The Syrian civil war that began in 2011 has devastated the country, and Christians have suffered throughout this conflict, at times for their religious identity, but also as bystanders in indiscriminate bombings and attacks. Islamists groups including al-Nusra Front and ISIS target Christians, confiscating their possessions and expelling them from cities or—worse—subjecting them to kidnapping, torture, or death. Others have also been forced to pay jizya, a poll tax that is closer to naked extortion. Many Christians have responded to the persecution and violence by fleeing the region.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Responses to Persecution in Syria
Egypt, Libya, Israel-Palestine, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Turkish-Occupied Cyprus
Panel: Findings from the Middle East & North Africa
Moderator: Christian Sahner, University of Cambridge
Speakers: Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma
Elizabeth Prodromou, Tufts University
Mariz Tadros, Sussex University
Christian Van Gorder, Baylor University
Due to mass emigration caused by Syria’s civil war, the religious demographics of Syria are difficult to measure. Nationwide, even before the war, Christians had declined to some 5 to 6 percent of the population due to emigration and lower birth rates (down from 15 percent in 1970), but they are now estimated to make up only about 3 percent of Syria’s population.
History of the Syrian Christian Community
Christians have been present in Mesopotamia since the beginning of Christian history. In fact, the book of Acts tells that Saul of Tarsus was on his way to Damascus when he had his encounter with the risen Jesus. To listen to a Catholic or Orthodox Mass in Assyrian regions today is to hear a language extremely close to that spoken by Jesus.
Throughout the twentieth century, the number of Christians in the Middle East has steadily declined. Anti-Christian sentiment rose in Syria after World War I when the French Mandate used Christian forces to subdue an uprising. With the founding of modern Syria in 1946, a more militant form of Islam gained ground, and these anti-Christian feelings grew. The threat was significant enough to occasion 250,000 Christians to leave Syria in the 1960s. The 1970 coup that brought Hafez Assad to power, however, brought a bit more protection for Christians and other religious communities in the short-term.
Current Situation of the Christian Community
In 2011, protests demanding the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad erupted across Syria, prompting a harsh crackdown from security forces. Protesters eventually took up arms, and the conflict soon devolved into outright civil war, complicated by sectarian divides, regional powers, and Islamist militia groups. Christians have suffered throughout this conflict, at times for their religious identity, but also as bystanders in indiscriminate bombings and attacks. Since the beginning of the conflict, the three main cathedrals of Aleppo have been badly damaged or destroyed, as has every church in the city of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, and a number of Christian historical sites. Islamists groups including al-Nusra Front and ISIS target Christians, confiscating their possessions and expelling them from cities or—worse—subjecting them to kidnapping, torture, or death. Many have also been forced to pay jizya, a poll tax that is closer to naked extortion. Clerics have been explicitly targeted for abduction and martyrdom.
The taking of the northern Syrian city of Raqqa in March 2013 by al-Nusra was perhaps the clearest sign of the gathering storm for Christians. By mid-May, Raqqa became the capital of the so-called Islamic State Caliphate. Of the 200,000 inhabitants of Raqqa, 3,000 were Christian. Many Christians fled, others were taken captive, while others were executed if considered to be supporters of the Assad regime. Some churches were turned into mosques, while others became holding cells. In the city square, crosses were erected and victims hung crucifixion-style, and even children were tortured and executed. Reports of equal brutality are tragically common in other locales.
Responses to Persecution
Flight has been the overwhelming response of Syrian Christians to the extreme persecution they face. In opposition-held territory or in areas where intense fighting has occurred, the Christian population has almost completely disappeared. In Aleppo, for example, it is estimated that the Christian population has plunged from 200,000 to 30,000 (down 85 percent), and in Homs it has dropped from 40,000 to 2,000 (down 95 percent). At first, Christians primarily fled conditions of war and not explicit persecution, but as the conflict developed, circumstances became increasingly hostile to Christians specifically. In part this was due to the common perception of Christians as loyalists, although not all support the Assad regime and many side with it only as the lesser of two evils. Of those who have fled, some express a desire to return, but an analysis by the Washington Institute predicts that even if the conflict were to end today, the economic and infrastructural destruction would still push many to emigrate to Europe.
Some Syrian Christians, however, have chosen a confrontational response to persecution. In the west and northeast of Syria, Christian militias have formed to defend their communities. In large part, their success depends on their proximity and willingness to cooperate with either Kurdish forces or Syrian troops. (A history of distrust between Assyrian Christians and the Kurds means that this does not always happen.) At present, in northern Syria, the Christian militias known as Sutoro and the MFS (Syriac Military Council) enjoy support from Syriac Christians who have emigrated in large numbers over many years to Germany and Sweden.
Some Syrian Christians have enlisted to fight in the Syrian Army or have accepted weapons from the government to defend their villages from rebels and Islamists. Armenians and Assyrians share memories of the late Ottoman Empire genocide which forced their ancestors to take refuge in Syria, and they have been willing to serve in the Syrian Army to prevent what they fear could be another genocide. Other Assyrian and Chaldean Christians in the northeast are more likely to keep their distance from the government and to form their own militia to protect themselves, in part because they do not share the “Arab” ethnicity with many in the government.
Finally, some Christians in Syria, particularly leadership, have remained with their people and land for as long as possible, effectively choosing martyrdom. One Jesuit priest, Paolo dall’Oglio, ran an interreligious monastery for thirty years and sought to carry out interreligious dialogue during the conflict, but he was exiled by the Government of Syria after he met with members of the opposition. After nearly a year outside the country, he returned to Syria but was kidnapped by IS and possibly executed, though his death is unconfirmed.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Joshua Landis and Dr. Kent R. Hill, and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.