I WAS at an ordination a few years ago, led by the Orthodox Bishop in Ezra’a, a mixed Christian and Muslim town in southern Syria. The basalt church was built in 515, and the service was part of the renewal of what had been a collapsing diocese.
Attracted by a skilful leader, new priests wanted to work with Christian communities that have been in south Syria since the earliest days. The heart of the diocese (which includes Dera’a, where the rebellion in Syria began) is the city of Suweida, on the Arab Mountain, where 95 per cent of the population is Druze, a relaxed mystery religion with elements from Platonism, who are skilled in producing arak (a drink rather like Pernod) and wine.
When the Bishop arrived in the late 1990s, he began to make the place good for his enfeebled community, setting up a clinic for the poor (who are all Druze), staffed by people from different faiths. And, because honour is important, he established a hostel for women students at the local university, where girls from all faiths could stay safely; so there Christians and Sunni, Druze and Alawite get to know each other. The Orthodox Church makes an important contribution to the life of the region.
In another diocese, my first visit to a dynamic bishop ended with a parting gift, a lapel pin. I assumed that it would be a cross, but, on inspection, I had been given the golden head of the then President of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current President, Bashar al-Assad.
The Bishop and his community matter to the government, and receive many benefits and support. In 1982, President Assad put down an extreme Islamist rebellion in Hama, very close to Homs, with a ferocity that many of the population welcomed, because the legalistic type of Islam, such as you find in Saudi Arabia, where people conform to strict regulations, is not liked by most Syrians.
The current Ba’athist regime in Syria believes that all Arabs are one, despite their religion. The regime has lasted many decades, and it naturally encourages the sort of mixing that happens in Suweida. In the years when I was ministering there, this was the norm in the main cities. It has meant for the various minorities a sense of safety, and of belonging.
FOR the Antiochian Orthodox Church, this is their land: they have been here since before St Paul, and they value a government that wants them to be there, and indeed welcomed thousands of Christians fleeing the recent chaos of Iraq.
Other minorities are not quite so embedded: the Syrian Orthodox in the mainly Kurdish north-east are descendants of people who fled massacres in the last decade of the Ottoman Empire, between 1915 and 1925. When you ask them where they are from, they will name a town or village in Turkey.
The Armenians, mainly in the Aleppo region, are similarly de-scended from refugees from that period. So they have all the more reason to thank the Assads, father and son, for the safety and success they have enjoyed. When you have been victims of ethnic cleansing, it makes sense to support your protector.
Many Druze fled from Mount Lebanon after 1860, at the end of a civil war in which the French protected the Maronite Christians. So Druze migrated south-east to the Arab Mountain (probably what St Paul means when he talks of going to Arabia). They have had a difficult relationship with the Ba’athist regime, which was run by Alawites — another heterodox group living in the mountains along the coast.
THE non-sectarian nature of Syria is something appreciated by many, from the majority Muslims to the minorities. It springs partly from the mystical Sufi tradition of Islam in Syria. These people fear what a change in regime will bring, and so they support President Assad’s government.
Champing at the bit is the Wahhabi world of southern Arabia, led by the Saudis, who see the pluralism of Syria as an affront to their unusually extreme and puritanical version of Islam. By funding and arming rebels, they hope to cleanse Syria of non-Muslims, as is happening in Iraq now. Not all the rebels follow this ideology, but they willingly accept the support.
The problem of Syria is that the stability of the religious minorities has been bought at the cost of a regime that offers none of the protections that everyone in the world ought to have. Business is controlled by the thugs who surround the President. The courts are easily bought. People with the right connections or money, or both, are unimpeachable.
Appointments in every walk of life are made by connections, so that the intelligent and educated are often overlooked for jobs for which they are suited. You can be tortured just because someone suggests your name. At least if you are imprisoned, you can bribe your way out. This brutal system, found across so much of the region, is supported by minorities because it protects them.
The leaders of these ancient Christian communities know that it is Christ’s command to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. But Bishops also have the long-term protection of their communities to consider. By supporting the Syrian authorities, they have done the latter, and they fear that extreme Muslims are planning a Syria cleared of other faiths and the freedom to think.
Christians in Syria and in the diaspora have been questioning their leaders’ closeness to the ruling powers for years, and it may be more than the country that fragments under the pressure: there is a real danger of the Churches’ being driven out.
The Revd Stephen Griffith was Anglican Chaplain in Syria 1997-2002.