The Orthodox Church of Sts. Constantine and Helen looted and burned in the town of Yabroud
Orontes: Syrian Christians in a Time of Conflict – In the Syrian city of Yabrud Islamist terrorists have ruined one of the country’s oldest Christian shrines – the church of Sts. Constantine and Helen. The building dates back to the first millennium BC, when the site was a pagan temple. It became a church in 331 AD. The Church contained a collection of priceless historical icons and church utensils. On February 21 first reports emerged of the desecration of the Church. Some locals report and the crime was committed by a group of people of European appearance who arrived under the protection of militants, and that they were armed with M-16 rifles and other small arms. For an hour they emptied out of the church of its valuables, and set fire to the building.
The delusional virtual reality that many in the West already live in will now possibly be given legal justification by the Israeli government. Israel’s Knesset is now considering a bill that would identify all Palestinian Christians with Israeli citizenship as non-Arab. It is unclear then how their culture, ethnicity, or language will be defined, but what is clear is that Israel intends to simply declare a fiction through mere legal fiat. Israel knows what it’s doing, but this will only serve to confirm the deep ignorance of pro-Israel Americans and Westerners in general when it comes to demographic realities among Palestinians. See this from the original Al-Akhbar report:
The bill was proposed by Yariv Levin, coalition chairman for the governing conservative Likud-Yisrael Beitenu faction, in January.“My legislation will award separate representation and a separate frame of reference to the Christian public, distinguishing them from Muslim Arabs,” Levin had said at the time. “This is an important, historic step that could introduce balance to the State of Israel, and connect us [Jews] with the Christians,” he added. “I make sure not to refer to them as Arabs, because they are not Arabs.”
It is easier for Israel to sell its policies to the Western public if it can maintain a simplistic black-and-white narrative of an Israeli Jewish fight against a sea of Arab Muslims. This ultimately serves to underscore the narrative of Palestinian Arab=Muslim. Nevermind the large sectors within Palestinian society that lack affiliation with Islam: secularists, communists, Arab nationalist, Druze, or Christians. And nevermind the inconvenient fact that the oldest identity when it comes to the Palestinian Arab demographic is represented in the Christian segment of the population. For a little review see here:
There are over 14 million Christians living in the Middle East (most are Orthodox, followed by Catholics). These Christian communities, in their ancient origins, predate the existence of Islam. Arabic as a spoken language was used by Christians six centuries prior to the writing of the Koran, and Church history testifies to the presence of at least one Arab bishop at the Council of Nicaea.
In Texas, and throughout the American South in general, where the most dedicated devotees of Zionism are Evangelical Christians, I receive blank stares anytime I say the words ‘Palestinian Christians’ or ‘Arab Christians.’ After a little attempt to process, the initial response, if I get one at all, is “but when did they convert from Islam?”
When most American Christians read the Bible and see names of ancient cities like Antioch, Damascus, Tyre, Sidon, Nazareth etc… identified with the earliest foundational Christian communities, this is for them a sort of distant, mythic reference to a mysterious and obscure moment in time when “Bible figures” happened to briefly stroll these ancient Eastern streets prior to these regions being engulfed in Islam. If American Protestants feel the need for a “Christian antiquity fix” they take roadtrips down to places like Holy Land Experience in Florida, or they name their Baptist churches “Antioch Baptist” or “Antioch Community Church” etc… Even the idea that a “sea of Islam” definitively and with finality took over the whole Middle East in the 7th and 8th centuries is a myth – many urban centers, especially in the Levant remained entirely Christian throughout the middle ages and into the modern period.
Many of the Middle Eastern cities named in the Book of Acts still have skylines dominated by crosses and Byzantine style church domes. Walk in to Holy Cross Orthodox Church in the Qassaa neighborhood of Damascus, for example, on a Sunday morning or Wednesday evening and you’ll find it packed with Syrian Christian college students and young adults. When did their families become Christian?…the answer you’d receive is this: when Paul and other Apostles preached there in the first century.
One can even visit large urban churches in Gaza – like the one pictured above. I’ve heard multiple accounts from American Protestant families just returning from a trip to the Holy Land that go like this: “The holy sites just weren’t spiritual enough! They were cluttered with all this ‘catholicy’ stuff like icons and candles!” This is of course a reference to the Orthodox churches and shrines that dominate Jerusalem’s Old City and its environs. Israeli Parliament, believe it or not, even sits on land owned by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
This Israeli attempt to erase, at least within its borders, Arab Christian identity is really a PR campaign aimed primarily at a West that is already deeply ignorant. A result of this ignorance, especially in the United States, is that the West consistently approves of or looks the other way when it comes to controversial Israeli expansionist policies.
