Christian exodus from
SyriaChristians have been fleeing Syria since the uprising
against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad began two years ago, with important
consequences for the country’s religious diversity, writes Bassel Oudat in
Damascusتكبير الصورةتصغير الصورة معاينة الأبعاد الأصلية.
Syria is believed to be the land from which
Christianity spread to the four corners of the world, and it is home to a church
dating back to the time of Christ’s disciples. It was here that Paul the Apostle
began his journey, and the country still hosts some of the world’s oldest
churches. Some Syrians still speak the ancient Aramaic language that Christ
spoke, and for centuries Syrian Christians were fully integrated into the larger
society and co-existed with other faiths and cultures.
However, today Syria’s Christians, along with
other segments of society, are facing new challenges triggered by the uprising
of the Syrian people against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
They also bear the burden of the distinct challenges that face the continuing
presence of Christianity in the Middle East as a whole.
The exodus of Christians from Syria has been
increasing over the past four decades since president Hafez Al-Assad, father of
Bashar Al-Assad, took power in 1971. When the country became independent in
1945, Christians represented some 20 per cent of the population, but by 1980
this figure had dropped to 16.5 per cent, or around 2.5 million people, and it
dipped to 11 per cent in 1990.
Today, it is estimated at six per cent of the
population, or 1.5 million people.
According to Syrian scholars, the exodus of the
country’s Christian community compromises the region’s culture and diverse
heritage, and it has taken place despite the fact that the country’s
constitution and laws grant Christians full rights. Christians have been
appointed to senior government positions, such as the present parliamentary
speaker Faris Khouri, and they have served as cabinet ministers, army chiefs of
staff, and held senior positions in political, diplomatic and administrative
However, none of this seems to have stopped Syrian
Christians from wanting to leave the country, in search of a better life in
Europe or the US. Some have been fearful of the rise of Islamist fundamentalism
over recent decades, though this has not been the community’s only
Christians form the second-largest sect in Syria
after Muslims, and they belong to many denominations. Eighty per cent are
Orthodox (Eastern Church), and the rest are Catholics, Maronites, Protestants,
Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs. The headquarters of the Greek Orthodox
Patriarchate of Antioch and the East is located in Damascus, and the culture and
traditions of Syrian Christians differ from those of Christians in the West. The
province of Haska has the highest concentration of Christians in Syria,
accounting for 25-30 per cent of the population there.
Syrian Christians, like Syrian Muslims, are found
across the political spectrum and have the freedom to build churches and houses
of worship that they administer independently. The country’s personal status
laws require the Church’s consent to marriage and divorce, but otherwise in the
eyes of the law Christian females are treated the same as Muslim women. Overall,
co-existence between the religions has been exemplary.
FROM THE BEGINNING TO SYRIAN INDEPENDENCE:
Christianity has been a Syrian religion since the first century CE, and the
ancient kingdom of Ghassan in southern Syria was Christian, though composed of
This kingdom was made up of the Tanoukh, Tamim,
Taghlab, Kalb, Madr and other tribes, all of which were Christian. These tribes
facilitated the entry of the Arabs and Islam into the Levant, and they helped
the Arabs defeat Byzantine rule in Syria when Ghassanid Arabs fought against the
Byzantines at the Battle of Yarmouk. The Ummayid Dynasty during the first
century of Islamic rule in the region also relied on Christians to Arabise the
state administration, being favoured by the Ummayids as a result.
Christians co-existed with the new Islamic state
for the first four centuries after the arrival of Islam from the seventh to 11th
centuries CE, and though they were given full civic rights, they did not enjoy
equal political rights to Muslims. Their status deteriorated after the Crusades
at the end of the 11th century because they were accused by the European
crusaders of aiding the Muslim states, while the Muslims accused them of
assisting the crusaders.
While Christians accounted for 90 per cent of the
country’s population in the first century CE, their numbers had dropped to half
that number by the time of the Crusades. This downward trend continued because
of Christian conversion to Islam, either to avoid persecution or to gain
privileges that were enjoyed only by Muslims. The country’s Christians were also
sometimes persecuted during the Mamluk Dynasties that ruled the country from the
12th to 16th centuries, followed by a period of improvement during Ottoman
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the region’s
Christians contributed to the Arab nahda, or renaissance, and they worked to
raise Arab national aspirations against the Ottoman Empire. They played key
roles in the Arab cultural and political revival by opening schools, helping to
revive the Arabic language, publishing newspapers, founding associations, and so
on, and they also helped found Arab political associations with Muslims and
demanded decentralisation and the recognition of Arabic as the official language
of the state.
