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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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