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Faith groups in Syria ANTHONY O’MAHONY

Danger at the crossroads

Syrian Christian communities are as old as Christianity itself. But now, as the winds of the Arab spring blow on their ancient cities and towns, those communities look on, fearful that their dwindling numbers will be further depleted by the onward march of Islam

is closely linked to the dramatic origins of Christianity. Today Christians, a community of more than two million, make up around 10 per cent of the population. Last week, Pope Benedict XVI received the


new Syrian Ambassador to the Holy See, high- lighting how relations between the two states have developed since the surprisingly suc- cessful visit by John Paul II 10 years ago. While Pope Benedict emphasised that Syria was “an example of tolerance, concord and harmonious relations between Christians and Muslims”, he would have been very aware of the unfolding conflict in Syria. He would also have seen the statement, three days previously, from the Jesuits in Syria, stating with aston- ishing clarity that the situation, left unchecked, might lead to “a religious war which threatens to disintegrate society”, and that “Christians consider national unity as a guarantor of our very existence”. Islam and Arab identity represents some 90 per cent of the population; however, these markers do not represent a straightforward reality. For example, while some 70 per cent of the population are Sunni Muslims, this fig- ure includes the Kurds, who make up some 10 per cent but who normally operate as a separate ethnic community. Even Islam itself is divided. Alawites and the smaller Ismaili community, which make up 15-17 per cent of the population, are asso- ciated with the Shia Islam that has developed an increased presence in Syria. Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi Shias, in recent decades, have settled there, particularly in Damascus. Meanwhile, Druze Muslims make up a small but significant 3 per cent of the popu- lation – significant as under Baathist rule they have created an influential cadre of military officers holding important posts in the Syrian army. They are also linked with their co- religionists in Israel and Lebanon. In this mix, Sunni Arabs are the dominant voice. They see themselves as the natural rul- ing elite, but do not operate as a single political group, and are divided between different cities, tribes and senior families. Sunni Islam has experienced a revival in recent decades, as it has in the rest of the Middle East, with a return to religious practice by both women and men, more Islamic dress and a rise in

4 | THE TABLET | 18 June 2011

ith the second largest concen- tration of Christians, behind Egypt, in the Middle East, Syria’s land, like that of Egypt,

religious schools and mosques. By contrast, Christianity in Syria is a rich, complex and ancient identity at the crossroads of some of the great cultures of the Middle Eastern region, which is manifest in its Greek Byzantine affiliation and the Syriac culture that was close to the origins of Christianity, and which can still be seen today in the language, Aramaic, that continues to be spoken in some villages in Syria. But just as Syrian Islam has many faces, so too does Christianity. In the vanguard is the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Antioch, which has up to a million followers. Then there is its sister Church, the Greek Catholic patriarchate of Antioch, with 300,000 members (although a further 1.5 million live in other parts of the Middle East or in a wider diaspora). Collectively often referred to as the Church of the Arabs, both these communities in recent times have enjoyed a renewed ecumenical relationship that has been a great stimulus to the wider Church. The Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Antioch has been often con- sidered by historians not to have formally broken with Rome, and this has enabled eccle- siologists on both the Orthodox and Catholic sides to argue for a local reunification of this part of the Antiochian Church. But both Rome and Constantinople have requested these two sister Churches of Antioch to put a hold on these bilateral discussions, as they have wider implications for the universal Church. Today, all denominations of Middle Eastern

Christianity have an increasingly large dias- pora. This is especially true for the Syrian Churches with the many millions of their fol- lowers spread around the globe, particularly in South America, sometimes dwarfing their original communities. This diaspora throws light on the growing interest and involvement of Latin American states in the Middle East. Another manifestation of the rich diversity

of Christianity in the country is the Syriac tradition, divided between the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Syrian Catholic Church. Meanwhile, oriental Christianity is represented by an extremely large and important Armenian Christian presence, and there are also Latin Catholics, Maronites, Protestants, members of the Church of the East and the Chaldean Church in Syria, augmented in recent years by tens

Orthodox Christian nuns attend an Orthodox Easter service at the church in Damascus. Photo: Reuters

of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees. Christian communities in Syria have often been identified with particular regions of the country. The Arab Greek Orthodox have trad - itionally been found in the north, especially along the coast, while the Greek Catholics were strong in the south, especially in the Hauran, and Syriac Christians in the north- east. But in the last four decades many have migrated from the countryside to the cities, in particular to Damascus, which is now believed to house half of all Syria’s Christians. Some Christians, especially Catholics, have done well in socioeconomic terms, often backed by an important network of educa- tional establishments although not a Christian university, with many found in commerce and the professions. Others, however, have not done so well, with Damascus being home to up to 100,000 working-class and often poor Christians, which the Church has often found very difficult to support.

Despite one of the founding members of

Syria’s ruling Baathist Party, Michel Aflaq, being born into the Antiochian Greek Orthodox community, Christians have found it very difficult to find their own political space, with the result that they are poorly represented in parliament and in senior polit- ical roles. They are also under-represented in the military and security services. While relations between the different Christian communities have grown in importance and conviviality, the gradual transformation of Islam in the region has meant that Christians in Syria as elsewhere have increasingly felt themselves identified as non-Muslims and

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