When president Hafez Al-Assad came to power in
1971, his regime claimed to be the guardian of the minorities in Syria in an
attempt to gain favour with them. Al-Assad appointed Christians to political
positions, though without giving them significant powers, this causing many
Syrians to withdraw into intellectual or academic activities and away from
politics, and not only Christians.
The country’s Christians did not support the new
regime because they realised that it was not the protector of the country’s
minorities, but was only seeking to use them for its own ends. They also
believed that the regime was trying to take advantage of them to belie
suspicions that it was simply a totalitarian regime, and they did not feel that
they were true partners in power as a result, suspecting that instead the regime
was treating them as second-class citizens. Christians who opposed the regime
suffered in the same way as other Syrians for four decades.
Meanwhile, many members of Syria’s Christian
clergy supported Al-Assad the father, and, later, Al-Assad the son when he came
to power in 2000. This was their way of protecting their freedom to practice
their faith, and many of them may also have hoped to benefit from the protection
of the regime. They may also have feared the brutality that the regime used
against opposition religious figures.
Suleiman Youssef, an Assyrian political activist
and an expert on Syria’s minorities, believes that the ruling Syrian Baath Party
helped change the Christians in Syria from an integral component of society into
a politically marginalised minority. Baathist policies have triggering the
departure of around 250,000 Christians from Haska province alone, resulting in
new demographic imbalances, he said.
Christians are an intrinsic and fundamental part
of the fabric of Syrian society,” Youssef told Al-Ahram Weekly. “They
contributed to building the modern Syrian state, and the Christian elite
succeeded after independence in taking advantage of the marginal freedoms
granted at the time to promote Christian heritage and culture, as well as the
Aramaic language. They founded cultural, social and educational institutions,
but unfortunately these things changed once the Baath Party took power in
Most Christian institutions were shut down, or
party police forced the Christians to close in on themselves. Many of them later
emigrated. In Haska, for example, large numbers of Christians left, most of them
Assyrians and Syriacs, all of whom fleeing the Baathist regime.”
Assyrians and Syriacs are among the oldest peoples
of the region, and they also embraced Christianity early in its history. They
came to Syria from northern Iraq in the first quarter of the 20th century and
settled in the northeast of the country, numbering around 50,000 in 1980. Today,
only 5,000 remain, most of them older people.
REASONS FOR EXODUS: There have been many reasons
for the Christian exodus from Syria. At first, it may have seemed to be a result
of personal initiative, but political, security, economic and religious problems
in the Arab countries over the last century also caused them to leave.
According to official figures, the reasons for
Christian emigration have been given as 44 per cent for employment reasons, 30
per cent to marry and start a family, 15 per cent to study and not return, and
10 per cent for other reasons.
However, these official reasons do not touch on
the real reasons for Christian flight, and they merely confirm that the regime
has been trying for decades to conceal these real reasons. It has tried to
present to the world the idea that Syria is a safe and stable country and one
where religious co-existence is guaranteed. But Christian intellectuals
attribute the growing emigration from Syria to reasons including their
marginalisation as a result of political pressures and their rejection of the
growing atmosphere of intellectual and cultural retardation in the
Another reason may have been the link between Arabism and Islam,
with some Islamist currents in Syria trying to deny Arab Christians an Arab
Emigration has been directly linked to democracy
and human rights,” Youssef said. “The continued presence of Christians in the
Levant depends on the establishment of a civil and democratic state that
respects everyone’s rights. This state should be based on justice and equality
and the principle of full citizenship rights without discrimination.”
Christian flight has also been triggered by poor
economic and living conditions and worse political conditions, as well as
intertwined religious and historical factors.”
Razek Siriani, former representative of the Middle
East Council of Churches in Aleppo, told the Weekly that the political and
economic upheavals in Syria had “added to discord between Christians and
Muslims. The political, economic, social and security challenges that have
struck the region have stirred up fears among Christian and Muslim youth about
their future and the prospects of co-existence with each other,” he said.
