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Religion and Society

Christians in Syria: Citizens Weakened by the Growing Fundamentalism

I am grateful to the Alliance Française for giving our Eastern Christians an opportunity to be heard in Paris, a centre of humanist culture and the birthplace of democracy and the Rights of Man. These rights have thrived, embodied in the principles that define this great nation, one that has imparted to the rest of the world its essential values, namely Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. My presence today on this platform, I the Archbishop of Aleppo in Syria, has given me a chance to understand that your Republic is not the same as Voltaire’s hostility. The fact that I am a clergyman bothers no one anymore. France is far from that culture that favours “sanctions.” Indeed I have in person come from a country that is beyond the pale, and yet you have welcomed me as warmly as the participants from countries that are France’s friends. This is reassuring and makes me believe that you will listen to what I have to say without prejudices or preconceived notions.

 

I was indeed eager to write this presentation myself, staying away from any of the many books and studies that deal with Syria and the Christians of the Middle East, not because of any dislike for what they say, but because I believe that Syria’s Christians cannot be reduced to a mere subject of history or a topic for dissertations. They need instead to be presented as real people living Hic et Nunc, here and now, people who have a right to be known as real human beings actively involved in today’s world.

 

 

Historical Background

 

I shall start by quickly and succinctly outlining the main aspects of the Christian presence in Syria so as to later talk more thoroughly about their present situation which is one of political upheavals and security-related problems.

 

There is no point in repeating what you have heard a thousand times with regards to ancient Syria, a region of great ancient civilisations, which have contributed since time immemorial to the evolution of human society and the latter’s progress. Your archaeological missions in the region have revealed much on the matter. In Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte (Travels through Egypt and Syria) Volney wrote that “it is in these lands that the main ideas that govern us were born; it is from here that the religious ideas that have so powerfully influenced our public morality, laws and social conditions come from.”

 

Today’s Syria is indeed the product of this 10,000-year-old rich history, of the influence of monotheistic religions and of the modern West, whose role Syria began to feel in the 18th century, but which blossomed in the 20th century under the French mandate that was established at the end of Ottoman rule.

 

Christians have lived in Syria ever since the time of Saint Paul and the Apostles, and they continue to call it home even today, leading a busy and highly motivated life. In spite of some sad and dark moments, History has shown them readily leading the way, at the forefront of progress and prosperity in their society, in areas like science, the arts, openness to the world and tolerance. The 18th century Arab Renaissance and the progress currently underway cannot be understood without reference to its architects.

 

Syria’s Christians have lived alongside Muslims as brothers for a long time; both have trod the same paths in the course of its history. And together they should be able to shape its future in ways suitable for early 21st human societies. They must also withstand the region’s ups and downs, a source of great concern for them and a major cause of the Middle East’s tragic instability!

 

The Palestinian problem has had a huge impact and has caused wars. It has led to confrontations and given rise to secular Arab nationalism whose ideas have found fertile ground in Syria and profoundly marking its history.

 

 

Christians in Syria Today

 

Christians are estimated to be about ten per cent of the Syrian population. That means that they are more than 1.5 million faithful spread across the country, especially in the big cities. However, a major demographic shift in the second half of the 20th century has reduced their relative weight in places like Aleppo. In the 1950s the city’s population stood at just over 400,000—now it is just under 3,000,000. The 160,000 Christians who lived in the city fifty years ago represented almost 50 per cent of its population; now they account for just six to seven per cent.* Why? On the one hand, there has been an unprecedented population movement from almost exclusively Muslim areas towards the central parts of the city at a time of significant Christian emigration to the West. On the other hand, Muslims have had a much higher birth-rate compared to Christians. Hence the major change in what until recently was a stable ethnic make-up. It is also true though that what applies to the city of Aleppo does not necessarily apply to other cities. But it does remain an important fact in a country that has seen its population go from 3 million in the 1940s to 18 million today.

 

Things have undoubtedly changed over time. The Christian presence in Syria which was once important and visible is no longer what it was. This means that we the Christians of this country must leave the beaten path inherited from the past and look at our national community’s present not only to see what are the more favourable and vital factors to our development but also ascertain what constraints and obstacles we face. In the past we largely lived in peace in our country because we were self-reliant and re self-governing. Nowadays this is increasingly impossible because of our community’s shrinking size and because of growing inter-communal relations that modern society imposes at all levels. Such an evolution would cause no regrets among Christians if they could live in security with their Muslim compatriots on a basis of equality and enjoy the same unrestricted civil rights whilst fully fulfilling their obligations as citizens.

