The last two years in Syria have seen a devastating tide of violence as the Free Syrian Army pushes for the widely condemned President Bashar al-Assad to step down from the leadership and allow for free and fair elections. As war rages on the streets of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, the minorities of Syria are increasingly becoming caught in the cross-fire of the fighting.
Syria is widely regarded as the “Cradle of Civilisation”[i], and is one of the most historically important areas for Christians worldwide. The Christian communities in Syria make up around 10 per cent of the population (approximately 2.6 million) and are one of the largest minorities in the country. The majority of Christians belong to the Orthodox Church (approximately 60 per cent), with other Christian denominations such as Syriac Catholic and Armenians also present in the country.
The Christians of Syria are predominantly concentrated in the cities and urban areas of Syria. Significant populations of Christians reside in the cities of Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, Tartus and the nation’s capital, Damascus. They contribute to a wide range of industries and are active and respected members of society, and have historically enjoyed comfortable relations with the Muslim majority of the population.
Throughout the country people are facing violence, destruction and death on a daily basis. UNHCR suggests that to date there are as many as 2.2 million Syrian refugees dispersed across other parts of the Middle East and further afield. In the Western province of Homs, a once large and flourishing Christian community, it is estimated that 90% of Christians have now been forced to flee their homes in the cities Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan due to the fighting.[ii] With one of the largest Christian neighborhoods in Syria, the once flourishing community in Homs has been significantly reduced, as many Christians and other minorities are in too much danger to stay in the besieged town.
Violent attacks taking place across Syria are driving innocent civilians to seek refuge in neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Those that have made it to refugee camps fear that they may never be able to return to their homes. For those in the North of the Country, refuge is considerably more difficult as tensions continue on the Syrian – Turkish border. As their homes and communities are destroyed in their absence, the future of the refugees is violently played out between the Free Syrian Army and Assad’s forces.
What started as small, localised street protests against the Assad government in March 2011, has dramatically escalated into a civil war. The total death toll is believed to be over 100,000, and a significant number of those who lost their lives are religious minorities including Christians. Those who have been lucky enough not to have been included in the daily death toll have been forced to flee the violence as their homes, businesses and communities are destroyed.[iv]
The various other revolutions that have toppled Governments during the Arab Spring do not stand as an encouraging precedent to the Christians of Syria. In Iraq, Libya and Egypt, the Christian communities have suffered greatly during and after recent regime change. The treatment of religious minorities including Christians in post-revolutionary Middle Eastern states has become a key factor for the international community in assessing the progressiveness, and indeed legitimacy, of new Governments.
Christians have been an important part of the Middle East for over 2000 years. Indeed as the birthplace of both Christianity and Islam, the region has benefited from the unique cultural practices of each. The collaboration and mutual respect between Christians, Muslims and other minorities has strengthened societies and increased trade and business in countries like Syria. However, the last decade has also seen a dramatic decrease in the numbers of Christian communities in the Middle East. Despite Christianity’s 2,000 year history in Iraq, some estimates warn that in 20 years’ time, Iraq may have no Christian communities at all.
The current situation unfolding in the Egypt is yet more alarming for the Coptic Christian communities. It is the international communities’ responsibility to ensure that all religious minorities in the region have a secure place alongside Muslim majority populations and are allowed to flourish and contribute positively to their communities.
The lives of Syria’s minorities must not be treated as revolutionary collateral. As violence rages, it is up to the international community to monitor and protect all innocent civilians. The Christians of the Middle East must be supported and protected.
[i] Alain Cheneviere, Syria: Cradle of Civilisation, 2002.
CHRISTIANS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams summarised the position of Christians in the Middle East in a speech made to the House of Lords in 2011. The main facts remain as true today as when he made the speech.
Text from Motion to Take Note in The House of Lords
9 December 2011
For the full debate click here to read on Hansard
The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, many people these days have a short and skewed historical memory. It is all too easy to go along with the assumption that Christianity is an import to the Middle East rather than an export from it. Because the truth is that for two millennia the Christian presence in the Middle East has been an integral part of successive civilisations- a dominant presence in the Byzantine era, a culturally very active partner in the early Muslim centuries, a patient and long-suffering element, like the historic Jewish communities of the Maghreb and the Middle East, in the complex mosaic of ethnic jurisdictions within the Ottoman Empire and, more recently, a political catalyst and nursery of radical thinking in the dawn of Arab nationalism. To be ignorant of this is to risk misunderstanding a whole world of political and religious interaction and interdependence and to yield to the damaging myth that, on the far side of the Mediterranean or the Bosphorus, there is a homogeneous Arab and Muslim world, a parallel universe. I do not need to elaborate for your Lordships the dangers we invite in accepting any such assumption. The Middle East is not a homogeneous region, and the presence of Christians there is a deep-rooted reality. We are not talking about a foreign body, but about people who would see their history and their destiny alike bound up with the countries where they live, and bound up in local conversations with a dominant Muslim culture, which they are likely to see in terms very different from those that might be used by western observers.