Today, there are about 12 million Christian Arabs
out of some 300 million people in the Arab world, or about three per cent of the
total population. This figure was much higher in the mid-20th century, but it
has dropped because of emigration. Percentages differ from one country to
another: in Lebanon, for example, Christians are estimated at 35 to 40 per cent
of the population, while in Syria they are only an estimated six per
Christian Arabs are divided among some 11
denominations, apart from Egypt’s Copts. Christians also form various ethnic
minorities, such as the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Armenians and some Kurds.
Christians in the Arab world are mostly found in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan,
Iraq, Palestine and South Sudan.
The Christian presence in other countries is very
limited and usually a result of employment, such as in the Gulf states, or of
former French colonial rule, as in the Maghreb countries. _Official figures show
that Christian emigration has increased over the past four decades, not only out
of Syria, but also out of most Arab states. Statistics show that 126,000
Chaldean Christians have emigrated from the town of Tal Faek in northern Iraq,
for example, and while in 1975 Christians accounted for 47 per cent of the
population in Lebanon, this has now dropped to between 35 and 40 per cent. Some
26 per cent of the country’s Maronite population, 25 per cent of its Orthodox,
and 19 per cent of its Catholics have left the country. While there were once
five million Christians in Lebanon, today only some two million remain.
The first wave of Christian flight from Lebanon
was triggered by clashes in 1858, but most of the emigrants left for Egypt and
Palestine since it was unusual for them to leave the Arab world, at least until
1871. The first Christian Arab emigrant left Bethlehem for Brazil in 1880, and
soon after this emigration to South America picked up, most obviously between
1900 and 1930. The number of Arab emigrants to Brazil alone in 1970 was 1.8
million, rising to 5.8 million in 1986, most of them being Christian.
The wave of Christian Arab emigration began to
take on a political nature in the mid-20th century, and it started to drain the
region of its cultural diversity. While emigration at first was limited and on
an individual basis, this soon paved the way for a wider exodus because the
first pioneers brought over others after they had found jobs in their new
countries of residence. _The number of Arab immigrants in the US at the
beginning of the 21st century stands at some three million, two million of them
Christian, according to a study by the National Arab Conference in 2000.
Father Tony Dora of the Maronite Diocese of
Damascus, said he feared that the growing emigration by Eastern Christians would
affect the demographic composition of the Arab world as a whole and of the
Middle East in particular.
Dora said that Christian Arabs had been the victim
of lax security in the region, whether because of wars, or political, sectarian
or ethnic conflicts._“Christians overall are fixated on the demographic factor,”
he said. “The sectarian complexities of the Middle East have triggered new fears
among Christians, and the deteriorating security conditions have had a distinct
impact on them.
Christians have been among the first victims of
these conditions, but we remain hopeful that we can maintain the character of
our country and its rich diversity, as well as the pursuit of co-existence that
has always been one of its most important features.” __Christians and the
revolution: Syria’s Christians enjoyed a reasonable level of freedom under the
Al-Assad regimes, and they have often remained quiet since the beginning of the
uprising two years ago, possibly out of fears of the rise of radical Islamists
to power in Syria should the regime fall._However, despite this reluctance to
take part in the uprising, the injustices that have been inflicted on Christians
in Syria have been no different to those inflicted on other Syrians.
They have seen their fair share of arrests,
imprisonments and deaths, and Christian protesters have been killed in the
ongoing conflict._Because of the diversity of Syria’s Christian community and
its diverse political and intellectual composition, it is difficult to talk
about a single Christian position on the crisis. In general, however, Christians
are largely sympathetic to the uprising, some of them even participating in it
to some extent._The Christian community has been divided since the beginning of
the uprising into three camps: supporters of the regime; opponents of the
regime; and neutral elements. Many Christian clergy support the regime, and they
have traditionally been chosen based on their links with the security agencies.
They have wanted to prevent Christians from becoming embroiled in a conflict
that could cause them great losses. Some opportunistic Christians have supported
the regime for personal gain._Yet, the majority of Christians have supported the
peaceful protests, many prominent Christian opposition figures demanding a civil
democratic state with rotation of power and criticising the clergy for
supporting the regime. A third camp has chosen to remain on the sidelines of the
conflict, fearing regime brutality against the opposition, though they have also
chosen to support the uprising through the Internet.
