In the summer of 2011 ongoing protests against the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria turned into an armed rebellion. By the fall rebels had taken control of Qusayr, an important town in the hills between the city of Homs and the Lebanese border in western Syria. At first, rebel forces in Qusayr were controlled by the officially secular Free Syrian Army, led mostly by defectors from Assad’s military. Yet over time Islamist fighters (or “jihadis”) became increasingly powerful. On June 13, 2012, Islamists looted the Melkite Catholic church of Qusayr and posed for pictures dressed in clerical garments. When the Syrian army, with the help of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, took control of the town almost a year later, on June 5, 2013, Christians hung the Syrian flag of the Assad regime from churches and joined public celebrations. Televised interviews featured Christians thanking Assad and Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic leader of Hezbollah, for saving them from the rebels.

Other events over the past year have given Syrian Christians new reasons to root for the Assad regime. On April 22, 2013, Gregorius Ibrahim, bishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and Boulus Yazigi, bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church, were abducted by rebels near Aleppo as they were returning from a joint visit to refugee camps in Turkey. Their driver (also a Christian) was killed. The two bishops are still missing.

Grimmer still is the story of Fr. François Murad, a Franciscan priest who served in Ghassaniyah, a town in northwest Syria between Latakia and Idlib. Ghassaniyah was a popular vacation spot for Syrians, and before the current troubles it was home to 10,000 residents, almost all of them Christian. During the fighting, however, it fell under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra, an increasingly powerful Islamist militia with links to Al Qaeda. The town’s Christian inhabitants fled and its churches were desecrated. In late June 2013 news spread that one of the few Christians to remain, Fr. Murad, had been beheaded by rebels. A grainy video of a beheading went viral on the internet. In the video Islamist militants shout, “God is greater!” (Allahu akbar), before savagely beheading two people with a kitchen knife. In the video, one of the victims is identified as Murad. The Franciscan Friars of the Custody of the Holy Land later announced that Murad was not one of the victims in this video. Instead, he had been shot dead inside a church in Ghassaniyah. For Christians in Syria, this is what counts as good news these days.

As stories like that of Murad have spread wildly through social media, the Christian community in Syria has moved ever closer to the Assad regime. Today many Syrian Christians who wouldn’t deny Assad’s record of repressing political opponents would rather put up with the repression than live under the rule of Islamists. And who can blame them? Under Assad things are clear: Oppose the regime and you’re in trouble; support the regime, or pretend to, and you’re not. Under Islamist rule all those who violate Islamic law—or who are even suspected of violating it—are in trouble. This has particularly grave consequences for Christians, who are often suspected of undermining Islamic morals, or offending Muslim sentiment. In an Islamist state Christian shops selling alcohol or pork might be destroyed by a mob, permission to build or rebuild a church might be denied, a Christian might be threatened with death for evangelizing Muslims or insulting Muhammad, a Christian boy might be assaulted because he has been accused of sleeping with a Muslim girl, and a Christian girl might be insulted, or worse, because she is showing too much skin in public.

Christian fears of an Islamist state help explain the hesitancy of Syriac Christians to oppose Assad from the beginning. When the Arab Spring broke out in Tunisia, the entire country turned as one against President Ben Ali. So too in Egypt, where Coptic Christians, who make up 6 percent of the country’s population, closed ranks with Muslims in opposition to Hosni Mubarak. In Syria, though, most Christians have remained loyal to Assad.

Among the exceptions to this rule are those West Syrian (“Syrian Orthodox” or “Syrian Catholic”) and East Syrian (“Chaldean” or “Assyrian”) Christians who hope that the fall of the Assad regime will lead to greater autonomy for their communities. The Syriac Union Party and the Assyrian Democratic Association, political parties affiliated with these communities, have supported the rebellion. The Christian community of the city of Hama—mostly Greek Orthodox—is also known for supporting the opposition. Meanwhile, a number of Christian social activists, many with leftist political affiliations, are vocal supporters of the rebellion. These include George Sabra, who served as acting head of the Syrian National Council (the largest political body representing the opposition) for several months this year.

A particularly vocal supporter of the rebellion is Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who established a monastic community at Deir Mar Musa in the desert north of Damascus. Fr. Dall’Oglio has spoken out in support not only of the Syrian National Council, but even of the most violent Islamist groups, including the powerful militia Jabhat al-Nusra. In an interview on June 23, 2013, Fr. Dall’Oglio regretted that more Christians have not joined the opposition, “I see these [Syrian] Christians as victims too of what’s happening, they’re trapped in the middle, unable to believe in the revolution, in democracy.”

In late July, Dall’Oglio entered Syria through rebel held territory in the north and made his way to Raqqa, a city under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra. On the evening of Sunday, July 28, Dall’Oglio was filmed at a rally organized in Raqqa in support of the rebels fighting against Assad in Homs. In the video Dall’Oglio declares, in perfect Arabic and to the cheers of the Syrians around him, his belief in the righteousness of the rebellion. The very next day, July 29, Dall’Oglio was taken hostage by Islamists. In mid-August it was widely reported that he had been executed, but that remains unconfirmed.

