This week, the United States recognized the Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella organization of groups opposed to the Assad regime, as the government of Syria. Now, as everyone knows, the SNC relies heavily on fighters from the al-Nusra Front, an Islamist group that the United States has designated as a terrorist organization. There is very little chance that al-Nusra and other Islamists won’t play a major role in a post-Assad Syria, and the fact that the US calls them terrorists isn’t likely to change things. Already, in fact, the head of the Syrian opposition has called on America to reconsider its designation of al-Nusra as terrorists – and this while the SNC still needs American support in a life-or-death struggle with Assad.
What does all this mean for Syria’s Christians? Frankly, nothing good. Although the Syrian opposition has pledged to respect the rights of religious minorities, the minorities do not appear persuaded. And for good reason. All Christians have to do is look to Egypt, where, in the aftermath of a democratic revolution, Islamists have pushed aside Christians and secularists to draft a new, pro-Islamist constitution. Why should Christians believe that Syrian Islamists will behave differently? The fact that the Syrian opposition has made common cause with the Islamist government of Turkey, the historical persecutor of many of the Christian communities in Syria, only makes Christians more worried about their future.
For a sense of how Syria’s Christians perceive things, it’s worth reading this article from the New York Times about Syria’s Armenian community. Armenian Christians have been in Syria in numbers since the Genocide of 1915, when they fled or were forced out of neighboring Turkey. They have integrated into Syrian society and feel that Syria is their home. Yet they worry that the religious toleration they have known will cease if Assad falls and Islamists come to power. They could stay to see what happens, but, as one member of the community tells the Times, referring to the 1915 Genocide, “We lost 1.5 million people to this mentality that it will all work out.” Armenians feel they have no choice but to leave. Many have relocated to Armenia, a place which most of them have never seen and where cultural adjustments can be very difficult.
Or watch this elegiac documentary from Swiss television about the Syriac Orthodox community across the border in eastern Turkey. In the film, a Syriac Orthodox family that fled Turkey for Switzerland in the 1980s returns to see what has become of their village. What few Christians remain keep their heads down. They explain about phony land disputes and other strategies the Turkish state has adopted to make their life difficult. “Turkey is supposed to be secular,” someone explains, “but in practice it’s not like that.” Christians who can do so have escaped – to Europe, mostly. If this is the model for the future of Christian communities in Syria, it’s no wonder Christians are trying to get out while they can.
According to the New Testament, the followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch, in Syria. It is hard to escape the feeling that one is witnessing the end of one of the world’s oldest religious civilizations in the place of its birth.
Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University.