The Christian population as a whole has suffered
from the regime’s oppression, and it disapproves of the regime’s military
crackdown. As a result, the regime has attempted to gain the community’s support
by sowing fears about the revolution’s “fanaticism” and its non-acceptance of
the country’s minorities.
The Church in Syria has abandoned political
rights in order to focus on God’s rights,” Michel Kilo, a prominent Christian
opposition figure, told the Weekly.
But we refuse to accept that Christian rights be
seen as merely the right to worship. We will not accept anything less than full
citizenship rights and genuine political participation in the new Syrian
state.”_“Many Christians have received threatening messages because they have
supported the revolution, these being sent by criminals calling themselves
Christ’s Militias. However, the Church will never restore its position as the
Church of Christ if its priests do not demand not only the protection of the
lives of their Muslim brothers, but also of their own rights and freedoms. It is
only in this way that the Church can once again become the Church of Christ.”
_Nevertheless, some Syrian Christians remain worried about the future, wanting
to know the position of the revolutionary movement regarding the future identity
of the state and looking for guarantees that religion will be separated from
politics. They want reassurances that Christians have a political and cultural
future in the new political system that will be worthy of their heritage. They
are no longer fooled by regime claims that it is the guardian of minorities, or
that the next regime will be made up of radical Salafis.
Over the past few months, Christian neighbourhoods
in Syria have been the target of car bombings. The regime has accused terrorists
of targeting Christians, but the majority has been unconvinced. Instead, the
attacks have had the reverse effect to the one that was presumably intended,
with more and more Syrian Christians now supporting the revolution.
Meanwhile, church committees in areas with high
concentrations of Christians, especially in the north of the country, have
formed the Social Relations Council for Christian Churches as a way of
supporting the revolution, of protecting Christians, and of bolstering relations
between Christians and Muslims.
Christians from many villages have fled in large
numbers after the regime began bombing residential areas with heavy artillery,
destroying many churches and monasteries as it did so. Many have abandoned their
homes in areas where the regime has committed massacres against Sunni Muslim
civilians, out of fears that they will suffer a similar tragedy. Meanwhile,
large numbers of Christians have also left areas that have fallen under the
control of the armed Islamist opposition out of fears of being ruled by Islamic
NOT BETTING ON THE REGIME: Last September, the
Syrian opposition formed the first armed Christian brigades affiliated to the
Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Damascus under the name of Allah’s Warriors in order
to defend civilians and fight against regime forces.
The joint command of the FSA welcomed these
brigades, describing them as “confirmation that the Syrian Revolution is the
revolution of all Syrians, which undercuts the regime’s lies.” It called on
Syrians “to ignore the calls for division that the regime has been trying to
propagate to ignite a sectarian war,” saying that “post-Al-Assad Syria welcomes
all opinions, sects and faiths.”
A key factor that has affected the general mood
has been the regime’s attempts to drag Christians into its war,” said Adel
Bishara, a Christian opposition figure. “Although the revolution has become
militarised, the opposition has become armed, and there has been a rise in
homegrown and foreign radical Islamist jihadist and Salafist groups, in the eyes
of many Christians the regime is the culprit for the continuing
The regime is also the primary suspect in the
bombings of Christian areas, with the intention of deepening fears about
alternatives to the Al-Assad regime and trying to bolster up its claims of being
the guardian of Christians and minorities and the guarantor of their security.
History has shown that minorities are the primary victims of tyranny and
dictatorship, and everyone benefits from co-citizenship, justice, law and
It is not true that Syrian Christians have been
counting on the regime to protect them, or that they have linked their future
with its fate,” Youssef said. “Never in history have dictatorships and
oppressive regimes protected the rights of minorities. In fact, minority rights
have always been a bargaining chip between authoritarian dictatorships and their
Christians in general will not object to the
overthrow of the incumbent regime or mourn it. They have been eager to leave the
country precisely because of persecution, ethnic oppression and political
marginalisation. The regime has caused hundreds of thousands of Christians to
flee Syria since the 1963 coup.
