Two thousand years of the history of Christianity in Syria have demonstrated both the openness of the populations of this region of the world and their capacity for acceptance, dialogue and living together, and have allowed the inhabitants of this country to achieve notable evolution and progress.
During the seventh century the country was the target of an invasion by Muslim conquerors who came from Hijaz and the Arab peninsula. They were integrated and dominated the country, which at that time was almost totally Christian, for a large number of centuries. The Christians and the Muslims of this country were able to live through this period together even though they found themselves at times in contradictory, difficult and demanding situations. The choice of the Church at all stages has been reconciliation and the search for a cohesion that has at times been difficult to maintain because of the forceful irruption of a sectarian and intolerant fundamentalism. It is this very fundamentalism that at the present time threatens the social peace and the calm of the country. And yet history teaches us that in the past the Christians of the Middle East were in the front line, side by side in serene fashion with the most enlightened Muslims, in offering their society, together, everything that leads to the progress of a human community and the prosperity of a country. Christians have lived as brothers with Muslims, they have walked together the pathways of the history of Arabs, and they should now avoid the rocks of fundamentalism so as to give their country the image that is suitable to the men of this twenty-first century that is now beginning.
This widespread fundamentalism is in part the product of the various problems and issues that arose in the region in the 1940s and more precisely after the birth of the state of Israel. It was from that moment that violence, terrorism and clashes have never ceased to afflict the Arab populations of the region in general and the Near East in particular.
When we speak about violence and terrorism in Syria it is necessary to engage in a number of indispensable clarifications. This violence may be of a political and religious kind, or connected with criminality. This paper will not discuss criminality which lies beyond the range of the analysis that it seeks to present.
Political violence can have as its origins both dictatorship and national struggles and resistance, as well as attacks against third parties. In Syria, military regimes alternated in power and they invoked strategic reasons for their repressive political action, derived from the war against Israel, which justified martial law and gave rise to exaggerations and to a dictatorship which did not always act without violence and tensions in relation to certain parts of the population.
On the other hand, with a view to the liberation of Palestine, there developed in the country a resistance to the occupier which at times was very aggressive. This resistance, even though often violent, cannot be likened to terrorism given the context experienced by Arab citizens, who were continually exposed to the expressions of intransigence of the occupier and repeated incursions which had as a result the annexation of new territories by the state of Israel in 1967. What on the Syrian side was a struggle for national independence and a resistance was seen by the Israelis as terrorism. Given the ineffectiveness of armed confrontation, and given the spreading military supremacy of the state of Israel, the groups most linked to Arab nationalism came to be led towards a non-conventional military strategy within their range of possibilities. They also organised themselves into cells for armed intervention whose task was to wear down the enemy.
To what extent, nowadays, are these groups still operating, beginning with Syria? Only God knows but it is certain that the Syrian government has been directed for some years, and increasingly so, towards a peaceful solution to this endemic conflict, even though it has been doing this with reluctance.
Another form of political terrorism, and perhaps also political-religious in character, found fertile terrain in the countries of the region after the appearance of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and the beginning of the war in the Lebanon. Indeed, the fratricidal struggles between the Lebanese divided the nation into generally confessional groups in which each religious community, with at its head its own clergy, found itself confronting the others, both politically and militarily, and this to the point of the very worst aberrations. Muslim and Christian militias were established to kill each other, each for their own Lebanon. How many innocent victims were sacrificed in the name of God in this absurd war?
