The Christian population of Syria comprises ten per cent of the overall population. It is made up of many groups, the main ones being the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church and the Greek Catholic or Uniate Church. This latter church does not care for the term Uniate, which it regards as pejorative due to apostate eastern European associations.
The Maronites are probably the largest element amongst the Greek Catholic communities in Syria, in communion with Rome but with their own ancient Aramaic liturgy. They claim to have had links with Rome from the fifth century. Some other Syrian Catholics may have established links around the time of the crusades.
The Armenian Christians are thought to be refugees from Turkish oppression in the early twentieth century. There is also a scattering of Protestants, who are thought to have fallen under the influence of visiting missionaries.
The Christian communities tend to be urban – and relatively prosperous. In Damascus they live in harmony with the Muslim community, the unwritten rule being that no group either proselytises or accepts apostates.
The population of the territory now known as Syria would once have been entirely Christian and descendants of the original Christian communities of the New Testament period.
They were also the losers over the centuries which followed. The huge success of monotheist Islam reduced them to a minority and the fall of Constantinople in 1453 confirmed that their subordinate position was unlikely to be reversed. Nevertheless these communities managed to survive. The Ottoman Empire was Muslim but also tolerant of the numerous minorities who lived within its borders. But that empire collapsed in the early twentieth century.
The Assad regime of the late twentieth was a poor substitute for the Ottomans. Nevertheless life for Christian minorities under that autocratic dispensation was tolerable. Militant Islamists, for whom Christians were an offence before God, were given little quarter by the Alawite Ba’athists.
The elder Assad defeated a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in 1982 and declared: “Brothers and sons, death to the criminal Muslim Brothers! Death to the hired Muslim Brothers who tried to play havoc with the homeland!”, fighting words which must have brought joy to Christian hearts.
Assad the younger has been less successful. The Sunni militants are just outside Damascus. In the Irish Times on November 18th Michael Jansen reported that mortars had killed four Christian schoolchildren the previous week. She comments that Christian communities are “repeatedly targeted by radical Muslim fundamentalists”. The funeral service was attended by representatives of several Christian communities and the Grand Mufti of Damascus.
These communities, including minority Muslim groups, are hanging together being aware of the murderous hatred with which they are regarded by Islamist radicals whose campaign is buoyed up by jihadist shock troops from over forty countries. Charles Glass, in a forthcoming New York Review article, reports expert opinion that the opposition to Assad comprises over a thousand groups. He also quotes an experienced Red Cross worker who commented: “If there are secularist rebels, I haven’t met them.”
The question now is whether it is possible for talks in Geneva to work. The signs are not propitious. As one conservative Sunni businessman quoted by Glass put it “Geneva II is bullshit. There is no will to stop on either side.” Glass also quotes veteran Moroccan diplomat Mokhtar Lammari, who observed “The ingredients are there for a genocide in a few months.”
It must be hoped that these opinions err on the pessimistic side and that something comes of the Geneva talks, when and if they take place. Otherwise the ancient Christian communities of the region, having survived the rise of Islam in the seventh century and the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth may be driven into the sea in the twenty-first.
See “Syria: On the Way to Genocide”, Charles Glass. New York Review, December 5th, 2013.