DARAMSUQ — A delegation from the Swiss University of Lugano visited Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Mor Aphrem II at the Patriarchate in Daramsuq (Damascus). According to the Patriarchate’s media office, the Swiss delegation’s visit was intended to further promote cooperation and academic relations between the University of Lugano and the University of Antioch after agreements for cooperation were made in 2020.
The visiting delegation included the Dean of the Faculty of Theology Professor René Roux and Dr. Luca Steinmann, a journalist and geopolitical analyst at the Federica Spitzer Foundation in Lugano who mediated to bring about cooperation between the two universities. The meeting was attended by the Patriarch, His secretary Bishop Mor Youssef Bali, and President of the University of Antioch Dr. Rakan Razuk.
The University of Antioch is a private university administered by the Syriac Orthodox Church and is located in Maarat Saidnaya, also the location of the Patriarchate. The initiative to establish a private university, intended originally to be established in the Gozarto (Jazira) Region in North and East Syria, was taken already in 2007 by the predecessor of the current Syriac Patriarch. Patriarch Mor Aphrem II officially opened the university on 6 November 2018. The Antioch Syrian Private University is owned by Renyo, a private company whose name is Syriac for “Idea” or “Thought”.
The Syriac Orthodox Church has a long history of running private primary and high schools, for example in Holeb (Aleppo) and Gozarto Region, where, besides the Syrian Ba’ath curriculum, the Syriac schools currently teach the basics of the Syriac language, grammar, catechisms, and religious hymns a couple of hours a week.
The Ba’ath Regime and Syriacs
The Ba’ath regime’s call for the support of the Syriac people is still done mainly through the church hierarchy, the structure around which most Syriacs are still organized. As an authoritarian status-quo regime, the Ba’ath regime keeps Syriac Melkite, Maronite, Orthodox, and Catholic Church leaders close and under implicit and explicit pressure as a means to control indigenous Christian peoples. The patriarchs of the different churches are based in Daramsuq. This system predates the current regime and has a precedent in the Ottoman “Millet” system, which they in turn inherited it from the Byzantines.
In the Middle East, Churches assent not necessarily because they like authoritarian regimes and their oppressive and ruthless policies, but out of an anxiety for the lives of their faithful.
It was, for example, only after the popular Syrian uprising in 2011 and the subsequent fall-out between Syria and Turkey that the Syrian regime gave the green light for the Syriac Orthodox and Catholic Churches to publicly commemorate the Sayfo Genocide of 1915 and establish monuments throughout Syrian cities with a Syriac presence. At the same time, Turkey encouraged religious minorities to organize prayer in support of Turkey’s operation in Syria.
The Regime Takes, the Regime Gives?
The Syriacs (Arameans–Assyrians–Chaldeans) are one of the oldest peoples inhabiting Syria and have for decades, like other minority peoples of the region, been deprived of legal and constitutional recognition and denied the associated cultural and political rights. That is, denied by the ruling Ba’ath regime at least.
After the 2011 popular uprising and in urgent need to shift military resources to Syria’s western provinces, the Syrian regime cut a deal with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its associated militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), handing over to them control of large swathes of northeastern Syria, a diverse but majority Arab region, while keeping a military and intelligence presence in key sectors.
This evolved into the Kurdish-led Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA) where activist Syriac political parties and organizations were at the base of the DAA as co-founders. From 2015 onward, these Syriac parties and organizations started developing a secular Syriac curriculum to be taught in Syriac schools in the DAA to replace the Ba’ath curriculum. According to its proponents, it was an attempt to free Syriacs from the mentality of Arabism, to break with the notion of Syriacs being Arab Christians and to emancipate Syriacs in secular, cultural, and political self-representation.
The introduction of a full Syriac curriculum failed as the developed Syriac curriculum was only partially introduced in private Syriac schools. In August 2018, the church hierarchy, school boards, and Kurdish, Arab, and Syriac (Aramean–Assyrian–Chaldean) parents (the overall majority of students in the private Syriac schools in Gozarto are not Syriac) heavily objected to replacing the current curriculum in a large protest in the streets of Zalin (Qamishli) and declined the imposition of the Syriac curriculum on their schools.
Anxious about the lives of their faithful, Syriac Catholic, Melkite, Orthodox, and Maronite church leaders assent, comply, and self-censure. We also have to remember that the ruthless and dreaded Syrian intelligence services — and other intelligence services — hold key sectors in the cities of Gozarto Region, especially in Zalin where the protest against the imposition of the Syriac curriculum took place.
The fierce rejection and the protest in the streets of Zalin, which included local church leaders, was primarily due to the fears over wider national and international recognition. A legitimate concern given the potential for issues with admittance to Syria’s universities, nearly all of which are located in regime territory. Such a situation would decrease children’s future prospects for higher education and employability. There is no clear answer to the question of wider acceptance of the curriculum at the moment. It will take time to develop the new Syriac curriculum, train Syriac teachers, and educate students in the language. The question of national acceptability will only be answered through negotiations with the regime.
Another reason for the fierce rejection and protest by Church leaders could be implicit or explicit pressure from the regime. Where the DAA, and especially the Kurdish component, has already replaced the Ba’ath curriculum in many state schools under its control with its own curriculum, replacing the Ba’ath curriculum in private Syriac schools with a Syriac developed curriculum would be unacceptable for the regime. Introduction of a Syriac curriculum would be a direct rejection of the Ba’ath regime, a further step in the emancipation of Syriacs (Arameans–Assyrians–Chaldeans) and a next step in the consolidation of the democratic model of the DAA, demonstrating that, rather than a purely Kurdish alternative, the DAA system could be applied to all parts of Syria. As the regime can not easily stop the strong and determined Kurdish component, it can influence the smaller Syriac (Aramean–Assyrian–Chaldean) component in the same manner as it has done in recent decades through pressure on Church leadership.
If we assume that the regime has learned from decades of playing one community off of another through strategic punishment and reward, the establishment of the Antioch Syrian Private University may very well be an attempt to reward the Syriac leadership for protesting in August 2018 against the imposition of a Syriac curriculum in DAA administered areas. The regime takes and the regimes gives.