since 2011. Reporting on a conference Father Paolo had held the previous day in Beirut, the most important Christian newspaper in Lebanon, L’Orient Le Jour, quoted him as follows: “If Christians support the regime (Assad) because they fear Islamism, they will leave the country en masse. That is what happened in Iraq, it is what will happen in Syria and if no solution is found it is also what will happen in Lebanon. Christians living in the Middle East no longer understand why God sent them to live among Muslims. When one no longer finds answers to this question, then one leaves; one leaves the country. Theirs must be a spiritual and not just a social or economic answer.”

Given his kidnapping in Raqqa on July 29th that same year, we might ask: was Father Dall’Oglio wrong? The number of Christians in Syria had already dropped before 2011, due to the harshness of social and economic life. Once 10% of all Syrians, Christians now comprise only 2%, despite the defeat of the armed insurgents. There is no talk of them returning even to Aleppo, a city from which almost all Sunnis have been deported. And yet a law was passed about two months ago, Law No. 10, obliges all Syrians to quickly report to the authorities with their land registry deeds in order to have their property rights formally acknowledged. If they do not comply, the property will be confiscated. Faced with international pressure, Foreign Minister Muhallem, who is not responsible for this law, promised that more time will be allowed; no official statement has, however, been issued on the subject.

Regardless of the number of days allowed for complying with this law, can those who have sought refuge abroad and are living in desperate conditions return home? Will they and others who have moved to other regions consider it safe to return under Assad? Is it possible that this aspect of the tragedy, which also directly concerns millions of Aleppo’s citizens does not affect those who have remained, including many Christians? What is the narrative that Aleppo is providing as far as this terrible conflict is concerned? How can one explain the fact that the most recent deportation, from the Ghouta region—which is near Damascus—took place amidst the silence of local Church leaders, in jarring conflict with the very powerful words spoken by Pope Francis? A silence broken only by a joint statement issued when the Americans took demonstrative action, bombing locations at which chemical materials were kept, an attack that the statement described as “unjustified”, unlike the almost entirely chemical firestorm that hit the Ghouta area for months?

This is an issue I have been addressing for months with a friend from Aleppo, Roger Asfar. Aleppo has played a special role in the history of the Levant, due to the city’s historical and cultural importance, and also precisely because Aleppo was the epicentre for fleeing Armenians following the genocide. The fact that so many of Aleppo’s citizens were late in joining protests confirms that the Syrian rebellion started as a class struggle; it began in rural areas impoverished by drought and in small rural towns ruined by the neo-liberal policies of Bashar al-Assad’s family. These policies, which strangled the rural classes, can be summarised by one fact: there are dozens of private banks all partly owned by someone closely related to the president, such as Rami Makhlouf, a Syrian businessman far wealthier than the far better known Saudi magnate Walid bin Talal. What narrative does Aleppo offer as far as the bankruptcy of Arab politics is concerned? Is this not the real problem?

Speaking about his city and the Christians who live there with this young friend from Aleppo who has taken refuge in the Lebanon to complete his novitiate in a monastery, I could only start by addressing what I had heard. How common are truly denominational districts, such as the most famous of all, Azizia, whereby a Christian can live and die without ever having had a Muslim friend and vice versa? A number of friends in Aleppo have often spoken to me about this and to those who know Beirut it seems very strange. Modern Beirut’s birth certificate was a petition to the sultan signed by religious leaders and noteworthy representatives from all the communities, asking him to make Beirut a provincial capital in the empire of reforms. The war that had seen Christians and Druze oppose one another on the nearby mountain, or other communities in other places, seemed to vanish from Beirut’s history and this contributed significantly to the creation of an Arab, Mediterranean, modern and Europeanised city.

It is clear that things did not go that way in Aleppo. The same war, the same interdenominational bloodshed powerfully affected co-existence in Aleppo. In addressing the subject, Roger wishes to contextualise it in a more important past, between the end of the 18th and the early 19th centuries, therefore starting from the serious persecutions suffered by Christians. “There really were persecutions and it would be irresponsible, or perhaps suicidal, to deny this in the name of an ideology of dialogue or reciprocal respect, because nothing of value can be based on a denial of the factual, historical truth. Obviously the narrative issue concerns everyone”, he says. Speaking for himself about the Christian narrative, he continues: “Starting from the extremely serious denominational clashes on Mount Lebanon in the second half of the 19th century, in particular those of 1860, the persecution of Christians in Aleppo can be described as the first sign of what was to come. Churches were burned down, as were diocesan offices and the homes of Christians in the terrible massacre of 1850 in Aleppo.” Roger wants to contextualise these events more broadly. He goes on to say: “Just as is it inadmissible to deny that this was a persecution, it is also a mistake to see it out of context. Those tragic events should not wipe from our narrative the period of good governance under Ibrahim Pasha, especially regarding us [Christians], or important episodes of solidarity and friendship shown by Muslims during those tragic days. In our narrative there are no references to names, groups or families that offered protection, aid and hospitality to the persecuted and one could say that that such defence was heroic considering that there were human lives at stake and great danger.” It is in this sense that Roger wants to caution against “selective remembrance”. In his words: “If one does not also remember that [Muslim humanitarianism], one reaches the point of what I call selective remembrance, which also concerns another very important event in Aleppo’s history, Black Sunday in 1936. It was traumatic, also because memories of 1850 were still fresh in the community, but later on it was established that the battle that took place at the market on that Sunday was started by one of our own Fascist-styled armed militias known as the White Emblem. When that militia was disbanded it was established that its members were in touch with various secret services, in particular the French, and no doubt the French Mandate must have made some calculations.”

