Syrian rebels linked with Al Qaeda have reportedly taken over the historic Christian town of Maaloula, deepening concerns that without the protection of President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s Christians, roughly 10 percent of the population, could be left vulnerable to mass emigration or persecution.
“I want [Mr. Assad] to stay in power because he was very good to
Christians,” said Athraa, a young Syrian mother who recently fled from
her village on the Syria-Iraq border to Jordan with her husband and two sons.
was religious freedom for Christians with Bashar…. We were not missing
anything,” she said, speaking several days before Maaloula fell in her
apartment, with suitcases teetering atop a rundown armoire. “We are
expecting what has happened in Iraq to happen in Syria as well.”
Indeed, from Egypt
to Lebanon to Syria, many Christians are worried that the rise of
political Islam and heightened militancy could have a disproportionate
impact on already beleaguered Christian minorities – just as in Iraq over the past decade.
Roughly half of Iraq’s 1 million Christians left the country,
constituting at times 20 percent of Iraqi refugees though they made up
only 5 percent of the overall population.
At a conference on
challenges facing Arab Christians hosted by Jordan last week, more than
50 prominent Christian leaders as well as a handful of top Islamic
scholars pushed for interfaith dialog to help quell rising sectarianism.
They emphasized the key role Christians have played in Arab societies
for 2,000 years, including well before the advent of Islam, and the
danger not only to Christian individuals but to the societies as a whole
if Christians were to be pushed out altogether.
presence throughout these ages is [now] aced with so many challenges
that shake the pillars and the foundation of Arab culture and the
Christian component within it – especially with the rise in emigration,
which negatively affects Arab Christians,” said Armenian Patriarch
Nurhan Mannougian of Jerusalem.
Jordan’s King Abdullah, who
invited the conference participants to lunch in the Royal Court, said in
a short address beforehand that Jordan stands as a model of coexistence
and fraternity between Muslims and Christians – not out of benevolence,
“We also believe that the protection of the rights
of Christians is a duty rather than a favor,” said the king.
“Christians have always played a key role in building our societies and
defending our nations.”
a hilly neighborhood of Amman, a final hymn wafts out of the softly lit
windows of the Jesuit Fathers church as the evening breeze picks up.
After the service, dozens of Iraqi refugees file out between the simple
blue chairs, touching or kissing the cross on their way out.
them is Mofed, who owned a photo shop in Baghdad. One day, he says,
some men came to his shop and gave him three options: become Muslim; pay
$70,000 as a tax levied on non-Muslims, known as jizya; or be killed along with his family.
nine months ago he and his wife fled to Jordan, and have found refugee
in this church, run by Father Raymound Moussalli of the Chaldean
Androus from Mosul, Iraq, and another member of Father Raymond’s congregation, says he received a similar demand via telephone.
“Because you are infidels, you have to pay jizya,” he recalled being told over the phone. “Either you pay jizya, or we will kill you or your son.”
Mofed and Androus, together with their families, are awaiting visas, hoping to start a new life in the West.
the nearby neighborhood of Germana, Ridda and Shafiqa are also waiting –
to go home to Syria. They sit on a few thin mattresses and plastic
chairs. A small calendar on the bare walls proclaims, “I the Lord do not
Anas, their son, says he got threatening messages back
in Syria: “Your money is for us to take, your wife is for us to sleep
with, and your children are for killing. This is all halal,” or
permissible under Islamic law. He escaped with his wife and children to
Jordan, but not before his liquor store had been burned down.
the husband, was kidnapped by rebels for a week until the Syrian Army
got close, prompting the rebels to flee. He went home to Damascus to
pack his bags and discovered that during his captivity, his house had
been hit in a rocket attack. He packed his bags for Amman, where his family was already waiting.
been here for a year now, but are hoping to return as soon as there is
security – no matter who is in power. But they are clearly concerned by
the examples of other countries, where Islamist forces gained power
after the secular regime was toppled.
“We see the countries in
front of us – Iraq, Libya, Egypt – the Brotherhood took charge and look
what happened in one year,” says Ridda. Egypt’s Copts, which comprise
roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million citizens, have faced escalated
kidnappings, killings, and church burnings since the 2011 uprising that
ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
“If the Brotherhood took over in
Syria, it would not be the same,” adds Ridda. “We would be like Lebanon,
living in cantons – every sect with its own area.”
one of the most pressing questions is where Christians would fit in a
state that draws more heavily on Islamic law. Arab Christian leaders at
last week’s conference repeatedly emphasized the need for equal
citizenship rights and fear some Islamist interpretations of the concept
of the ummah – a global nation of Muslims across political
borders – would preclude that. “Ummah would cancel the concept of a home
country and the pluralistic nature of a country,” said Gregorios III
Laham, Melkite Greek Patriarch of Antioch, in a panel on Syria.
Munib Younan of the evangelical Lutheran church in Jordan and the Holy
Land encouraged his fellow Christians to “battle with political Islam
and not to be afraid of it,” emphasizing the need for engagement with
all Muslims not just for religious understanding but to discuss the
“proper relation of religion and state.”
As both Muslims and
Christians grapple with the tremendous upheaval in the region, Sheikh
Ali Gomma, grand mufti emeritus of Egypt and one of four senior Muslim
scholars who attended last week’s conference, condemned the attacks,
church burnings, and humiliation of Christians in Egypt.
“This is a
huge violation not only on the humanitarian level but on the Islamic
level as well,” he said, contrasting the heightened bitterness with the
calmer days of his youth, when he would play soccer with Christian boys
and share food with their families. “It is incumbent upon us to
eliminate this bitterness and tension which is victimizing our brethren
He said Friday sermons pose a key challenge for Islamic
leaders espousing better relations between Muslims and Christians.
“Sometimes our Islamic colleagues would curse Christians and that would
be transmitted to Christian neighbors,” he said. “Muslims need to change
their Islamic discourse.”
Amid all the upheaval, the same faith that has made Christians something of a target has also provided comfort for some.
believe in Christ. … The peace of Jesus is in my heart,” says Athraa,
the young mother of two, wearing pink Crocs and hot-pink nail polish.
“Always the Bible is open. What else will give me power? The Word of God
gives me power.”