What they are most worried about today is the
security and political vacuum that could follow from the overthrow of the
regime, especially if it is removed through violence or foreign military
intervention.”_The Syrian political opposition does not draw a distinction
between Christians and Muslims, and its leaders embrace different faiths. The
current chairman of the National Syrian Council is a Christian, George Sabra,
and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces
includes several Christian leaders. The leading figure in the Democratic Forum
is also Christian. There are many Christians in leadership positions in the
National Coordination Committees.
European diplomats working on immigration matters
and human rights recently visited northern Syria, the stronghold of the
country’s Christians, to explore the reasons behind the emigration from these
regions to Europe. They found that Christian flight was directly linked to
democracy and human rights, and that Christians staying in Syria depended on
establishing a civil democratic state that respected the rights of
The international NGO Human Rights Watch recently
warned that the mass exodus of religious minorities in general, and Christians
in particular, from Syria was a result of armed clashes and assaults on
religious sites in areas where the population was mixed. The group blamed these
on the regime and armed forces “that operate in the name of the
Human Rights Watch said that the reasons behind
recent raids on Christian churches had been simple robbery and religious motives
had not been involved.
It asked opposition fighters to protect religious
sites in areas under their control and emphasised the need for “the opposition
to follow through on its promises to protect the rights of minorities and defend
places of worship by reprimanding those who try to attack them.”
Despite domestic and international warnings that
the Syrian revolution could disintegrate into sectarian warfare, there has been
no evidence of this thus far.
The armed opposition, which is mostly Sunni, has
not conducted any attacks of a sectarian nature or targeted Christian towns and
villages, even in the regime’s Alawite strongholds.
A LESS ENRICHING SCENE: Syrian intellectuals have
recognised the threat that Christian flight represents for the diversity of the
region, and they have emphasised that the Christian presence in the Levant
bolsters the modern state, cultural diversity, pluralism and democracy.
The Syrian scene will change culturally and in
human terms if the Christians leave. It would be a huge loss if Levantine
Christians felt they and their children had no future there. Yet, while such
intellectuals argue that the presence of Christians in Syria is essential for
the vitality of Arab and Islamic culture, others have been warning of possible
persecution, even though representatives of all the churches have asserted that
such persecution does not exist.
Boosting the Christian national presence requires
a policy that takes into consideration this community’s social and cultural
character and the sensitivity of its position as a religious minority,” Bishara
said. “It also requires a balanced national policy that places their cause in
the proper nationalistic framework and guarantees that they have genuine
opportunities to participate in political life. This would deepen their
relations with other components of Syrian society, end their exodus, and boost
their determination to remain in their homeland of Syria.”
Meanwhile, the regime has been indirectly
encouraging Christians who have left not to return by requiring them to check in
with the security agencies upon their return to Syria and generally making their
lives as difficult as it can. It has forced expatriates to exchange money at
official rates, lower than actual prices, and it has monitored money transfers
and forced Syrians to undertake compulsory military service.
Instead of seeking to gather them together, the
regime has sought to divide the country’s Christian communities by sowing the
seeds of suspicion among them and recruiting them to act against each other.
There are no Syrian clubs, societies or institutions abroad to bring expatriates
together, as there were during earlier waves of emigration. The data show that
the numbers of clubs, newspapers and institutions founded by the early migrants
were many times greater than those that exist today.
Syria throughout its history has been home to many
sects who have co-existed together for hundreds of years. This presence was not
affected by the political, economic or cultural disputes in Syria until the
beginning of the 1970s. After independence in the 1940s, the banner was raised
that “Religion is for God; the Homeland is for All.” Christians were chosen to
serve in the highest offices of government, including as prime minister, as
cabinet members, as parliamentary speaker, and as military chiefs of staff in a
country with an overwhelming Muslim majority.
This confirms that sectarianism is not the
foundation of the nation, but that citizenship is, even as the regime has done
its best over the past four decades to sabotage the co-existence and harmony
that has existed for hundreds of years and divert it from its natural
Today, many Syrians are concerned about their
Christian brethren, wondering whether they will be able to return to their homes
when the fighting stops. Will they be the latest chapter in the tale of the
vanishing Christian population of the Middle East?