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Nostalgia for the rule of Assad

25 October 2013

Many Syrian Christians regret what they have lost in the civil war, says Stephen Griffith

Praying for peace: clerics from different Churches in Damascus last month

Praying for peace: clerics from different Churches in Damascus last month

THE civil war in Syria is baffling. What began with a children's demonstration for justice has become a many-sided struggle, and the Christians (who have been there for many centuries) are caught in the middle.

Hidden away in the chain of mountains running down the east coast of the Mediterranean, a variety of heterodox minorities have sought protection from the oppression of the orthodox majority for centuries: the Maronites from Byzantine power; the Druze and Alawites from Sunni Islam. By the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Alawites had become downtrodden peasants, who faced, at best, exploitation by Sunni landowners, and often random abuse and rape.

It is hard to grasp how severe such oppression can be. The French changed this in their occupation after 1918, favouring the Alawites, and, in particular, enlisting them in their colonial special forces, so that, on independence, they were in a position to overthrow a weak democracy and take power in a military coup.

Over the past four decades, the Alawites have formed the core of the government of Syria, but other minorities were part of it, and even some Sunni Muslims. President Hafez al-Assad took power decades ago in a coup, and his iron grip continued under his son Bashar.

THE regime was not just brutal. Many poor Syrians did well, despite the underlying violence, which was itself a response to centuries of humiliation. If you were Sunni Muslim, however, you would not get justice. The regime was set against you.

The grandfather of a Sunni friend of mine was hit by a regime thug's car. The driver reversed over him to make sure he was dead; and there could be no recourse to the law. When the children of Dera'a were arrested for their graffito: "We want freedom," their fathers demonstrated for their release. An apparatchik sent from Damascus told them that he would not release the children, and the men should go back to their wives and make more children: if they didn't, he would make babies with their wives in their place.

That threat of rape as a tool of subjugation continues. Violent oppression results in the lust for revenge, but revenge does not salve the pain of historic humiliation; it dehumanises both parties, making further violence inevitable.

BEFORE he was kidnapped, the Syrian Oriental Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mor Yohanna Ibrahim, consistently called for talks to end the crisis (News, 31 May). He saw the government as a protector from Sunni violence for his people, who had fled there after the 1915 genocide in Turkey.

The Young Turk government had massacred Armenian and Syriac Christians in the area just north of Syria. Archbishop Yohanna was rightly grateful for that protection, and the Christians needed the secularist regime's support, but they were often tempted into too close an alliance.

In the early 1990s, the minister of the tiny Presbyterian church in Damascus preached, one Easter, to much scorn, of the resurrection of the then-President Hafez al-Assad. The President was not dead, but the minister had to talk about him rather than Christ, so closely was his community linked to the regime.

Other Christians mocked, but they knew what he was doing, clinging to safety in an uncertain world. The smaller the community, the more pro-regime they were. My own contact with the Security Police was a Protestant minister of a tiny community. When I visited a new Syrian Orthodox bishop in 1996, he gave me a gold lapel badge: not of the cross, but of the President: he had been lured by the regime's power, money, and connections.

The ancient Church of Syria, the Antiochians, as the largest group, were more likely to distance themselves from the regime. On President Bashar's accession in 2000, Patriarch Hazim preached about the need for moderate changes - a brave thing to do - and, in the early days of the revolution, many Christians joined in the demonstrations across the country seeking reform.

WE SHOULD not imagine that Syria's Muslims are violent jihadis. There is a strong tradition of mystical Sufism there, and those who sought to revive Islam, and who later became the Muslim Brotherhood, were mainly against the violent uprising in Hama in 1982, when those jihadis attempted a bloody coup and were crushed.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is pluralist, and supports democracy. If it came to power, although seeking a Muslim government, it would protect and welcome the participation of all minorities in government. It is ironic that the Brotherhood's side is being supported by the wild extremism of Saudi Arabian Islam, its Wahhabism being far from the subtle and educated traditions of Syria. My Sunni friends despise the Saudis for their arrogance and extremism.

CHRISTIANS have fled the destruction in Hama, Homs, and Aleppo. Some are safer in Wadi al-Nasara, known as the Christian Valley, west of Homs; others have escaped to Turkey and Lebanon. I met an 18-year-old Christian in Turkey, his family still in Syria while he escaped military service. They may still prefer the regime to the violent jihadis, but their son's blood is worth more than the regime.

Elsewhere in Syria, the city of Lattakia basks in the autumnal sun, its mixed community of Orthodox Christians, Sunnis, and Alawites strolling by the sea at sunset, as they have always done. In other completely Christian villages on the edge of the semi-desert, there is no change, no flight; and in the Druze mountains, where the one-per-cent-Christian population is settled among 99-per-cent Druze, things seem to be entirely stable. Not all of Syria is a hell-hole of bombing and snipers.

Syria may not exist as a functioning state any more, but plenty of people look back three years, and wish that those days would return. The Christians, in particular, know that, under a cruel regime, they were safe. The pluralism of Syria was something to be cherished, and they want it back.

The Revd Stephen Griffith was Anglican Chaplain in Syria 1997-2002.

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