 

 

The Syrian Government’s Domestic Policies

 

Since Syria became independent from France, with Christians and Muslims involved equally in the liberation struggle, a non-confessional national community has emerged. Secular, nation-wide social and political movements led by intellectuals inspired by France’s republican ideals brought together activists from all of the country’s confessional groups to lay the foundations of a pluralistic national community. The emergence of the Ba’ath among various political movements was an important step in this direction. With a name that means both renaissance and resurrection in Arabic, this progressive party, which rules the country today, was founded in 1947 by Christian and Muslim intellectuals for the purpose of bringing together people from various religions, modernising Syria and unifying the divided Arab countries.

 

A referendum in 1973 led to the promulgation of a new constitution which laid the foundations of the country’s modern interventionist, secular and non-confessional system of government, this despite the reluctance and disapproval of its more conservative religious authorities. This long and painful period went on for some time but has given us the Syria of today, a country where various religious communities must peacefully live together. It is true that the Syrian state does not sport all the virtues of democracy and that its authoritarian rule limits how much political freedom people can exercise but it is also true that if left to themselves after centuries of Ottoman rule, cut-off from the West and its cultural and democratic evolution, the peoples of the Middle East would be hard pressed in their present circumstances to run a non-confessional democracy respectful of minorities’ fundamental rights, let alone the rights of individuals like freedom of worship and expression, the equality of men and women and between Muslims and non-Muslims, etc. . . .

 

 

Christian Rights

 

Despite everything Christians enjoy the same rights in Syria as Muslims do. The state’s highest offices are open to Christians as well as to women; so are those in civil society. As an institution the Church is as respected as Islam and all religions are favoured the same way. With few exceptions children attend the same schools and pursue their education at the same universities. They are drafted for their military service together and are entitled to join the police. Employment in the public service and the top positions at every administrative level are open to all, except for the presidency which is constitutionally reserved to a Sunni Muslim. Like their Muslim compatriots Christians have access to same social benefits. And it must be said that the state has granted certain privileges to the various religious communities, mosques and churches. Clergymen are exempt from military service, places of worship do not pay for water and power; land and real estate held by religious organisations are tax free and a considerable power is left to Religious Courts to administer personal status law as it pertains to each community. Many small gestures towards Christians have reassured them, allowing them to safeguard their national identity whilst keeping their rights as citizens. In a country that favours secularism no one can call attention to his or her membership in a confessional group but must instead be civic-minded and devoted to the nation. Good human relationships bind people together in a society that likes to think of itself as secular and homogenous, whatever their religion.

 

Today Christians can practice their religion freely. They can teach catechesis to their children, organise conferences and training activities for their fellow co-religionists, and publish books and magazines. Since President Bashar el-Assad came to power, they can have their own schools, training centres, private educational facilities and even their own universities. They also can apply for free public land from their local municipality to build churches, a right that has recently been exercised in many of the country’s big cities.

 

 

Islamic-Christian Conviviality

 

It is true that today our faithful feel good about being Christian in Syria, enjoying the same rights as their Muslim compatriots with no notable institutional discrimination. But it is also true that the rise of confessionalism in the region, especially after civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1976, the emergence of the Salafi and fundamentalist movements and the two Gulf Wars and their consequences have stigmatised confessional identities and rekindled a strong communal bond among many Muslims. This has negatively impacted on the hitherto confident friendship and interfaith conviviality that prevailed in so many milieus; this in turn has undermined the sense of security Christians had. The latter now fear the worse whenever they are confronted with visible manifestations of religious fundamentalism whether in the words their compatriots use or the clothes they wear.

 

We must make our way in this context of obvious understanding, one admittedly that is not without pitfalls. On the one hand, there is a shared heritage that brings us together and all the laws and regulations that place us on an equal footing with Muslims. On the other, there are fundamentalist views held by some Muslims which limit their openness towards others and affect their relationship to the faithful of other religions. Sometimes this has led some individuals to carry out untoward acts that poison the atmosphere of mutual trust and conviviality which are the trademarks of multi-faith civil society.

