Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Christians of various denominations make up around 10 per cent of Syria’s population.
There are several hundred thousand members of the Antiochene (Antiochian) Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church (Greek or Byzantine Orthodox Church) in Syria, traditionally concentrated in and around Damascus and also in Latakiya, Aleppo and the neighbouring coastal region. Of more than a million members of the Greek Catholic Church worldwide, about 100,000 have lived in Syria and their Patriarch is based in Damascus. As with many other Christian communities, Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic communities are well-versed in their societies, and are Arab Syrians. They enjoyed cordial ecumenical relations amongst themselves, as much as amongst them and the society within which they live in Syria. Greek Orthodox or Catholic communities are called Greek not for ethnic reasons but in order to highlight that their religious celebrations are focused on the Greek / Byzantine rites.
A small community of Maronite Christians have long resided mainly in the Aleppo region. The Maronite community is a surviving remnant from before the majority sought safety in Mount Lebanon in the sixth century. It has maintained ties to Rome since the twelfth century, and the liturgy is in Syriac.
Ethnic Armenians, almost all of whom are Christians, live mainly in Aleppo, but also in Damascus (primarily in the Hay al-Arman district) and the Jazira. Most belong to the Armenian Apostolic or Orthodox Church (Gregorian), and some belong to the schismatic Armenian Catholic Church, and a few to the Evangelical Church. Armenians are by and large city-dwellers, and they are perhaps one of the least assimilated communities in Syria. They keep their traditions, and usually tend to avoid politics and public life.
The Suryanis, or members of the Syriac Orthodox Church, are the second largest Christian minority and are located mainly in the Jazira, Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. Very similar in liturgical traditions to the Armenians, they are also monophysites who believe that Jesus’ divinity overpowered his humanity.
There are also adherents to the Syrian Catholic Church, in small communities mainly in Aleppo, Hasaka and Damascus.
Assyrians live in the Khabur valley in the Jazira (north-east Syria). Most belong to the Assyrian Ancient Church of the East (see Iraq), and some to the Chaldean Catholic Church.
Since the onset of the civil conflict, however, many long established Christian communities have been displaced by conflict or their numbers dramatically reduced through forced migration. In Aleppo, some media outlets have reported that Aleppo’s Christian populated had fallen from 250,000 to 30,000 by the end of 2016. The exact size and location of many Syrian Christians is therefore difficult to verify in the current context.
Having rejected the verdict of Chalcedon, 451, the Suryanis were virtually eradicated by Roman imperial forces. Muslim Arab conquest was a relief from persecution and their numbers grew. They were numerically preponderant in the Syrian countryside until virtually exterminated by Tamarlaine’s forces in the late fourteenth century. Some Suryanis today are survivors from the massacres carried out around Mardin by Turkey in 1915. They dislike being described as Jacobite (after Jacob Baradeus, who led the community after expulsion at Chalcedon, 451).
Orthodox Christians never identified with the Christian West (which ransacked the Orthodox capital Constantinople in 1204). They feel comfortable as Christians within an Islamic culture and some view the Prophet Muhammad as founder of a united Arab nation. Orthodox Christians took a lead in nationalist thinking during the twentieth century. The appointment of an Arab, rather than Greek, Patriarch of Antioch in 1898 was the first overt expression of Arab nationalism. After that, Orthodox Christians played an active part in the short-lived Kingdom of Syria, in Syrian nationalist movements and in Arab nationalism.
The Melkite (Imperial) Church (Greek Catholic Church) split from the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch to enter union with Rome in 1724. It immediately appointed an Arab rather than Greek Patriarch.
The uniate Syrian Catholic Church was established in 1781 by schismatics from the Syriac Orthodox Church. Its liturgy is similar to that of the Syriac Orthodox, and its language is Arabic.
About 9,000 ethnic Assyrians moved from Iraq to Syria following the Iraqi massacre of 1933. The present-day Assyrians are Nestorian Christians and speak Syriac. They settled in the Jazirah near Tall Tamir on the upper Khabur River. The French established this Assyrian settlement with the assistance of the League of Nations, and in 1942 it became an integral part of Syria. The Assyrian settlement on the Khabur valley consists of about 20 villages, primarily agricultural. They have faced severe economic pressures over the years, despite owning their own irrigated lands, and some of them emigrated to the USA where there exists a large community.
Some Armenians are descended from those who left Anatolian Armenia in the eleventh century and Cilicia a century later. The majority, however, are descendants of the waves of descended 100,000 or so survivors of the genocide in Anatolia during the First World War.
Under Ba’ath party rule, Christians were widely tolerated in Syria. State schools provided Muslim and Christian religious education in separate classes, church authorities were granted broad leeway in certain areas of family law for Christians, and state holidays included Western Christmas, as well as Orthodox and Western Easter.
Prior to the outbreak of the civil war, the Christian community was flourishing in Syria and experienced lower rates of emigration than other Christian communities in the region, such as Iraq. Since 2011, however, Christians have been exposed to violence due to their presence in urban centers where heavy fighting has taken place, and in northeastern regions that have been overrun by ISIS. The extremist ideology of ISIS and some of the other groups fighting against the government has increased Christians’ fears about their future place in the country should the government fall, and has driven some to support Assad. The regime itself has also taken advantage of those fears to bolster its own support among minorities. Nevertheless, many Christians are also critical of the regime.
Attacks on Christian-majority areas during the conflict have led to the displacement of Christian civilians. In May 2014, the Armenian Christian town of Kesseb was attacked and taken over by opposition fighters, causing approximately 2,500 Armenians to flee for their lives. The Assyrian Christian town of Ma’aloula, one of the few places in Syria where the Aramaic language is still spoken, switched hands between government and opposition forces four times between the end of 2013 and April 2014, when it was taken back by the government. On 23 February 2015, ISIS attacked 35 Assyrian Christian villages along the Khabour River in the north-eastern Al-Hasakah governorate. According to Assyrian news outlets, the armed group kidnapped 253 Assyrians, including many women and children, caused an estimated 3,000 to flee the area and destroyed 11 churches. On 6 August 2015, ISIS captured the town of Qaryatain, near Homs, kidnapping at least 230 civilians, including dozens of Assyrian Christians. ISIS later released a charter for the town’s Christian inhabitants, imposing jizya (tribute) payments and restricting their rights to religious expression.
Armed groups have also targeted Christian religious leaders. Numerous priests have been abducted or killed during the conflict. Thirteen nuns and three maids, who were kidnapped from Ma’aloula in December 2013, were released in March 2014 following negotiations between Jabhat al-Nusra (now called Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham), which was holding them captive, and Syrian, Lebanese and Qatari officials.
Churches and Christian institutions, such as schools and hospitals, have been destroyed. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 63 churches had been targeted as of the end of April 2015. Out of those, 40 were attacked by government forces compared to 14 by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist organizations, as well as another 14 by armed opposition groups. According to the Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church, the number of worshippers has declined by over 50 per cent because of security issues, except in the areas that have Christian majorities and where security arrangements can be made. When the town of Ma’aloula was retaken by the government, many of its churches and monasteries were found vandalized, destroyed or looted of precious historical artifacts, although it is unclear who was responsible for these actions.
Updated March 2018.
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