Most Syrian Christians Aren’t Backing Assad (or the Rebels)

Amidst the ruins of St Elias church in the rebel-held area of Harasta on 13 November 2016. Photo by Getty Images.
Amidst the ruins of St Elias church in the rebel-held area of Harasta on 13 November 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

Christians are often portrayed as supportive of the Syrian regime. There are two main reasons for this: most Christian areas haven’t witnessed demonstrations against the regime and many church leaders have declared their support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The regime and some Islamic groups have encouraged this perception – it serves their aims to frame the struggle in Syria as sectarian.

However, a closer look at the Christian landscape shows a different picture.

I’ve spent the last year interviewing Syrian Christians, both religious and lay, from different Syrian cities: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Al-Qamishli. Some of them are still based in Syria, while others have left the country.

There are certainly Christians who support the regime, including senior religious figures, state officials and business people whose interests are invested in it. There are also Christians who have supported the revolution from day one.

Political actors

Five years ago in Damascus, a group of Christians began meeting to discuss how Christians could support the revolution. They rejected the church leadership’s supportive stance toward the Assad regime and drafted a letter emphasizing the values of freedom and dignity for all Syrians, which they delivered to the leaders.

Christian activists have worked to raise awareness among fellow Christians about the revolution and its goals. Among one such group was Bassel Shehadeh, a young film director who went to Homs to document the revolution through video; he was killed in May 2012 as the regime bombed the city. In cities such as Homs, Aleppo and Al-Qamishli, Christian activists have taken part in demonstrations and sit-ins. Many have been arrested, some of them several times.

With the militarization of the revolution, many of these Christians moved toward humanitarian work. Their Christian family names make it easier for them to pass through regime checkpoints to deliver aid to areas under siege.

The Syrian opposition today, including the Free Syrian Army, includes several Christian figures, among them George Sabra, chief negotiator for the High Negotiations Committee, and Abdelahad Steifo, vice president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.

Apolitical actors

Yet both of these groups – those who support the regime or the revolution – are a minority among Christians. The majority are neither with the regime nor with the opposition. They look sceptically toward the revolution, particularly after its Islamization – but neither do they support the regime.

One senior religious leader told me how Christians in his area are willing to take up arms to defend their neighbourhoods against attack from armed Islamic groups – but this doesn’t translate into support for the regime. They refuse to serve with the military; they’re unwilling to fight for this regime. Many believe the regime cares little for their safety.

In April 2013, one week before he was kidnapped, Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo, blamed the Syrian regime for failing to deal with the ongoing crisis.

Some Christians who used to support the regime now register their discontent with the poor public services provided by the state and accuse the regime of neglecting Christian areas. A few months ago, another Syrian bishop warned the regime not to test the patience of the Christians in his area because of the deterioration of public services.

Unlike those who support the regime or the revolution, this group has no definite political position in the current struggle. They simply care for their safety and the provision of services.

Shaped by circumstance

Their attitudes toward both regime and opposition are often influenced by two factors. First, the degree of segregation between Muslims and Christians. In areas with a clear segregation between the two communities, as is the case in certain neighbourhoods of Homs and Aleppo, the Christians are closer to the side of the regime. In these areas, it is easier for the regime to push its propaganda labelling the revolutionaries as Sunni terrorists out to massacre minorities. In mixed neighbourhoods however, it is more difficult for Christians to believe their neighbours are terrorists, and they are more likely to understand the reasons of those who chose to revolt.

Second, the threat of Islamic militias also shapes Christians’ views. Syrian Islamic factions have failed to address the fears of Christians; on the contrary, in many cases they have used violence against religious minorities. Where Islamic groups present a real threat, Christians are likely to lean toward the regime. The less of a threat they represent, the more Christians are likely to take a neutral or critical position on the regime.

As with so many other things in Syria, this is a grey area. Christians in Syria are politically divided, just like other religious communities in the country, and they cannot be treated as one homogenous group. Moreover, their political position cannot be defined as being for or against the regime – their political attitude is shaped by their interests in safety and public services and is influenced by their environment, particularly the degree of religious segregation and the presence (or lack thereof) of an Islamist threat.

Georges Fahmi is a research fellow at the Middle East Directions Programme of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy.

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