These are important considerations that Roger does not express in the name of ideological do-goodery. They are instead a historical reconstruction of events that allows one to understand, to exchange views and therefore to co-exist. As applies to many others, dialogue is established between real human beings, not between the leaders of different communities. It was for this reason, also, that Father Paolo Dall’Oglio liked to call it religious and not interreligious dialogue. The Baathist regime instead has always believed that only the dialogue between leaders was legitimate, plausible and acceptable. “One of the first things done in Baathist Syria in the ‘60s, was to take control of all Christian schools. A later judgement handed down by the judiciary imposed respect for educational autonomy, but Hafez al Assad’s regime put an end to all that, stating that if it applied to Catholics “it should also apply to all hostile religious institutions”. It was thus that a conflict was created in order to protect the regime. “Let us use a recent example”, Roger begins. “Everyone knows that in our community it was feared that the regime wished to confiscate land that belonged to the church. Rumours said that they wished to create a party school there. So, two authoritative representatives of our episcopates went to speak to Assad, as President of the Republic and as President of the Baath Party, but he very simply answered that he could not overrule a decision made by the judiciary; it was impossible. The land however had to be expropriated by the state, and seeing it was a woodland area, it was dealt with by the Ministry of Agriculture that then handed it over to the Party. This is what really happens, but in our narrative, the regime ‘protects us’.”

According to Roger Asfar, it is only the word “protect” that explains what has happened more recently. “Following the assassination of a head of the secret services who had been working for some time in Aleppo, many Christians wrote on Facebook expressing words of great appreciation, praise and admiration for him. And yet he was a terrible man”, Roger explains. He goes on to tell the story of a fellow citizen, a Christian who fled to Germany, who wrote, “that man tortured me, and you know that just as he tortured me he also tortured others!”. However, Roger recalls “there were poisonous answers. Are we a ferocious people? No. Obviously there is the great burden concerning everything that jihadist groups have been capable of doing after being set up insanely in Syria. And then there are the horrors with immense consequences, such as the Russian Air Force’s and the Syrian Army’s indiscriminate bombing of homes, schools and hospitals. The civil fabric has been lacerated and we live in the glory of fear; that is the truth. Why is it that no one returns to Aleppo? There are now perhaps a little over 6,000 Christians in Aleppo, none compared to the over 160,000 of a just a few years ago. One might ask why.”

Roger looks around and I am already thinking about the known presence of extortionist groups, about compulsory military service, about armed robberies. “When a bishop takes office at the head of a diocese”, he tells me, “one of the first things he discovers is the manner in which authorisations are requested, seeing that any small job must be authorised, as happens all over the world.” Roger continues by highlighting Syria’s distinct circumstances: “In Syria, however, one must proceed as follows; authorisation requests presented to the relevant authorities are necessary but also useless; it is the informal permission from the security services that is decisive. Either they approve, or everything is blocked for centuries, whether it is restoration work, a change in what the location is used for, or modernisation.”

Roger goes on to explain the implications of this: “It is obvious that in this manner one establishes a relationship; the more the interlocutor becomes powerful within the services, the more the bishop will be able to answer the many needs his parishioners present to him, the many petitions he receives every day. It is this mechanism that explains why the regime secretly decided to kidnap two bishops from Aleppo who vanished five years ago.” The dangers of this, he notes, are for those who grow too powerful within these relations: “Those permitted to improve their position and notoriety, within certain limits, are officials working for the services, the mediators who facilitate the establishment of a relationship, not the bishops. And Johanna Ibrahim, one of the two kidnapped bishops, had become too respected; he had good relations within the country and abroad, his name had become authoritative and therefore he was feared.” Roger wants to add a cautionary note to his explanation: “It is this that tells us that one must not be excessively Manichean. No world consists only of great personalities, like Johanna Ibrahim, and therefore there will be some who allow themselves to be compromised by the regime due to weakness and others who instead will try and compromise the regime with the needs of the population; and some who suffer silence to offer aid and other who will do so for other reasons. What is serious is the context. Denominationalism, tribalism and Mafioso styles have no idea of the meaning of “citizenship” while others know perfectly well what ‘protection’ means.”

Translated by Francesca Simmons

Credit: Delil souleiman / AFP