Report Paints a Grim Picture for the Future of Christians in Syria 26/06/2013
This report, coordinated by the World Watch Unit of Open Doors International, contextualizes, analyzes and interprets current developments in Syria, with a particular emphasis on the position of its Christian population.
The first section of this report, written by political analyst Nicholas Heras1, provides an overview of the main political, social and economic trends that characterize Syria as a country. Heras shows that although social discontent with a failing economy and government corruption, in addition to the violent repression of demands for political reforms, were the main triggers for the Syrian civil war, the roots of the conflict are deeper and more complicated, and include class conflict, rural versus urban divisions, and repressed political liberty. This finding in part explains why the conflict has so rapidly evolved into a sectarian identity conflict.
The description of the main political forces in the country sheds light on the composition of the pro-government and anti-government actors. The government's power base includes parties close to the Assad clan, specialized divisions of the country's military and informal paramilitary groups (the Shabiba and the popular committees, which are frequently associated with Syria's minority communities).
Though often overlooked, Heras' report clearly shows that anti-government factions are heavily divided. Their core is formed by the Syrian National Council (which is dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood) and its military arm, the Free Syrian Army. However, the SNC is rivaled by important independent groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, the Syrian Islamic Front and Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool, which all have an ideological Islamist program.
The Syrian civil war has also become a battlefield for regional influence, displaying the rivalry between the Sunni-majority Gulf Coordinating Council led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which endorse several factions of the Syrian opposition, and the Shi'ite-majority Islamic Republic of Iran and its "Resistance Axis", indirectly through Hezbollah or directly supporting Assad's government.
Heras concludes that the complexity of Syria's sociological composition 'makes Syria's civil war a potentially intractable, and highly divisive, conflict.' Moreover, what will happen in the post-conflict phase is not clear: 'either an al-Assad government or an opposition victory in the civil war raises significant important questions about the future of the country and the preservation of its civic peace.'
Christians in strategic areas
The second section, also authored by Nicholas Heras, is a profile of Syria's Christian community, which provides additional insights about the position of Syria's Christians, and includes case studies of two hot spots in the conflict: the areas of Aleppo and Homs. It comprehensively describes some of the greatest current and future threats to the Christian community.
One of the main features of Syria's Christian population is its combined (or confused) ethnic and religious identity. Another feature of the Syrian Christian community is its numerical presence, which translates into its economic and political relevance. Particularly significant for the understanding of the position of Christians in the context of the current civil war is the concentration of Syria's Christians in strategic areas of the country that are vital to both the government and the opposition's war efforts, such as in and around the cities of Aleppo and Damascus, and in the southern areas of the Homs governorate near the Lebanese border. The geographical concentration of Christians in strategic areas is an important factor in their vulnerability.
Regarding specific threats and risks to the Syrian Christian community, Heras finds that the ongoing Syrian civil war is placing enormous stress on them, with large communities having left their original homes, becoming Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or refugees in Lebanon or Turkey. For example, the entirety of the small Christian community in the southeastern governorate of Deir ez-Zor is reported to have been forced to leave the governorate following threats by Salafist groups.
Not on one side
In contrast to other religious minorities such as the Alawites and the Kurds, who are generally suspicious towards the Syrian opposition, the situation for Syrian Christian communities 'is more nuanced and complicated.' Heras explains that 'contrary to a widespread perception amongst some members of the Syrian opposition, not all Christians are aligned politically with the al-Assad government', as in the case of several leading opposition members who are Christians, including the President of the Syrian National Coalition, George Sabra, and prominent dissidents Michel Kilo, and Faiz Sara. In fact, Heras indicates that 'Christian communities participated in political demonstrations against the al-Assad government prior to the outbreak of fighting throughout the country.'
At the same time, Heras finds that other Christian communities actively support the Syrian government, or are willing to accept its weapons and training in order to protect their villages and urban neighborhoods from the armed opposition, some even joining the pro-Assad Shabiha militias, or mobilizing in local popular committees. Heras estimates that 'perhaps tens of thousands of Syrian Christians of various denominations are participating in progovernment or anti-opposition popular committees.'
As with other communities, Syria's Christians are vulnerable. Heras' report finds much evidence that Syria's Christians have been the victims of the conflict, 'although there is no clear indication that they were targeted specifically because they were 'Christian.' 'Nevertheless, fears among Christians are high, particularly caused by threats, intimidation and kidnappings by Salafist groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, the Ansar Brigade or the the al-Farouq Battalions.
