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Syria war: Ten years on, Syrian Christians say Assad 'has taken us hostage'

Members of Syria's Christian minority now in exile say president has manipulated the community while cracking down on dissent
An Assyrian Christian Syrian in the Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary, destroyed by the Islamic State group, in the village of Tal Nasri, south of Tal Tamr in northeastern Hasakah province on 15 November 2019 (AFP)

"His name isn't on the list." 

Five years on, Najwa, who declined to give her surname for fear of being identified, still remembers feeling nauseous as she pleaded with a Syrian officer for information about her missing son, 16-year-old Hani.

She later learned what had happened from a friend of his. Nabil, then 18, told her that a man working with the Syrian army had recruited the two teenagers to join troops based at Tabqa military airport, in the northern Raqqa governorate, to repel an assault by the Islamic State (IS) group. 

"You Christians are our nation's elite, Bashar [al-Assad] has chosen you to fight," the recruiter said to them, as Nabil later told Najwa.

The next day, their unit retreated to the government-controlled village of Ithriya, in Hama province. But they never arrived. After taking refuge for the night at a farm near the air base, the unit was attacked by IS once again.

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Nabil was one of the few who escaped their bullets, hiding in a vehicle. Hani, however, was never found. 

"And Assad dares to say that he is protecting us?" Najwa said, with tears in her eyes as she sat in a quiet cafe in the Latin quarter of Paris, telling her story to a journalist for the first time.

Syrian Christians are often portrayed as supporting President Bashar al-Assad throughout the uprising that began on 15 March 2011 and escalated into a war that is now 10 years in the fighting on 15 March.

Yet far from Damascus, in France, Christian refugees who survived the war tell a much more complex story.

The hierarchy of Assad’s Syria

While much of Syria's Christian leadership has indeed opted to side with the Syrian government, untold numbers of Syrian Christians don't support it, while others were active members of the opposition.

The conflict has hit Christian communities hard. They numbered 2.2 million when the war sparked in 2011, but their number dropped to 677,000 in 2021, according to the Index of Persecution of Christians in Countries Worldwide published by the NGO Open Doors.

Regardless, Assad, himself an Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam, has positioned his family as an ally of Syria's minorities.

Using the threat of radical Islamist groups, even though he let many of their fighters out of prison early in the conflict and dealt economically with them later, Assad has managed to retain relative legitimacy among some western political circles despite official disavowal of his government, said Ziad Majed, a Franco-Lebanese political scientist and professor at the American University of Paris (AUP).

"The Syrian regime has established a social hierarchy that distinguishes minorities perceived as 'useful' - including part of the Sunni upper and middle classes - from the rural or suburban, working-class Sunni majority," Majed said. 

In summer 2012, when the conflict escalated in the wake of the massacre of more than 100 civilians in the western region of Houla, northwest of  Homs, Dr Haissam Saad's life was turned upside down.

He was filmed treating political dissident Riad Seif, one of the many wounded flooding hospitals in the Syrian capital Damascus as the army repressed demonstrations. 

'After a few weeks of this hell, I begged my torturers to execute me'

- Haissam Saad, Syrian doctor

A short while later, the surgeon was arrested by a branch of the Syrian intelligence and imprisoned.

Many of the dozens of prisoners sharing Saad's cramped, unheated cell died from the cold during the winter months, he recalled. Others bled to death after the guards' frequent beatings.

"When you are tortured with electricity by five people at the same time, you would rather die a thousand times. I tried to end my life by banging my head against the walls, to no avail," the 60-year-old said, speaking from his Parisian living room.

“After a few weeks of this hell, I begged my torturers to execute me,” he added. But a guard objected: "'Mr Doctor is a Christian, we can't finish him off,' he said."

Saad paused his story to show three fingers of his left hand. He hasn't been able to move them since the day they were broken under torture. "But to me," he said, his expression darkening, "all these pains are nothing compared to the tragedy that followed."

When Saad was released in June 2013, he learned that his son, having deserted the army, had been killed by a loyalist sniper.