Yet at the present moment, the position of Christians in the region is more vulnerable than it has been for centuries. The flow of Christian refugees from Iraq in the wake of constant threat and attack has left a dramatically depleted Christian population there, and perhaps I can say in passing how very glad and grateful I was to have stood alongside the Grand Mufti of the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo at a press conference here in London some three years ago joining in condemnation of attacks on Christians in Iraq. Similar senior voices from al-Azhar have been heard more recently in condemnation of anti-Christian outrages in Egypt itself.
Issues in Egypt are inevitably among the most immediate in the minds of many of us just now. Of late, the Coptic community has seen levels of emigration rise to unprecedented heights, and in a way that would have been unthinkable even a very few years ago, it is anxious about sharing the fate of other Christian communities that once seemed securely embedded in
their setting. Perhaps the most troubling example, as your Lordships will be well aware, is the case of the Palestinians, one of the most sophisticated and professional Christian populations in the region, but now a fast-shrinking presence as a result of the tragic situation in the West Bank. Whether in Egypt, Israel and Palestine or Syria, what were once relatively secure communities are now increasingly seen as vulnerable. In Egypt, this involves a notably significant percentage of the population, with a deeply distinguished history, and it is not surprising if the current situation is causing apprehension, despite the many excellent examples of Christian-Muslim co-operation on the ground there.
The phenomenon of the Arab spring has brought some new considerations into play, and that is why I am particularly grateful that it has been possible to have this debate in your Lordships’ House today. Even as we speak, the future of the Arab spring is still deeply unclear. It has not been in any obvious sense a religious movement: the energy for change has originated with those who want to see accountable government, participatory politics, a robust definition and defence of equal citizenship for all, an end to repression of opinion, an end to rule by security agencies that are free to bully and torture, and an end to the culture of impunity. Perhaps it is worth noting in the light of all that that 9 December happens to be international Anti-Corruption Day. We need to remember too that so much of this is simply a demand that Governments in the region act on the commitments to human rights and dignities to which they have already signed up in a variety of international agreements.
The means by which this revolutionary energy has spread across the region have been the social networking media of our age and the accessibility of good reporting from many sources, not least Al-Jazeera. Yet the challenges to dictatorship have, just as in the Balkans, brought their own dangers and instabilities. What began as a distinctively non-sectarian set of movements has inevitably opened the door to some of those Islamic political activists who suffered repression under the old regimes. We wait to see exactly what agenda such groups will now want to advance as they win high levels of popular electoral support-whether this will mean new kinds of repression in which non-Muslim and, importantly, non-orthodox Muslim communities will become targets for discrimination or whether something more like the Turkish model will emerge: an openly and strongly Islamic Government with, equally, a strong commitment to practical pluralism and political transparency. This seems to be the direction in which Tunisia is moving, and we hope and pray that this may still be possible in Egypt. It is certainly not the case that we can assume that “extremists” are poised to take over the region tomorrow, but we still need to take with utmost seriousness the anxieties that are felt by communities already feeling exposed and uncertain.
The Arab spring has meant dramatically different things in different countries and, as these last remarks underline, there are a number of different political possibilities for governance grounded in Islamic principles. But against such a background we may get a clearer sense of how and why the Christian presence matters, and why its future is surrounded by so many anxieties. No one is seeking a privileged position for Christians
in the Middle East, nor should they be. But what we can say-I firmly believe that most Muslims here and in many other places would agree entirely-is that the continued presence of Christians in the region is essential to the political and social health of the countries of the Middle East. Their presence challenges the assumption that the Arab world and the Muslim world are just one and the same thing, which is arguably good for Arabs and Muslims alike. They demonstrate that a predominantly Muslim polity can accommodate, positively and gratefully, non-Muslims as fellow citizens, partners in an enterprise that is not exclusively determined by religious loyalties even when rooted in specific religious principles.