 

As a matter of fact the authorities have opposed this type of behaviour and the courts have admitted cases filed against segregation; nonetheless, it must be said that such imponderable actions and the many abuses attributable to irresponsible fanatics cannot be treated as trivial matters and just be swept under the carpet.

 

Does this mean that Christians can no longer get along with their compatriots? Of course not! In spite of setbacks there is light at the end of the tunnel. A lull in regional tensions and the vigilance exerted by local authorities are cooling tempers and slowly containing the turmoil which we believe is only temporary in a country like Syria because of the aforementioned reasons as well as its official policies and the good will of a great number of enlightened people who see no reason to vex Christians, who for a long time have often been their friends and partners, worthy of their respect and trust.

 

Indeed if fundamentalism has grown in some quarters, a desire for openness and dialogue has also developed in others. Never in the history of the Church of Syria have we seen so many Islamic-Christian meetings take place and so many friendships develop between religious leaders . . . . It is clear that this cannot but have a positive effect on individual behaviour, improve social relations and make people better well-disposed towards everyone.

 

 

The Emigration Problem

 

Although the Christians who have remained in the changing socio-cultural landscape of Syria are also adapting to their new situation, they are still tempted by the West, which has been a real curse on all the Churches of the Middle East over the last 50 years, and which today threatens the actual survival of Christianity in Syria.

 

In my opinion our Church is facing the greatest challenge in its history. It is a question “of life and death” as Jean-Pierre Valogne put it in his book Vie et mort des chrétiens d'Orient (Life and Death of the Christians of the East). Although I share many of his views, I cannot go as far as he does and accept that Christians are bound to disappear from our country. That danger does exist but it is not an inevitable fate, if nothing else because we are increasingly cognizant of the problem and have many leaders and secular Christians who are committed to do something about it.

 

Church authorities are in fact seriously looking into the matter. Studies show that certain factors encourage the faithful to leave the country. For instance, the winds of war that sometimes blow across the region are a great source of concern to many Christians so is Islamic fundamentalism which fuels their anxiety and revulsion. By contrast, the West with its economic development and quality of life attracts them. Indeed their standards of living do little to bind them to their homeland. In other words, for a good number of them emigration heralds a new, better and quieter life full off freedom, security, success and prosperity, something which they can see at the flick of a button on their TV screens.

 

All told we can see that great dangers lie ahead since the temptation to leave is especially strong among the young. Christian community leaders know it; some have even resigned themselves to it, but an important number of clergymen and lay people want to go against this trend and stop the fatal bloodletting whatever the cost, and I too have made this choice. I believe we are at a point in our history that needs a forceful reaction, full of courage and perseverance. We cannot shy away from this task, conscious that we are called to act by our connection to the ancestral land where our forefathers are buried, by our faithfulness to the two thousand-year-old Church of Antioch, and by the apostolic mission that awaits us in this part of the world where Providence protected and cared for us until now through the vagaries, suffering and trials of history.

 

 

Facing the Challenges

 

How can we actually respond to this problem? How can we deal with the current situation? And what useful and feasible action plans can we develop to achieve a better future?

 

It is clear that our response to the problem of emigration problem cannot be limited to issuing statements and delivering speeches. Our faithful need to live according to the full meaning of the word life. Concrete actions that are articulated around what already exists are indispensable. A certain synergy can be developed starting from many bases, enabling us to implement an effective and fruitful strategy with this goal in mind. There are four vital points for our faithful:

 

 

 

 

1st – Regional Peace

 

Despite the region’s turmoil and the danger of conflagration, we can hear urgent pleas for peace. We pray for this to happen and do all we can to favour the conditions that might lead one day to a just and lasting peace. For this we count first of all on God’s grace, cognizant of the fact that we face a hard and difficult task. We count next on the deeds of people of good will, and on the intervention of nations who care for the rights of peoples and are concerned about justice in the world. “Peace” remains our greatest hope and most beautiful dream since it can solve many of our problems.

 

 

 

 

2nd – About the possibilities of living in peace and tranquillity with our Muslim compatriots

 

Our country has a very ancient culture. It also has an Islamic-Christian history that goes back more than a thousand years, one that has been based on conviviality, friendship and co-operation. Thanks to the country’s well-developed educational and academic institutions the vast majority of young people can be reached and informed. Aleppo for example probably has as many as 1.5 million high school students. The country itself has perhaps some 200,000 university students. This represents almost a million graduates and very few illiterate people. All households have access to television and the Internet is developing at a fast pace.