That Christians civilians are shot, beaten to death, or left to perish in prison cells by the same authority that presents itself as their protector is no surprise, according to Mazen Darwish.

The lawyer and president of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, a non-profit organisation based in France, was detained by the authorities from 2012 to 2015, and declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. He himself is from the Alawite minority, like the Assads, but that has spared him no more than it spares Christians.

"The logic is: 'you're either with me or you don't exist'," he told MEE.

Divide and rule

In the Syria of the Assads - both Bashar and his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 29 years - the government has tied its fate with the Alawite and Christian minorities, prioritising these communities for government jobs or perks to foster support.

Damascus has "used" religious minorities "to build its political system," explains Fabrice Balanche, specialist in the political geography of the Middle East and author of The Alawite Region and Syrian Power.

By aligning himself with Christians and the educated and urban middle class of all confessions - at the expense of poor working-class, rural and conservative Sunnis - Assad's intention has been to present himself as more progressive than most Syrians, political scientist Majed notes in In The Mind of Bashar al-Assad. It has been an image geared towards the international scene but also to the more up-and-coming, "westernised" part of the Syrian bourgeoisie.

A mourner attends the funeral procession of a fighter from the Syriac Military Council (SMC), a small minority of Christian fighters fighting alongside the rebel Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in Hasakah on 22 November 2019 (AFP)
A mourner attends the funeral proceedings of a fighter from the Syriac Military Council, a small minority of Christian fighters fighting alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces on 22 November 2019 (AFP)

Even before the war, this tactic resulted in a two-pronged use of violence: against some, it is targeted and secretive, resulting in assassinations and imprisonments, according to Majed. For the rest, it is all-encompassing and indiscriminate, taking the form of starvation through siege (a strategy used against the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk south of Damascus in December 2012) and massive bombing.

Imprisoned for two years under Hafez al-Assad in 1987 for his links to the Syrian Communist Party, Bassel Khoury now lives just south of Paris. "I feel Syrian first, then Christian," he told MEE. 

The calm of the Parisian suburb contrasts with the memory of his violent arrest in 1987 when he was only a student.

"One of the regime's biggest fears is alienating minorities, in particular the Christian community, which is mostly educated," he said. "They want to avoid a hostile political consciousness emerging."

Khoury would notice the favouritism towards him in his day-to-day life in Syria, such as whenever an ID check showed-up his religious affiliation, especially during the war. "It would have been an ordeal if my name had been Mohammad," he said, referring to the frequent police checks and humiliations faced by many Muslim Syrians.

Such situations also made Najwa uncomfortable when she was still in the country. "When an administrative employee let me cut the queue, or when my car was the only one not checked at a roadblock, I'd see the anger in other people's eyes. Why did I deserve to pass in front of them?"

This favouritism that created resentment against religious minorities was a deliberate move by state officials, Majed said.

"This puts Christians in a situation where they need the regime even more, to protect them from people who might begin to resent them," he said.

"Feeding this animosity then allows them [the government]  to portray themselves as 'saviours' of minorities facing bitterness from the Sunni majority, while giving the Christians the illusion of a preference for them."

By discriminating against Syrian citizens and exacerbating sectarianism in spite of its secular rhetoric, the Baathist rule under both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad has made itself appear indispensable to put out the flames it had itself stoked. 

Playing the diplomatic Christian card

In one of his rare wartime appearances outside of Damascus, Assad chose to appear in the Christian village of Maaloula on Easter Day 2014, escorted by members of the clergy. The town had been retaken from rebels a few days earlier.

Who was he trying to seduce with these pictures, broadcast around the world? Syrian Christians who spoke to MEE have no doubt: it was "El-Gharb" - "the West" in Arabic.

In France at least, where thousands of Syrian Christians have taken refuge, the tactic seems to have borne fruit. In an article published in French daily Le Monde on 20 April 2018, a humanitarian aid worker described French NGO SOS Chretiens d'Orient ( SOS Christians of the East) as "an excellent and inexpensive lobbying agency for Assad". This ideological mixture has attracted fierce criticism, including from the Catholic church.

