The moment she saw the rosary on my bed, the chambermaid of my hotel in Aleppo smiled ecstatically. She was an Eastern (Greek) Orthodox who could claim to trace her roots back to the time of St Paul. Christianity flourished as long in Syria as it did in Iraq and thrived particularly well during the Alawite rule of the Assads since Hafez Assad’s Baathist coup in 1970, writes Trevor Mostyn in The Tablet..
But now Christians make up only 10 per cent of the population of Syria, and they are haemorrhaging from the region under the pressure of militant Islam. The peaceful protests that first began 16 months ago as Syrians demanded regime change have been overtaken by the spread of jihadist groups following President Bashar al-Assad’s violent clamp down against peaceful protests.
The mantra “Islam is the solution”, on the lips of so many in the region today, has exacerbated the flight of Christians.
Despite heroic stories of the protection given by members of Syria’s Sunni majority to Christian shopkeepers, Christian refugees are fleeing into northern Lebanon as fast as Iraq’s three million refugees are pouring from Syria back into Iraq. Indeed, one of the reasons that Russia has refused to abandon President Assad is its feeling of responsibility for Syria’s Orthodox Christian community.
Meanwhile, some 90 per cent of the Christians of Homs are said to have fled to Jordan recently, persecuted by a group claiming to belong to Al Qaeda. And among the four members of President Assad’s inner circle killed by the Free Syrian Army on 17 July was General Daoud Rajiha, Syria’s Eastern Orthodox defence minister.
The papal nuncio, Archbishop Mario Zenari, described the conflict as “dragging the country towards, destruction, towards unspeakable suffering and death”.
Some of the rebels today angrily accuse Syria’s Christians of collaborating with the regime but a fair number of Christians have supported the rebellion which began as a mere protest movement against a still popular President Assad in March 2011.
It is a far cry from his taking of power 12 years ago. When his strongman father died in 2000, many Syrians feared civil war but the young Bashar, an ophthalmologist from London, married to a pretty, bright, Acton-born girl of Syrian origin, offered his father’s many enemies an olive branch and gave reformist speeches.
FULL STORY Power relationships in the Middle-East (Tablet)