Disproportionate suffering affects different minority groups, including Christians. However, in Aleppo particularly, and now in Homs, it is clear there has been disproportionate suffering of Christians and that they are particularly at risk from the war. Heras estimates that of the 160,000-270,000 Christians in Aleppo, between 20,000-30,000 have fled the city as a result of the fighting, and fear for the future: "Christians displaced from the fighting in Aleppo face the prospect of never being able to return to their homes and businesses, or to return to a civil order in the city that is less pluralistic and accepting of minority rights than before the war."
In Homs, an important area for the armed Syrian opposition because it is contiguous with areas in Lebanon that are necessary to maintain a route of supply and transit of Syrian opposition fighters, at least 10,000 of the area's 250,000 Christians have been displaced because of the fighting.2 This has been a direct consequence of targeted threats by militant Islamist opposition groups, including the al-Qaeda ally Jabhat al-Nusra.
As the conflict progresses and the fighting intensifies, Christians in Homs face the challenge of its militarization. Heras interprets that because of the insecure environment of the governorate, which is increasingly impacted by sectarian disputes at the local level, 'Christian fighters are increasingly becoming associated with armed groups that are sympathetic to the al-Assad government.'
Medium outlook trends
As a medium term outlook for Syrian Christians, Heras notes five important trends:
- the Christian community will remain fearful of sectarian motivated attacks against it and will be more cautious in public displays of Christian traditions;
- the Syrian opposition is increasingly "Islamizing" and the civil war is more and more taking the form of a "jihad" against the Syrian government:
- Although the systematic militarization of Christian Syrians in these regions is in its incipient stage, it is being encouraged by the mobilization of the "National Defense Army" by the al-Assad government.
- The militarization of Syria's Christian communities in diverse, sectarian and ethnically mixed region of the country is likely to become a significant trend in the near future;
- Although there are prominent Christian dissidents in the Syrian National Coalition, including the organization's president George Sabra, the Christian community inside of the country would have no tangible benefit in vocally calling for the removal of the al-Assad government and will not likely do so in the near future.
From this background, the third section of this report, directly coordinated by a researcher of the World Watch Unit of Open Doors International, provides an assessment of the vulnerability of the Christian population in Syria, seeking to understand in which ways Syria's Christians are specifically vulnerable to suffering hostilities, amidst the intense conflict the whole country is going through. Based on the input of experts from the field and the systematization of publicly available reports, this Vulnerability Assessment lists and describes 14 specific threats to which Syria's Christians are vulnerable in varying degrees.
The conflict is such that all Syrians can be expected to suffer, but the Vulnerability Assessment provides a picture of the specific threats/risks to which Christians are particularly vulnerable. The basic findings of this tool comprehensively describe the vulnerable position of Syria's Christians and the ways they are suffering from the conflict.
The threats to which the whole Syrian population is vulnerable, including Christians, are the following:
- Environmental security is virtually inexistent in Syria, affecting the whole population, including Christians.
- Lands of Christians have been confiscated.
- Christians suffer greatly from the absence of food security, especially in the areas held by the opposition.
- Christians face severe health insecurity.
The threats to which the whole population is vulnerable, but Christians in particular, are:
- The destruction of the Syrian economy because the civil war affects the whole population, including Christians.
- The Syrian civil war has to a large extent become a "sectarian conflict".
- Christians are caught in the crossfire of the strife between government and opposition forces and suffer violence from both parties.
- Christians are soft targets for criminal groups.
- Women in general, but particularly Christian women, are vulnerable to sexual abuse.
- Christian men are being forced to join the government army or the rebel forces.
The Vulnerability Assessment finds that Christians are specifically vulnerable to these threats:
- Christians suffer disproportionately from the violence, insecurity and overall impunity in Syria.
- There are comparatively more refugees and internally displaced people amongst the Christian population than amongst any other religious or ethnic group.
- Christian refugees are comparatively more disadvantaged than other refugees and suffer great hostilities in refugee camps.
- Christians are deliberately being targeted by Islamist groups.
The report closes with a set of conclusions and recommendations, and establishes possible future scenarios for the position of Syria's Christians. These conclusions can be summarized as follows:
- Christians are not always targeted deliberately, but this does not mean they are not a vulnerable group. The Vulnerability Assessment included in this report provides evidence to assert the specific vulnerability of Syria's Christians;
- The factors of the vulnerability of Syria's Christians can be contextual, political, economic, criminal and sometimes religious;
- Although the vulnerability of Christians can have many causes, it is directly linked to the overall impunity;
- Sometimes Christians are deliberately targeted by political groups, by Islamists or by criminals;
- The vulnerability of Syria's Christians also knows different degrees, depending on the nature of the threat. For this reason, three degrees of vulnerability were distinguished, depending on whether the threat is equally applicable to all Syrians, applicable to all Syrians but to Christians in particular, or very specifically to Christians.