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, University of Sussex
Christian Van Gorder, Baylor University

Christian Demographics

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 from 15 percent in 1970 to some 5 to 6 percent of the population due to emigration and lower birth rates. By one estimate, Christians now 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 cause 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 civil war, complicated by sectarian divides, regional powers, and Islamist militia groups. Christians have suffered throughout the ongoing 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. Islamist 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 Christians 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 capture of the northern Syrian city of Raqqa in March 2013 by the al-Qaeda-linked rebel group al-Nusra was perhaps the clearest sign of the gathering storm for Christians. In January 2014, Raqqa became the capital of the so-called Islamic State Caliphate after ISIL ousted the al-Nusra rebels. Of the 200,000 inhabitants of Raqqa, 3,000 were Christian. Most Christians fled, but ISIL captured others and executed some as supporters of the Assad regime. Christian churches were destroyed, turned into mosques, or used as prisons. In the city square, crosses were erected and victims hung crucifixion-style, and even children were tortured and executed. Raqqa was liberated by a U.S.-backed coalition force in October 2017, but at the cost of most of its civilian infrastructure. However, by June 2019, 300,000 civilians had returned amid the reconstruction of the city. Just as Raqqa’s reconstruction demonstrates the will of Syria’s civilian population to live in peace despite ongoing war, Raqqa’s prior occupation by al-Nusra and ISIL revealed the brutality that civilians, especially Christians and other minorities, face across Syria as highly-populated regions become epicenters of violent conflict. 

Since May 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to launch military operations in Northern Syria against Kurdish militia forces. Three prior Turkish incursions into Northern Syria since 2016 have been marked by human rights abuses–in 2019, for instance, Turkish forces shelled civilian villages, forcing 100,000 civilians to flee. Consequently, Christian communities in Northern Syria, already ravaged by the campaigns of rebel militias and the Assad regime, are currently imperiled by Turkey’s aspirations in the region. 

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 by 2016 the Christian population plunged from 200,000 to 30,000 (down 85 percent). In Homs, by February 2014 only 28 Christians of a former population of 40,000 chose to remain, according to the NGO Open Doors USA. As of February 2022, according to the NGO International Christian Concern, only one Christian, 90-year-old Michel Butros al-Jisri, remains in Islamist-held Idlib city. At first, Christians primarily fled the conflict 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. 

Many displaced Christians have chosen to return to their homes as soon as it has been safe to do so, despite infrastructure damage, poor economic prospects, and ongoing instability. The solidarity of local communities combined with international aid have made it possible for Christians to rebuild their communities in many cases. In Homs, by April 2015, less than a year after the Syrian Army gained full control of the city, over 5,000 parishioners at the Roman Catholic Church of Our Saviour again attended Sunday mass and 600 children received weekly religious instruction. In Aleppo in July 2020, Maronite Christians completed the restoration of the Cathedral of Saint Elias with financial assistance from the Catholic pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need. According to a report by Vatican News, as of December 2021, one Roman Catholic parish in the most impoverished district of Aleppo supports 1,200 families and provides tutoring for over 500 children on a daily basis. Additionally, the Armenian Orthodox Cathedral distributes meals to the elderly and sustains a small orphanage, while the Greek Orthodox community runs a relief center for families. The Roman Catholic Marist Brothers run a distribution center that provides powdered milk to 3,000 families per month. Efforts by Christians in Syria such as these give families the resources to return to their homes despite the devastation of conflict. 

Some Syrian Christians 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. Despite historic distrust between Assyrian Christians and the Kurds, the Sutoro, a Christian Assyrian security force, has been integrated with the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), while the Syriac Military Council (MFS), a Christian militia, has joined the YPG on the front lines. Both the Sutoro and the MFS 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 Christian leaders, 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 in July 2013, but was kidnapped by IS and possibly executed, though his death is unconfirmed. In February 2014, Father Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit priest, chose to remain along with 28 Christians in the rebel-held city of Homs. Two months later, in April, he was murdered by a gunman. Before his death, Father van der Lugt stated: “I am here for all Syrians. When all Christians would leave, I would stay because I am here to serve all Syrians.”

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. It was updated by Joseph London at the University of Notre Dame in August 2022.