It may be that it is in this situation that the violence of terrorism has its most tenacious roots and its most dangerous repercussions. To die for a country pushes the armed struggle to the frontiers of that country but to die for a conquering religion can lead to a religious struggle and to a violence that goes beyond frontiers and explodes everywhere, in a world that is increasingly intertwined as regards its multi-confessional components. To die for God is an absolute and uncontrollable choice as long as militant fundamentalism animates people's spirits. Ayatollah Khomeini distributed keys to paradise which young kamikazes put around their necks to then go and kill and be killed in his war, which he thought was holy, on a par with every war undertaken by Muslims as members of the Islamic nation. Many of the faithful of this religion are at the present time in the West and, in the view of fundamentalist Mullahs, if they are true Muslims they must continue the holy struggle in order to establish Islam throughout the world. The Jihad of the holy war accompanies them and spreads to every place they transfer to. It is in this wave of confessional and militant fundamentalism that the real peril that threatens freedom and democracy lies. And it is precisely this exclusive and totalitarian fundamentalism that is compromising peace and any project for a pluralist society in which people can live together.
In Syria, beginning with independence from the French mandate, for which cause Muslims and Christians had fought side by side, a non-confessional national community was born. At the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century there emerged social and political movements of a secular and progressive character to develop the structures of a non-confessional national community. These movements brought together supporters who belonged to all the confessions that were present in the country. The appearance of the Baath movement, an Arab word which means both renewal and resurrection, constituted an important step forward in this direction. This party was founded in 1947 by Christian and Muslim intellectuals with the goal of modernising Syria and unifying the divided Arab countries. A culture that was opposed to confessionalism and open to secularity, and which clearly distinguished political and social involvement from religious membership, developed in Syria and was then propagated in neighbouring Arab countries. Indeed, this secularity was indispensable for the cohesion of the many components of a national community in which believers, who belonged to an infinite number of religious denominations, lived together side by side.
After gaining power first in Syria and then in Iraq, the Baath Party increasingly strengthened its secular tendencies and knew how to mobilise the masses around strategic objectives that sought the unity of the Arab countries and their independence, as well as the creation of social justice within a Socialist approach. The rise to power of this movement was supported by a good response on the part of the young members of the small bourgeoisie and by the less well-off sections of the working class. However, its growth was arduous and marked by snares and pitfalls.
From inside the country, the political and paramilitary organisation of the Muslim Brothers conducted a fundamentalist opposition. Outside the country the state of Israel, supported by the West, perceived in the nationalist movement represented by the Baath Party a clear contestation of its expansionist policies and a permanent danger to the security of its conquered territories. Thus Israel did everything to weaken this nationalist impetus and undermined every attempt on the part of the Arab countries to draw nearer to one another. One of the most effective means by which to destroy this Arab community, which looked for the constituent foundations of its national identity beyond confessional loyalties, was to strengthen and foment feelings of religious fanaticism in the region.
The first Gulf War, the war in the Lebanon, the war in Sudan and yet others were, together with widespread terrorism and confessional movements, one of the products of the impetus of religious fundamentalism which was favoured to the disadvantage of an Arab regional nationalism of a secular and pluralistic kind which was promoted by progressive movements such as the Baath Party, which is still in power in Syria today. It is true that the Syrian regime, which is its tributary, does not enjoy all the virtues of democracy and that the dirigisme of the state in this country restricts the margins of freedom of citizens, but it is equally true that left to themselves, given their centuries-old isolation under Ottoman dominion, their separation from the West and their cultural and democratic evolution, the populations of the Middle East would not at the moment know how to administer a non-confessional democracy that respects the rights of minorities and fundamental freedoms: freedom of worship, freedom of expression, equality of rights between men and women and between Muslims and non-Muslims, etc.
Despite everything, today in Syria a Christian has the same rights as a Muslim and can occupy, as indeed can women, all public positions and the highest political positions. Churches are respected as mosques are and worship is supported without distinctions. In this country which looks for secularity, people are not distinguished on the grounds of their confessional loyalties but by their civic sense and their devotion to the nation. In the context of a society that wants to be civil and united, good human relations unite the citizens, independently of their religious diversity.
In the final analysis we should ask ourselves in a serious way if the Western countries, which strive at the present time to suffocate Arab nationalism of a secular and non-confessional kind, are not demolishing the building, which is full of hopes, of a new Arab world as its construction is underway.