The Knesset resolution is one proposed solution to the ongoing debate among Israeli policymakers over what to do with the influential Christian Palestinian resistance movement, centered in places like Beit Sahour – the Orthodox Christian village (West Bank) which pioneered a nonviolent resistance movement during the First and Second Intifadas. The attempt of the Christians of Beit Sahour to gain some international attention to their plight under harsh Israeli occupation met with some success during both Intifiadas.
In 1989 (during the First Intifada), diplomats from Britain, France, Belgium, Greece, Italy, Spain and Sweden attempted to gain access to Beit Sahour during a complete Israeli siege and blockade of the Christian town. These diplomats were prevented from entering as the Israeli Defense Forces did house to house searches and seizures. During the Second Intifada, multiple Christian youths were killed and wounded as the IDF again attempted to bring the town into compliance.
Christian Palestinians are overwhelmingly against the modern state of Israel and its expansionist policies. Israeli bulldozers level Christian villages just as they do Muslim villages. Christians also certainly suffer from occasional random acts of violence from West Bank and Gaza Islamic fundamentalist groups, but the consistent message of Palestinian Christians is that they are ultimately victims of multiple decades of Israeli persecution and land grabs. As Al-Akhbar reports:
Levin’s opinion in regards to the non-Arab status of Palestinian Christians was strongly condemned by Palestinians and Christian organizations that Al-Akhbar was able to contact in regards to the topic. “First of all, Palestinian Christians and Muslims are the same,” Mustafa Barghouti, founder and Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative, told Al-Akhbar. Barghouti noted that some of the most prominent champions of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian liberation movement were Christians, such as George Habash and Edward Said. “We are all proud of people like Edward Said who was at the forefront in the fight against occupation, colonialism, and occupation,” Barghouti said. “This is an act of arrogance and a violation of basic rights. Israel is conducting the usual colonial practice of divide and rule,” he said… “What Israel is doing is the worst form of racism and orientalism. They have no right to speak on behalf of Christian Palestinians, and Christian Palestinians will no doubt respond to this,” Barghouti added.
The problems of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are complex – the attempts being made to simplify it into false black-and-white categories will only make things more difficult for all, especially for those people that have inhabited the land for the longest unbroken succession over the last 2,000 years: the Palestinian Christians – who alone can speak for their identity and culture.
Only a couple of major newspapers in the world have bothered to regularly cover the plight of Syria’s diverse religious and ethnic minorities living in rebel held areas. Lebanon’s The Daily Star and Al-Akhbar newspapers have featured consistent coverage of Syria’s Armenians, Kurds, Iraqis, Druze, Christians, and Ismailis – and the threats these communities face in opposition held parts of Syria. Read the latest Al-Akhbar coverage of two Armenian Christian business owners who dared to stay in Northern Syria, attempting to hold on to their family livelihood in a rebel controlled area. They were arrested, forced to convert, executed with bullets to the head, and denied burial.
The Syrian opposition was sold to the world by mainstream Western press from day one of the Syria conflict as representing democracy, freedom, and a pluralist future for a new Syria. But the last couple of years testify the complete opposite. Anyone who actually spent time in Syria prior to the conflict knows that Ba’athist Syria has always been unique in the region for the high degree of freedom that minorities exercise.
I’ve personally seen the very public way that Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities comfortably fit in to Syrian society. One can see crosses everywhere in nearly every Syrian urban center, or hear church services transmitted over loudspeakers in competition with the Muslim call to prayer echoed from nearby mosques. The multi-colored Druze star is visible in suburbs of Damascus and all over villages in the south of the country. Any visitor to Aleppo immediately notices the very public Armenian presence with Armenian script proudly displayed in market places.
In the Hauran region, one can visit a recently erected huge government sponsored memorial to the Druze patriarch Sultan al-Atrash, who famously said, “Religion is for God, the fatherland is for all.” In the dozens of hotels around the Damascus city center, one encounters Kurdish bellhops who are proud to tell visitors of their Kurdish identity. One of the largest Christ statues in the world was recently erected over the ancient village of Saidnaya. The Orthodox monastery that sits at its base was, in the last months, the recipient of rocket attack by rebel insurgents hoping to gain control of the mountain that dominates the surrounding villages.
Speaking of Saidnaya, on one of my visits in the mid-2000’s I was shocked to see special media coverage on SANA – Syria’s national TV news station, of a reported miracle connected to the village’s 6th century Our Lady of Saidnaya Monastery. A wealthy Saudi Muslim man was attacked and robbed while driving to visit the Christian monastery (revered even among area Muslims as a place of spiritual healing). The man’s throat was slit and he was stuffed into the back of his car and left to die. When the police found him, the man swore that the Virgin Mary came to him, healed his slit throat, and restored him to health there on the spot. The story made national prime time news. Perhaps the most miraculous aspect to the episode for me was the fact that the story of a miracle connected to a Christian village aired on national news in a country that was 70-75% Sunni Muslim.