The case of Dall’Oglio is a tragic reminder of why so few Christians support the revolution. Dall’Oglio supported it because of his commitment to Muslim-Christian co-existence and to a more democratic Middle East. Yet most Syrian Christians, like members of most other religious or ethnic communities in the region, are primarily concerned with their own community—with the Christians in Syria, and not with the country, the region, or Arabs more generally. As for democracy, many Syrian Christians would rather do without it than see it lead to an Islamist state, preferring the repressive, yet secular Assad regime to Al Qaeda. 

Assad is a Muslim, but he is not a Sunni Muslim, and his regime is not Islamic. He is a member of the Alawite community, which derives from Shiite Islam and makes up less than 10 percent of the Syrian population. (There are also small Alawite communities in Lebanon and Turkey.) In public Alawites declare themselves simply to be Muslims—believers in the Quran and in the Prophet Muhammad—but Alawite Islam is not Islam as Sunnis or Shiites know it. Alawite prayer rituals, which have numerous similarities with Christian liturgy, are unlike those of other Muslims, and some Alawite teachings are the stuff of apostasy to other Muslims—for example, that souls are reincarnated and that Ali (cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad) is a manifestation of the divine, or is simply God.

In theory, these beliefs are kept secret and revealed only to select members of the community. Yet Sunni Muslims have long accused the Alawites of unbelief. The famous fourteenth-century Syrian Sunni jurist Ibn Taymiyya (the principal authority for modern Islamists) declared the Alawites “unbelievers” in a series of fatwas. Today, the uprising in Syria has led to a new series of fatwas, which cite the unbelief of Alawites as a good reason to fight against Assad.

For its part, the Assad regime has consistently claimed that it is the only hope of protection for religious minorities in Syria—not only for Alawites, but also for Christians, Druze, and others. In view of how the Syrian civil war has developed, more Christians have come to accept this claim. The opposition is increasingly controlled by Islamists, who view the rebellion as a religious struggle and are not interested in interreligious dialogue. Jabhat al-Nusra, the militant jihadi group aligned with Al Qaeda and behind the murder of Fr. Murad, is steadily expanding its dominion in northern and eastern Syria. Incidents of religious persecution—of anyone accused of offending Islam—are on the rise in rebel territory. On June 8 Islamists publicly executed a fifteen-year-old Muslim boy accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in Aleppo. They shot him in the mouth in front of his parents.

In the wake of these events, the Obama administration’s June 13 announcement that it would offer material support to the Syrian opposition was hardly welcome news to Syrian Christians. The administration insisted it would support only the Free Syrian Army and other officially secular forces, not the Islamist militias. But it is increasingly difficult to do the one thing without also doing the other. The Free Syrian Army claims to represent all Syrians, and its leaders have condemned the desecration of churches, the kidnapping of Bishops Ibrahim and Yazigi, and the murder of Murad. Yet they have also continued to coordinate their campaign against the Assad regime with Islamist militias. Indeed, while occasional skirmishes have broken out between the Free Syrian Army and the jihadis, the two groups are nevertheless allies, with open lines of communication, agreements on territorial control, and joint campaigns against the regime’s forces. In its eagerness to defeat Assad—and in response to the financial support of radical Sunni Gulf states—the Free Syrian Army has worked hand in hand with jihadis.

The administration’s announcement that it would support the Syrian opposition also came just before the popular uprising in Egypt that led to the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi. A vocal supporter of the Islamist elements in the Syrian opposition, Morsi had cut off diplomatic relations with Assad’s government. He also favored Islamist elements within Egypt, and tolerated a series of Islamist attacks on Christians, including a bloody siege of St. Mark’s cathedral in Cairo on April 7. If Egyptian Christians had once marched alongside Muslims to demand the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, they now bitterly regretted that Mubarak’s overthrow had led to an increasingly Islamist state. It was no surprise, then, that the Egyptian Christian community overwhelmingly supported the July 3 coup that put General Sisi in charge of the country.

In the wake of media reports about the growing reach of jihadis in Syria—on July 2 it was reported that Al Qaeda has set up camps in Syria—the Obama administration has publicly expressed its concern with the rise of Islamists in the Syrian rebellion. Most, though not all, Syrian Christians hope that this concern will lead the White House to reverse course and withdraw its support from the rebels. They increasingly fear that a post-Assad state will be an Islamist state, and there are good reasons for this fear.

August 27, 2013

Gabriel Said Reynolds is professor of Islamic Studies and Theology in the World Religions World Church program, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame. Find him on twitter @GabrielSaidR.

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Published in the September 13, 2013 issue: View Contents
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