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August 18, 2012

Arab Spring Turns to Christian Winter

William Dalrymple
August 9, 2012

Wherever you go in the Middle East today, you see the Arab Spring rapidly turning into the Christian winter.

The past few years have been catastrophic for the region's beleaguered 14-million strong Christian minority.

In Egypt, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood has been accompanied by anti-Coptic riots and intermittent bouts of church-burning. On the West Bank and in Gaza, the Christians are emigrating fast as they find themselves caught between Benjamin Netanyahu's pro-settler government and their increasingly radicalised and pro-Hamas Sunni Muslim neighbours. Most catastrophically, in Iraq, two thirds of the Christians have fled the country since the fall of Saddam.

It was Syria that took in many of the 250,000 Christians driven out of Iraq. Anyone who visited Damascus in recent years could see lounging in every park and sitting in every teahouse the unshaven Iraqi Christian refugees driven from their homes by the sectarian mayhem that followed the end of the Baathist state. They were bank managers and engineers, pharmacists and businessmen - all living with their extended families in one-room flats on what remained of their savings and assisted by the charity of the different churches.

"Before the war there was no separation between Christian and Muslim," I was told on a recent visit by Shamun Daawd, a liquor-store owner who fled Baghdad after he received Islamist death threats. I met him at the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus, where he had come to collect the rent money the Patriarchate provided for the refugees. "Under Saddam no one asked you your religion and we used to attend each other's religious services," he said. "Now at least 75 per cent of my Christian friends have fled."

Those Iraqi refugees now face a second displacement while their Syrian hosts are themselves living in daily fear of having to flee for their lives. The first Syrian refugee camps are being erected in the Bekaa valley of Lebanon; others are queuing to find shelter in camps in Jordan, north of Amman. Most of the bloodiest killings and counter-killings that have been reported in Syria have so far been along Sunni-Alawite faultlines, but there have been some reports of thefts, rape and murder directed at the Christian minority, and in one place - Qusayr - wholesale ethnic cleansing of the Christians accused by local jihadis of acting as pro-regime spies. The community, which makes up about 10 per cent of the total population, is now frankly terrified.

For much of the past 100 years, and long before the Assads came to power, Syria was a reliable refuge for the Christians of the Middle East: decades before the Iraqis arrived the people of Syria welcomed the Armenians escaping the Young Turk genocide of 1915. In 1948 they took in the Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, driven out of their ancestral homes at the creation of Israel; and during the 1970s and 80s their country became a place of shelter for Orthodox Christians and Maronites seeking a refuge during Lebanon's interminable sectarian troubles.

For while the regime of the Assad dynasty was a repressive one-party police state in which political freedoms were always severely and often brutally restricted, it did allow the Syrians widespread cultural and religious freedoms. These gave Syria's minorities a security and stability far greater than their counterparts anywhere else in the region. This was particularly true of Syria's ancient Christian communities. The reason for this was that the Assads were Alawite, a syncretic Shia Muslim minority regarded by Sunni Muslims as heretical, and disparagingly referred to as Nusayris, or Little Christians: indeed, their liturgy seems to be partly Christian in origin. Alawites made up only 12 per cent of Syria's population and the Assads kept themselves in power by forming what was in effect a coalition of Syria's religious minorities, through which they were able to counterbalance the weight of the Sunni majority.

In the Assads' Syria, the major Christian feasts were national holidays; Christians were exempt from turning up to work on Sunday mornings; and churches and monasteries, like mosques, were provided with free electricity and were sometimes given state land for new buildings. In the Christian Quarter of Old Damascus around Bab Touma, electric-blue neon crosses would wink from the domes of the churches and processions of crucifix-carrying boy scouts could be seen squeezing past gaggles of Christian girls heading out on the town, all low-cut jeans and tight-fitting T-shirts. This was something unknown almost anywhere else in the Middle East.

There was also widespread sharing of sacred space. On my travels, in a single day I have seen Christians coming to sacrifice sheep at the Muslim Sufi shrine of Nebi Uri, while at the nearby convent of Seidnaya (recently shelled by government forces) I found that the congregation in the church consisted not principally of Christians, but instead of heavily bearded Muslim men and their shrouded wives. Now that precious multi-ethnic and multi-religious patchwork is in danger of being destroyed for ever.

As in Egypt, where the late Coptic Pope Shenouda supported Hosni Mubarak right up until his fall, the established churches of Syria marked the beginning of the revolution by lining up behind the regime. My friend Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, the urbane and multilingual Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, was quoted as saying: "We do not support those who are calling for the fall of the regime simply because we are for reform and change."

Initially many of the flock were unsure of the wisdom of that position, and young Christians were among those calling for the end of the Assad regime, hoping for a new dawn of freedom, human rights and democracy. But, a year on, pro-revolution Christians are much harder to find. There are more and more reports of violent al-Qa'ida-inspired salafists fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army, while Turkish backing for the opposition Syrian National Council has terrified the Syrian Armenians.

As criminality, robbery, lawlessness and car-jacking become endemic, even in places where outright fighting is absent, and as the survival of the regime looks daily less and less likely, the Christians fear they will soon suffer the fate of their Iraqi brethren.

As ever, the Christians here remain mystified by the actions of Christian America. When George W. Bush went into Iraq, he naively believed he would be replacing Saddam with a peaceful, pro-US Arab democracy that would naturally look to the Christian West for support. In reality, nine years on, it appears that he has instead created a highly radicalised and unstable pro-Iranian sectarian battleground. Now US support is being channelled towards opposition groups that may eventually do the same to the minorities of Syria.

As in 80s Afghanistan, a joint operation between the CIA and Saudi intelligence could end up bringing to power a hardline salafist replacement to a brutally flawed but nonetheless secular regime. If that happens in Syria, the final death of Christianity in its Middle Eastern homelands seems increasingly possible within our lifetime.

William Dalrymple is the author of "From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium". His new book "Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42" will be published by Bloomsbury in February.