This is a side of Syria only known to those who have spent a significant amount of time there. Sadly, the standard narrative of the Syria conflict has been constructed by reporters, pundits, and politicians who have hardly stepped foot inside Syria, if at all. This is why, even aside from the silly singular reliance on rebel sources for information, subtle but hugely significant mistakes are made with even the basic facts of Syrian society and history. Hugely influential outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, or CNN routinely identify the regime as “Shia-dominated” – or alternately, Assad as “pro-Shia”. From this, they construct and over-emphasize their narrative of “Shia vs. Sunni” sectarian civil war.
Anyone who knows anything about the esoteric Alawite identity and faith knows it is nothing close to Shi’ism, whatever the historical roots might be. Syria’s close relationship with Iran is, and has always been, a matter of convenience as part of a self-imagined “axis of resistance”. This has little to do with Shia religious ties and identity.
During the 2006 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, I was walking through the Christian section of Old City Damascus. I walked past the window of a prominent Christian bakery and saw large Hezbollah cakes. The cakes featured Hezbollah’s green and yellow AK-47 and clenched fist emblem glazed in icing, as well as small images of a burning Israeli battleship. The cakes were commemorating Hezbollah’s recent successful drone attack of an Israeli warship stationed off the Lebanese coast. That a Christian baker would make and promote such a cake had nothing to do with being “pro-Shia” – but was about a shared feeling and identity of “resistance”. The idea that Assad (or his regime) is Shi’ite with a supposed pro-Shia mission is based in ignorance and disinformation.
Based on my experience living in Syria, my many contacts with Syrians inside the country and abroad, and my personal grappling with the tragedy that has befallen a beautiful country, I’ve come to one certain conclusion:
The fight in Syria is between those that want to continue Syria’s pluralistic and secular identity – those that want to ensure a high degree of personal social and religious freedoms, and those that want to erect fanatic Sunni rule along the lines of a Taliban or Saudi religious police state model. The latter, among actual Syrian nationals (as opposed to the mass flux of foreign fighters), are in the minority; and this means that the current “rebel opposition” is in reality an aggressive terrorist insurgency (and this was so much earlier than the major media pundits will ever recognize). Sadly, this insurgency is only made strong through its significant Saudi, Qatari, and NATO support and funding. I say all of this while fully acknowledging that there have been real crimes and shortcomings of the regime.
The Western pundits don’t know what to make of Assad’s continuing to stay in power – a reality contrary to their every prediction of his immediate demise sounded every few months over the past two years. Since it is they who’ve attempted to frame the narrative in purely sectarian terms, they ought to be asked: why hasn’t Damascus, with its clear majority Sunni population, thrown off the “hated” dictator?
The answer is simple. The majority of Syrians, whether Sunni, Shia, Alawi, Christian, Kurd, Ismaili, are sane individuals – they’ve seen what life is like under the “alternative”.They recognize that there is a real Syrian national identity, and it goes beyond mere loyalty to the current ruling clique that happens to be in power, but in Syria as a pluralistic Levantine society that doesn’t want to model itself on Saudi Arabia.
Brad Hoff served as a Marine from 2000-2004 at Headquarters Battalion, Quantico. After military service he lived, studied, and traveled throughout Syria off and on from 2004-2010. He currently teaches in Texas.
I first traveled to Syria in November of 2004, after four years of active duty service in the Marines. It was during my time in the
military that I’d enthusiastically read multiple books giving accounts of Syria’s ancient Christian communities. I wished to see these
ancient communities and their historic churches and monasteries for myself, as the notion of Middle Eastern Christianity remained an enigma that attracted me out of its sheer exotic appeal. I was further interested in understanding how these native Christians faired while surrounded by a sea of Islam – the majority religion of Syria.
During my first weeks in Damascus, I was pleasantly shocked. My
preconceived notions were shattered: I expected to find a society full
of veiled women, mosques on every street corner, religious police
looking over shoulders, rabid anti-American sentiment preached to
angry crowds, persecuted Christians and crumbling hidden churches,
prudish separation of the sexes, and so on. I quickly realized during
my first few days and nights in Damascus, that Syria was a far cry
from my previous imaginings, which were probably more reflective of
Saudi Arabian life and culture.
