Will Syria have any Christians left?

Assad exiles Syrian Catholic priest for joining the revolution

By Nicholas Nehamas

A woman takes communion at an Orthodox Easter mass in Damascus April 15, 2012. (Reuters).

As the bloodshed in Syria intensifies, Syria’s diverse Christian community fears for the future. The Assad government, considered its traditional protector by some, teeters on the brink of collapse. Whatever the political outcome post-Assad, democratic or not, Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will help reshape the country.

For many, escape is the only answer. “Oriental Christians are so afraid,” Father Paolo Dall’Oglio tells Latitude News in an interview from New York. “The regime has told them, without us, you have nothing. They have all the reasons to go, to leave.”

Dall’Oglio himself recently left Syria—but not by choice. An Italian-born Jesuit priest who arrived in Damascus three decades ago, Father Paolo was expelled from Syria in June after openly criticizing the Assad government. He says he supported the revolution from the beginning.

“People will never go back to the dictatorship of Bashar,” he insists. “We want to have a Syria that can be fully democratic, a change from the past, a modern state. We cannot accept Assad anymore. For this, our people are dying.”

That includes pro-regime Christians, who are allegedly being targeted by anti-Assad revolutionaries. Since journalists are banned from Syria, it’s difficult to tell what’s actually happening on the ground. But Deutsche Welle, a German broadcaster, reports that radical Islamists have begun a “concerted campaign” of violence against Christians, according to Syrian Christian refugees who have fled to Lebanon.

“We have been living a life that has been the envy of many,” a former Syrian Greek Catholic bishop who supports Assad said to the Wall Street Journal. “But today fear is the reality.”

Some Syrian Christians in America also view Assad as a worthy protector. “Ever since the start of the Syrian ‘revolution,’” writes Dalel Khalil, a Syrian-American Christian who has mixed feelings about the uprising, “many Syrian-American Christians have rallied around President Bashar Assad.”

Last summer, before the worst of the violence started, a pro-Assad rally in Dearborn, Michigan attracted 500 Syrian and Lebanese Christians.

Christians currently make up around an estimated 10 percent of Syria’s population. They have traditionally been part of a patch-work alliance of ethnic and religious minorities that support Assad. But they are not a monolithic group. The community is made up of Greek, Syriac and Armenian Orthodox churches, as well as Assyrians and Greek Catholics, or Melkites.

“Just like every other group in Syrian society, the Christians have a range of attitudes,” writes Nadim Nasser, a Syrian Anglican priest, in the Guardian. “Some support the regime, many have refused to be drawn into the conflict, and others are active members of the opposition.”

One thing many Syrian Christians do agree on: their future lies away from their home country.

Well before the revolution started, economic opportunities began to dry up in Syria, says Father Paolo. Since the 60’s, Christians have been leaving in droves for new homes in Sweden, Germany, Canada and Australia. An even earlier wave of emigration took many to the United States and New York’s “Little Syria” starting in the 1880’s.

Father Paolo Dall’Oglio at a press conference in New York August 6th, 2012 (Courtesy National Alliance for Syria)

Now, Christians are joining the hundreds of thousands of other refugees fleeing the country. Some venture to Orthodox Armenia, others to safe havens in Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey. Also leaving Assad’s failed state are tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians, who came to Syria after the wave of sectarian violence that hit post-Saddam Iraq in 2004.

For Father Paolo, who worked for inter-religious harmony at his desert monastery Deir Mar Musa, the prospect of religious violence is heart-rending. Syria, he says, “is the crossroads between three continents. It is plural in its deepest identity, and rich in spirit because of this.” Other monks remain at Deir Mar Musa but he says the Assad government has almost completely halted their activities.

Asked what he will do now that he is exiled from his home, Father Paolo replied: “I will work full time for democracy in Syria. I have no other base but there. Yes, I consider myself a Syrian. Not just by the number of years I have spent there. It is something more. It is a deep engagement for life.”