A woman holds a Syrian flag bearing the portrait Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration called by fundamentalist Catholic organisation Civitas in support of Christians of the Middle East on 20 June 2015 in Paris (AFP)
A woman holds a Syrian flag bearing the face of Bashar al-Assad during a protest called by fundamentalist Catholic organisation Civitas in support of Christians of the Middle East in June 2015 (AFP)

Assad's portrayal as a defender of religious minorities was amplified with the rise of IS in Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2013. Assad now shared a common foe with the international community.

The so-called Islamic State, headquartered at the time in the town of Raqqa, viewed all those who did not follow their strict interpretation of Sunni Islam - including Christians, Shia Muslims, or Assad's own Alawite community - as heretics.

While the benevolent treatment of the Christian minority is certainly a showcase for Damascus to boast about in the West, which has largely sided with the opposition in the war, above all it allows the Assad's government to burnish its credentials with its main strategic ally since 2015 - Russia, Tigrane Yegavian, journalist and author of Eastern Minorities, the Forgotten of History, said.

Speaking to MEE, Yegavian pointed out the close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church of Syria, ties that are as much spiritual as they are economic. In 2013, the Orthodox Church of Antioch in Damascus received $1.3m  from the Russian church.

In 2015, Russian fighter jets carried out their first strikes over Syria, with the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church's patriarch. Russian President Vladimir Putin at the time claimed to be defending Eastern Orthodox communities, as Yegavian points out in his book.

In the aftermath, Assad told French right-wing weekly Valeurs Actuelles that he saw the master of the Kremlin as "the only defender of Christian civilisation".

'Assad took us hostage'

For the Syrians speaking to MEE, western focus on Christians in Syria and the broader Middle East is misguided.

"These stories of religion that interest the media so much don't even deserve to be reported, in our opinion," said Saad, who had demonstrated in the streets of Damascus alongside both Christians and Muslims.  

The fact that there were Christians among the opposition to Assad does not, however, change the reality that the drive to revolt in Syria came predominantly from the Sunni community, according to Frederic Pichon, a historian and author of several books on the Syrian conflict.

Christians never engaged as a collective in the protests, said Pichon. Some Christian opponents see this weak participation as evidence that Assad's plan to divide and conquer the country worked.

'We are being triply punished'

- Samira Moubayed, Syrian Christians for Peace

One of them is Samira Moubayed, vice-president of Syrian Christians for Peace, an NGO critical of both the Syrian government and the use of arms by its opponents.

"We are being triply punished," she told MEE. Christians are as much victims of Assad as the rest of their fellow citizens, she said, while also being exploited on the international stage. 

"By presenting Christians as his proteges and allies, Assad took us hostage."

The Christian community's caution in supporting the opposition comes first of all from the fragility of their situation in Syria, Yegavian said. According to a Damascus church official, Christians represented 25 percent of the Syria population in the wake of World War II, but between only 5 and 6 percent before the Syrian civil war in 2011.

Their number has only gone down since, with Christians representing only 3.6 percent of Syrians in 2021 according to some estimates, a high price to pay for their supposed support for Assad.

Most of them have remained on the sidelines "out of fear of jihadist violence, or any violence for that matter," said Pichon.

"Some of my Muslim compatriots say to me: 'You Christians are with the persecutor, Bashar'," said Samir, a former resident of Aleppo who asked to use a pseudonym as some of his family remain in Syria.

The former university professor is eager to explain the role that his fellow Christians have played in Arab and Syrian history, before coming back to the present day.

"We are not just threatened by terrorist groups, we also have to suffer the Syrian regime's injustices like our Muslim brothers. We would like to live in a state that respects freedom and justice," he told MEE.

Samir's daughter was murdered in 2012 by an armed gang. It was only thanks to a Muslim Bedouin, who travelled 170km under a deluge of bombs to hand over her body to her father, that he was able to bury her.

It was a gesture, like many others before and since, that defied violence and political considerations. Some may read it as an example of interreligious coexistence - others, perhaps, as a simple demonstration of human solidarity.

Translated from French by Emerald Maxwell.

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