 

All this and the clearly non-confessional nature of the state give us hope that we can easily rise above the fanaticism caused by ignorance and disinformation. This will enable us to go back to a situation of tolerance that science, mutual knowledge and dialogue have made possible. With this as our starting point and to the extent that civil authorities do not change, a rapprochement with Muslims can only advance, reaching the desired level of openness and strengthening the type of conviviality that Christians find reassuring. Furthermore, we must promote a culture of “friendship” between Christians and Muslims by using all means at our disposal so as to help our faithful to feel comfortably integrated and happy in the society in which they live.

 

 

 

 

3rd – The wherewithal for living in dignity

 

Syria is a rich country. Some consider it one of the richest countries in the Middle East. Without going into details, suffice it to say that that our agricultural production is sufficient to feed its 18 million people. Our industrial potential is substantial thanks to the country’s natural, archaeological and tourist assets, not to mention its human resources, and in the immediate future could generate lasting economic development.

 

This in itself can provide young people with enough breathing space to find the job they want or start the professional career they aspire to, if they get a good education and work hard. The government’s more open market economic policies after 40 years of autarchy cannot but reassure the more ambitious entrepreneurs, big and small, who want to start new businesses.

 

There is of course a certain lack in know-how and the existing red tape does not make life easy for some emerging companies. Corruption among public officials may still be a problem but we must be fair and acknowledge that things are quickly changing. In fact more and more we see Syrian and foreign companies invest in the industry, hotels, commerce, insurance, communications, tourism, transportation, services as well as in the financial and banking sectors. This means that many more interesting jobs are becoming available to young people who can thus be reassured that they have a future in their own country.

 

 

 

 

4th – An Adequate Quality of Life

 

As a result of globalisation and our country’s more open-door policy towards the outside world, our young people can compare the standards of living at home with those in the West. Abroad public services and social benefits are very good compared to what exists at home, which are more often than not modest and haphazard. Public places are clean, welcoming and well-maintained. Inviting residential areas are in everyone’s reach and many services are available to working people.

 

We know how attractive this can be. We understand that Syria must continue to improve things in that direction. It is true that the various ministries and municipalities provide many valuable social benefits, but much remains to be done in order to improve their quality and effectiveness. In the meantime we believe that the development of the private sector will make up for the shortfalls. Indeed individuals and NGOs are now allowed to operate and will play an increasingly important role. Perhaps the time has come to speak to our young men and women and tell them: Go ahead, do your own thing and build your own world in your beloved country! Through its generous and efficient co-operation France can provide its support to this desired development.

 

 

The Role of Church

 

Perhaps at this point, you may ask, what does the Church in Syria do to help its own people? My answer is simple. We do what we can with out limited means. We have given ourselves totally in order to help the faithful; at the same time we are raising awareness among people around us by encouraging them to act and by backing the country’s modernisation and development. For example, this is why I found it very useful to launch a movement called “Build to Stay” which brings together Christians who want to get involved in activities that enable them to remain in the country and improve the quality of life around them. I am certain that their commitment and their good example will not fail to move others to action. In order to support this very promising movement I have decided to put everything I own at the disposal of the faithful.

 

I stopped complaining some years ago. In Aleppo instead I have taken some concrete steps on behalf of the younger generations in order to give them the necessary wherewithal to live and the right reasons to hope in a better future. In just six years, we have built four schools and technical institutes as well as a great number of houses; we have also build youth centres as well as organised conferences and conventions around three key topics: Islamic-Christian dialogue, jobs and prospects for employment and lastly emigration.

 

We have opened a vocational training school in tourism and another in business administration. We have set up some cultural centres and established recreational facilities and we have just launched four major projects, two in housing for a total of 92 apartments, and two congress and meeting centres whose function is to encourage dialogue and conviviality. We know that other dioceses will soon follow. Ultimately we know there are many things we can achieve thanks to our friends’ help and with the co-operation of those who want to “Build to Stay!”

 

 

Paris, 17 November 2007

 

 

* Official statistics tend to overestimate their actual number. This is why we have opted for rough estimates.

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