What is the future of Syria’s Christians after the war?
In addition to its political intractability, the brutality of the Syrian war has taken on religious and sectarian dimensions that exposed structural imbalances in Syrian society and taxed ethnic, religious and sectarian segments and poisoned their lives with a climate of anxiety and mistrust.
Syrian Christians have had their fair share of the war’s toll, which must have rekindled memories of the humanitarian disasters and massacres suffered by Oriental Christians. Such memories perhaps made them feel they were targets for annihilation and that migration was their only chance to survive.
The size of the Christian community in Syria has fluctuated with the political conditions in the country since independence. Until 1967, Christians constituted 30% of the population in Syria, a country considered by Christians as the cradle of Christianity and the site of many sacred spaces, from churches and monasteries to shrines. Damascus hosts both the Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and the Orient, as well as the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem.
After independence, however, the Christian population of Syria started shrinking. In 2005, a census estimated that Christians made up 10-12% of the population.
As the Syrian civil war raged, the trickle of individual Christian migrants changed into mass exodus. Christians in Syria are now estimated at 8% of the population. UN data from 2016 stated that, of the 5.5 million Syrian refugees, 825,000 were Christians. That represents a more than 40% of the 2 million Syrian Christians listed by the 2005 census.
Although the migration of Syrian Christians occurred under similar general political, economic, social and religious circumstances — namely the rise of extremism and fundamentalism — as other migrations of all oriental Christians, the plight of the Syrian Christians was the focus of the meeting in July convened by Roman Catholic Pope Francis.
The meeting was the first ecumenical event since the Council of Ephesus of 431 in which Roman Catholic bishops called for prayer with all the patriarchs and leaders of Catholic and Orthodox eastern churches.
The catastrophic decline in the presence of Christians in Syria troubled the shepherds of the church, who say the expected end of military operations in most of Syria and the victory of the Assad regime is an opportunity for the return of Christian refugees. Syrian and Lebanese patriarchs asked Pope Francis for help by urging European countries to repatriate Christian refugees to restore religious balance in Syria.
The calls for the return of Christian refugees to Syria irked many Christian circles. Syrian Christians for Peace, an NGO in the United States, denounced the position of the patriarchs, which was seen as favouring the Syrian regime.
The group said the patriarchs, under the pretext of being concerned by further flight of Christian migrants, “do not realise the dangers and disadvantages entailed by their positions and pit Syrian Christians against all their fellow compatriots from other backgrounds.”
The reasons behind the flight of Christians from Syria were reduced to the issues of insecurity and persecution by armed groups in some areas. The church leaders did not mention the more pertinent root causes — poor economic conditions, corruption, the marginalisation of Christians and other groups in political or economic decision-making and the absence of civil rights and the rule of law, conditions that affect everybody in Syria.
To the long list of Syrian Christian grievances, we can add recent fears that their sons would be subject to forced conscription, as well as the dissolution of communal modes of living brought about by societal transformations. There is a lack of initiatives that would restore trust between communities. It is not enough that government officials participate in the social and religious events of Christians and reiterate the catchphrases of secularism, which the patriarchs always insist on to reassure Christians.
Secularism is disregarded in the constitution, which mandates that the president of the republic be Muslim and considers Islamic jurisprudence as the main source of legislation. Secularism is flouted when authorities promote religious movements, such as the all-female Qubaysiat or al-Fariq al-Shabab al-Dini or support religious institutions and colleges or Shia mosques, which do not encourage peaceful coexistence, as is well-known. Such actions do not reassure Syrian Christians or other minorities that their future and place in Syria are safe.
Pope Francis’s legitimate concerns about the future of Christian communities in the Middle East are real because the issue is one of the greatest threats to the region. Middle Eastern Christians have an important cultural role in that they have acted as a bridge between Arab civilisation and Western civilisation. Their presence served to temper negative Western views of this Orient, which is seen as a source of terrorism, and they have played a role in tempering extremist ideologies in both camps. Many Islamist ideologies have been oblivious to this role.
One cannot really end the migration of Syrian Christians just by calling to come to their aid and encouraging them to return to their homes in Syria. Their return must be prepared on the basis that returning to one’s homeland and one’s home is a basic human right and has nothing to do with political considerations. Similarly, guaranteeing their future in Syria should not be contingent on any alliance or scheme for balancing the proportions of various religious communities in the society.