What I actually found was mostly unveiled women wearing European fashions and sporting bright makeup – many of them even wearing blue jeans and tight clothes. I saw groups of teenage boys and girls mingling in chic cafes late into the night, displaying expensive cell phones. There were plenty of mosques, but almost every neighborhood had a large church or two with crosses figured prominently in the Damascus skyline. As I walked near the Old City, I was surprised to find entire streets lined with large stone and marble churches. At night, all of the crosses atop these churches were lit up – outlined with blue fluorescent lighting, visible for miles; and in some parts of the Damascus skyline these blue crosses even outnumbered the green-lit minarets of mosques. More surprising than the presence of prominent brightly lit churches, was the number of restaurant bars and alcohol kiosks clustered around the many city squares. One could get two varieties of Syrian-made beer, or a few international selections like Heineken or Amstel, with relative ease.The older central neighborhoods, as well as the more upscale modern suburbs, had a common theme: endless numbers of restaurants filled with carefree Syrians, partying late into the night with poker cards, boisterous discussion, alcohol, hookah smoke, cigarettes, and elaborate oriental pastries and desserts. I got to know local Syrians while frequenting random restaurants during my first few weeks in Damascus. I came into contact with people representative of Syria’s ethnically and religiously diverse capital city: Christians, Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Armenians, Palestinians, and even a few Arab atheists. The characterization of Syrian city life that increasingly came to my mind during my first, and many subsequent visits and extended stays, was of Syria as… a consciously secular society when compared to other countries in the region.
I certainly witnessed plenty of examples of Islamic conservatism in Syrian public life, but it was the secular and pluralistic (represented in the diverse population living side by side) aspect that always seemed to dominate, whether I was in Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, or coastal areas like Tartus. Syria’s committed secular identify was confirmed to me more than ever when I first traveled the freeway that wraps around Mt. Qasyoon – the small mountain against which the Damascus urban center is nestled. My speeding taxi passed a couple of expansive foreign car dealerships, but most prominent were a seeming myriad number of windowless entertainment venues – structured like residential mansions, lining both sides of the road. My taxi driver laughed at my perplexed expression and informed me that this was “brothel row” (my translation) – a place where guys go to drink and have their pick of East European, Syrian, and Iraqi women. When I later got to know a group of Syrian Christian guys – enough to where I could ask potentially awkward or embarrassing questions – they confirmed, with some degree of shame, that all big cities in Syria have their seedy underbellies (“like your Nevada,” my friend Michel said). Places like brothels and “pick-up bars” were allowed to operate in public, but didn’t necessarily advertise what they were about. It was explained to me that while the Syrian government was deeply authoritarian in some respects, it generally allowed (and enforced) openness in social and religious areas unparalleled anywhere in the Middle East.
This openness was most clearly to the advantage of Christians and other religious minorities living in a country numerically dominated by the about 70% Sunni Muslim majority. The secular face of the government and civic life allowed Christians to worship freely, and to even display their Christianity very publicly. My first experience of this came one particular winter evening in Bab Touma – the expansive and most well known among the Christian neighborhoods of Damascus. A special dignitary, the Orthodox Archbishop of Finland, was visiting a local church. He was greeted with a parade that took over an entire city street. He processed down the street and into the church with a uniformed marching band leading the way, made up of a local Christian scouting organization. I’ve witnessed similar displays especially at Christmas and Easter, in all different parts of Syria: public processions, church bells ringing loudly, Christmas trees and lights, images of Jesus displayed prominently, church music blaring over loud speakers, exuberant wedding parties. One small city, Maloula – an hour northwest of Damascus, even had its annual local public holiday in celebration of the cross during my stay, which Syrian news depicted as attracting tens of thousands of people.
Such public pluralism, where Christianity receives constant public acknowledgement side by side with Islam, was the greatest surprise upon my first visit to Syria. It made me take a second look at overlooked passages from books I’d read prior to my Syrian travels. The British travel writer, William Dalrymple, expressed what I’d confirmed for myself upon his first visit to Syria, after crossing into the country from Turkey:
The confidence of the Christians in Syria is something you can’t help noticing the minute you arrive in the country. This is particularly so if, like myself, you cross the border at Nisibis: Qamishli, the town on the Syrian side of the frontier… is 75 percent Christian, and icons of Christ and images of his mother fill almost every shop and decorate every other car window – an extraordinary display after the furtive secrecy of Christianity in Turkey.
All in all, what I unexpectedly observed in Syria was a high degree of personal freedom not found in other countries of the Middle East. That personal freedom was exercised in all areas of life except for politics – a strange paradox. The government seemed to leave people alone in areas of religion, social behavior, family life, and work pursuits; but political dissent was not tolerated, and Syrians seemed to accept that as a fact of life. The average working class Syrian was resigned to accept the government promise of security and stability in exchange for limitations upon personal political freedoms. With multiple religions and ethnicities living side by side in a volatile region full of historic and hidden animosities, it seemed a sensibly practical, even if unjust, solution. There was a palpable feeling of an “enforced secularism” binding Syrian society together.
The kind of religious and cultural pluralism represented in the liberal democracies of the West was present in Syria, ironically, through a government mandated “go along, get along” type policy backed by an authoritarian police state. One can even find Syrian Jews living in the historic Jewish quarter of Damascus’ Old City to this day. I was told, upon visiting their synagogue, that most had gone to Brooklyn, though there were perhaps a dozen families left.