By Milad Korkis Syriac journalist
Christian presence in Syria increased through two major displacements inside their ancient Mesopotamian homeland. The first displacement took place during and in the wake of the 1914 – 1915 Sayfo Genocide which led to the settlement of large numbers of Syriacs and Armenians in Syria – which was placed under French mandate after World War I. The second displacement occurred in the wake of the massacres against the Assyrian Syriacs in Iraq which led to the settlement of large numbers of them in the Euphrates Gozarto Region (al-Jazeera).
The Armenians and Syriacs were displaced from Anatolia and Iraq to Syria where the Armenians mostly settled in Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Kessab in northwestern Syria, while the Assyrian Syriacs settled, in majority, in the Euphrates Gozarto Region or present-day al-Hasakah Governorate, and in Homs.
It needs to be mentioned in this regard that Deir ez-Zor was one of the places whereto very large numbers of Armenians from Anatolia were forcibly displaced. Many Armenians perished during the long deportation marches or were killed in Deir ez-Zor. Syriacs suffered a new Assyrian Syriac displacement from Iraq in 1933 during and after the Simele massacre.
From the mid-twentieth century, the Christian peoples of Syria (again) underwent emigration. There were three main causes:
The first is economic: On the one hand, most Christians were landowners, investors and entrepreneurs. This secured them a significant presence in the economic and social arenas and enabled them to really participate in political and economic decision-making. In the mid-twentieth century for example, 75% of foreign commercial agencies were in hands of Christians.
But after the 1963 coup or “8 March Revolution” by the Arab socialist Baath party and its armed forces, the new Syrian rulers started implementing socialist policies. This in practice meant stripping private owners of their property rights, ending individual market initiatives and their economic role in favor of state control over the land, property and the economy. Another consequence of the Baathist coup was the emigration of the wealthier class. And they took their money with them. The first stop of emigration was Lebanon. From Lebanon they went further into faraway exile.
The second cause is related to safety and security after the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975. One of the dramatic consequence of the civil war, which saw sectarian fighting between the country’s Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druze components, was that it caused more emigration by Lebanese in general and by the Christians of Lebanon in particular. The latter had close relations and family ties with the Christians of Syria and, as a result and in one way or another, Lebanese emigration encouraged more Syrian emigration.
The third reason is political: starting in 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolted against the Syrian state at the hands of the “Tali’a muqatila” or “fighting vanguard”, the Muslim Brotherhood’s military wing. The revolt continued until 1982. The center of the revolt was Hama and spread to various other Syrian regions and cities. As a result of the increase of religious extremism by the Muslim Brotherhood and the accompanying sectarian rhetoric and violence, emigration increased rapidly until the point that the Syrian state stopped the issuance of exit visas to the country’s Christians.
Currently, the percentage of Christians in Syria ranges between 8-10% of the population. They are concentrated in the Euphrates Gozarto Region, Wadi al-Nasara or “Valley of Christians”, and in major cities as Aleppo, Damascus, Latakia, Homs, Hama, Tartus, Hasakah, Qamishli, As-Suwayda, and Deir ez-Zor. There is almost no Syrian city without a church.
In numerical terms, Aleppo Governorate has the largest number of Christians in Syria, followed by Homs Governorate. The Suwayda Governate, which has a Druze majority, includes a minority of faithful of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Al-Hasakah Governorate includes large numbers of adherents of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Syriac Catholic Church, as well as groups of followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
According to researcher Ivan Mannheim, Christians make up around 14% of the population in the Latakia Governorate. According to researcher Michael Izadi’s estimates, Christians constitute about 11.8% of the population of Tartus Governorate.
Daraa Governorate has adherents of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Syriac Melkite Catholic Church. The Damascus countryside includes various Christian groups especially in the cities of Saydnaya, Maaloula and Zabadani. Hama Governorate includes Christian communities, especially in al-Suqaylabiyah and Mahardah.
The Christians of Idlib Governorate are historically considered part of the Christians of “Upper Syria”, and their ecclesiastical center is Antioch. They are most likely an extension of Christian families living in what is now northwest Syria and southeastern Turkey. Indeed, many of the Christian Idlib families came from Iskenderun or Sanjak of Alexandretta after the 1930s agreement to grant the Sanjak to Turkey.
According to the BBC, Christians for a long period in the modern history of Syria have been represented well among the Syrian elite. This in spite of their numerical minority. They had representation in many political groups competing for control of the country, including secular Arab socialist nationalist movements. Michel Aflaq, the founder of the Baath Party, which has ruled Syria since 1963, was a Christian. And Christians have indeed ascended to high positions in the Baath party, government, and security forces, although they are not considered to posses real power compared to Alawites and Sunnis.
Like other Syrians, they had very limited civil and political liberties. According to the BBC report it is assumed that Christians accepted and appreciated the minority rights and protections by Hafez al-Assad, who was president between 1971 and 2000, and his son Bashar al-Assad.
In 2006, Laws of Personal Status were issued in accordance with Christian legislation and doctrine. Laws concerning Personal Status and Christian courts were issued for the Catholic denominations, the Eastern Orthodox, and the third for the Levantine Orthodox. Prior to that, Christians were subjected to Muslim Personal Status Laws – although they were not implemented in practice in terms of polygamy or divorce without the approval of the ecclesiastical authority – in order to preserve the constitutional foundation that considers all citizens equal before the law. In 2006 the constitutional phrases were reinterpreted in a way that allowed the issuance of special laws for personal status according to sect and denomination.
In the political arena, Christians participate in government with three ministers in the National Progressive Front, a political alliance in which the Baath party is the biggest party, and 17 parliamentarians in the 250-seat People’s Council. During the 2011 Syrian protests, Syrian Christian opposition figures and parties emerged.
According to the BBC report, the number of Christians is declining statistically because of the much lower birth rate of Christians compared to Muslims and the strong tendency among Christians to emigrate. Other sources add to this that Christians tend to be more educated and wealthier compared to other sects in Syria.
To be continued…