Christians in the Middle East are very sensitive to being described as “minorities”. For them, never mind the statistics, this can imply that they are somehow necessarily alien or marginal, rather than being both indigenous to their countries and historically bound up in the fabric of their societies. One of their real grievances is what they experience as the twofold undermining of their identity that comes from a new generation of Muslim enthusiasts treating them as pawns of the West and, on the other hand, from a western political rhetoric that either ignores them totally or thoughtlessly puts them at risk by casting military conflict in religious terms. Talk of crusading comes to mind. They are looking at the prospect of centuries of coexistence being jeopardised in a new, polarised global politics. They have no illusions about the problems that have characterised their history and the record of Arab and Turkish rule is not an entirely rosy picture. Memories are still vivid of segregation in various kinds under the Ottomans. Yet, the Christians of the region will obstinately insist that this is a history in which they have been agents, not simply anonymous extras. Their absence from the region would entail a massive and damaging collective amnesia.
Many of the Christian communities face a painful dilemma at the moment. Under some of the discredited regimes of recent years, they have enjoyed a certain degree of freedom from aggression or discrimination. The first tremors of political change were felt by some Christians as a bit of a threat to a status quo that, while anything but ideal, was a bit more bearable than some alternatives. Yet many of them felt equally that the popular pressure for accountable government and clear principles of civil liberty for all was a welcome development-indeed, a development of exactly the kind that so many Arab Christian intellectuals of the early and mid-20th century had eloquently argued for. The role of Arab Christian intellectuals in helping to galvanise several important movements across the region is still a story too little known in the West. At the moment, most of these communities urgently want to know whether the Arab spring will be good or bad news for them, and for other non-Muslim or non-majority presences. Once again, it is worth insisting that concern for Christian communities in the region is inseparable from a concern for the overall good of the societies of which they are part.
some of the specifics on which people wish to concentrate. One obvious overall point is that solutions can come only from within the societies of the region. The task of those outside is not to impose their own agenda and certainly not to do anything that adds colouring to the false and pernicious idea that indigenous Christians are somehow natural allies of a foreign government or an alien culture. But, that being said, it is important that we affirm as strongly as we can the importance of a political settlement in the region that will genuinely secure the good of all and be properly accountable to the peoples of the countries involved. Whether or not such a settlement involves a government conducted on Islamic principles matters less for these purposes than whether such a government are prepared to recognise an authentic status of citizenship for non-Muslims.
This is not about the creation-let me repeat once again-of a special status for Christians or others but about a general commitment to civic equality and the rule of law. This is why, incidentally, there is deep reluctance in Iraq to accept the idea of Christian enclaves as a solution to the situation there. Many recognise, with heavy hearts, that things may come to such a pass that there are few, if any, other options that will guarantee the safety of Christians. But they still feel, surely rightly, that the creation of enclaves would be the yielding of an important principle.
It is possible to argue, on the basis of Christian and Islamic thought alike, in favour of transparent government and a proper notion of civic equality. This is not a matter of any narrowly “western” idea of good governance but is about basic political ethics. That is the sort of argument about good governance as such that needs to be pursued if Christian communities are going to be secure in the future; not any sort of case for special treatment but a strong argument for justice, honesty and respectful diversity in the societies of the region.
There is one other point worth making that brings the argument closer to home. Our long-term hope, as I have insisted in these remarks, must be that the communities of which I have spoken will have a guaranteed place in their historic homelands and in the political life and discourse of their societies. Meanwhile, though, many are still forced from their homes and many end up on our own shores. One thing that often deeply intensifies the sense of being ignored and misunderstood is an attitude here towards Christian migrants or refugees from the region which assumes that they must be Muslim because they are Arab. I am sorry to say this, but in the past I have heard such sentiments even from some in government. It is an attitude that can sometimes also assume that they are converts whose faith depends on western missions and therefore in some way they are responsible, by their own choice, for their situation. A Palestinian Christian friend of mine was wont to say when asked by westerners, “When did your family become Christians?” “About 2,000 years ago”. We need some crystal clear guidance and education on these things if we are to avoid what is both a ludicrous and an insulting outcome. Syrian Orthodox children, for example-this is a real instance -were told by teachers in a British school that they should not attend a Christian assembly because
they must be Muslims if they are Syrians. We can do something about this in short order, and I trust that government and public bodies will do it.
In conclusion, let me say how very grateful I am for the opportunity to raise these issues today in your Lordships’ House at a time when they could hardly be more pressing. The potential for a radical political renewal throughout the Middle East and north Africa is immense, as are the risks. My contention has been that the security and well-being of the historic Christian communities in the region are something of a litmus test in relation to these wider issues of the political health of the region. I hope that our discussion today will constantly keep those broad political and ethical hopes in focus. I expect some distinguished contributions to the debate. Perhaps I may take this opportunity in particular of acknowledging with gratitude the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, in the Chamber and look forward to his contribution to our deliberations. I am particularly aware that the observance of Shabbat will oblige him to leave the Chamber early so I am all the more appreciative of his support. I beg to move.
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