In the shadow of the church
How Syrian Christians are being covered in the Western press
Earlier this year, I wrote an article for Heinrich Boell Stiftung MENA’s magazine Perspectives, critically addressing and to an extent refuting the assumption held by many Lebanese Christians (particularly the Maronite Patriarch Bechari Rai and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun) and some Syrian Christian religious leaders that they were better off supporting the regime of Bashar Assad, which they considered as a bulwark against a future Sunni Islamist government, should the revolution prevail. Since writing that article six months ago, I still haven’t changed my mind on the essential points, namely that Christians should not give into the Assad regime’s blackmail that the only choice before them is either the regime or an Islamist government and that instead of choosing to isolate themselves, playing an active role in shaping the new Syria.
What I didn’t mention is why I chose to write the article in the first place; especially as it was a topic I had never written about before, or even thought about extensively. I am not a church-goer and indifferent to my religion and sect. Yet when Arab country after country began to revolt against dictators, I couldn’t help but notice that the euphoria and pride I felt that Arabs were not downtrodden losers after all was not shared by many of my co-religionists in Lebanon, who seemed to treat the Arab Spring with suspicion. When the Syrian revolution erupted, the threat of sectarian civil war (in which the Syrian Christian minority would be targeted) became a hot topic, even though it was completely unsubstantiated by any evidence on the ground. No one can deny that religious and ethnic minorities have been badly treated in the region; we only have to look at Iraq, Egypt and Iran to see systematic discrimination against minorities. But minorities in power have also discriminated against and oppressed ethnic and religious majorities: the Assad regime gave power to Alawites disproportionate to their actual demographic size; under Saddam, the Sunni minority was more powerful than other communities; and of course in Bahrain, the Shiite majority (estimated at 70% of the population) rose up against the ruling Sunni king after decades of discrimination.
But what I couldn’t understand was why there was an automatic assumption that Syrian Christians were suddenly depicted as at risk of extinction in a country where they had lived peacefully with the Muslim majority? As the revolution wore on, numerous articles began to crop up in the mainstream Western press on the ‘plight’ of Christians in Syria and their existential fears. While I didn’t want to immediately dismiss the idea that the armed opposition would target Christians especially if some were (or perceived to be) supportive of the regime, many articles did not provide sufficient evidence that Christians were being deliberated targeted and driven out of their homes and villages en masse by the ‘Sunni’ opposition. Worse, Western journalists used recurrent themes which relied on perceptions of threat presumably because they couldn’t move freely enough in Syria to investigate their stories properly. Below is a critical look at these recurring themes.
Theme 1: The protagonist is usually an old Syrian Christian.
I’ve noticed several articles which open with an old Syrian Christian, who typically expresses fear of the future and for the continued existence of Christians in their towns and villages, drawing comparisons to the plight of Iraqi Christians after Saddam’s fall. A New York Times article which appeared on 28 September 2011, for example, opened with ‘Abu Elias’ sitting next to a Iraqi Christian refugee, beneath the Convent of Our Lady of Saydanaya, saying he was afraid of what might happen next, pointing to the situation of his companion as an example of sectarian strife. The LA Times, in an article earlier this year, chose to focus on ‘Um Michael’, who for 40 years had “found comfort and serenity amid the soaring pillars and ancient icons of St. Mary's Greek Orthodox cathedral”, and wished that everything could go back to how it was before the revolution. As well as the obvious church setting, implying that Christians might not be able to pray for long in public or that their traditions are in danger from the rebels, both articles convey an a feeling by the older Christian generation that the good old past is over, and the future is bleak. In similar fashion, a Der Spiegel Online article in July 2012, focuses on ‘Grandmother Leila’, a Syrian Christian “matriarch of the Khouri clan”, who with a touch of melodrama, makes the sign of the cross and says: "Anyone who believes in this cross suffers".
The problem with these articles is that by focusing on the fear and uncertainty of the Christians they interview, they give the impression that only Christians are afraid of a changed Syria – or rather that they are the only ones who have something to fear in a post-Assad Syria. Christians are treated as separate from the rest of Syrian society, as if revolution has not affected the lives of other Syrians. It is also natural that older generations of Syrian Christians are cautious towards change; they have less of a stake in the future than young people.
Theme 2: Syrian Sunni Muslims will persecute Syrian Christians after Assad falls.
Articles on Syrian Christians focus on the assumption, often uncritically, that a Sunni Islamist government will take over from Assad and persecute Christians, because of sectarian reasons or in revenge of Christians’ purported support of the Assad regime, thus overturning decades of peaceful sectarian coexistence which the Assad regime had guaranteed. The New York Times article mentioned above says that Christians fear “that in the event the president falls, they may be subjected to reprisals at the hands of a conservative Sunni leadership for what it sees as Christian support of the Assad family.” But nowhere in the article does it examine or question if this fear is based on persecution of Christians in the past, or whether there have been any incidents in recent history of Sunnis attacking Christian villages in Syria. And since Iraqi Christians were persecuted and massacred in Iraq after 2003, the same will happen in Syria. There is also the automatic assumption that as Islamists won elections in post-revolution Tunisia and Egypt, they will take over if Assad falls. However Islamists taking over is not inevitable. In the Libyan elections earlier this year the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists were soundly beaten by Ahmad Jibril’s centrist coalition.
A sub-theme here is protests coming out of mosques after Friday prayers – according to some protagonists/articles, a sure sign that the opposition is Islamized. The LA Times writes that Christians fear the weekly demonstrations, which stream out of mosques after Friday prayers. I find this problematic on many levels. First, devout Muslim should never be confused with Islamists. A Muslim who prays in a mosque on Friday and then joins a protest against the Assad regime is most likely an ordinary citizen demanding his rights, rather than a fiery Islamist who wants to bring holy jihad to Syria. Second, as a religious minority in most Syrian towns, surely Friday prayers are something Christians are used to? And are mosques not the logical meeting place for protesters when all other public spaces are cut off to them?
There is also a tendency to immediately link the death of Christians solely to their sect, and not because they were perhaps caught in the crossfire or their possible affiliation to the regime. For example, in the Spiegel Online article, Grandmother Leila says that her family was targeted in Qasayr because they were Christians, yet she also admits that she has family members who work for the government and that a nephew was killed because he supported the regime. In similar fashion, the assassination of Daoud Rahja (the Syrian minister of defense who died along with 3 other figures security officials in a huge bomb attack on a national security meeting on 18 July 2012) was also unfortunately interpreted by some (Juan Cole, for example, said it was a “message to Syria’s minorities”) as a sectarian attack rather than the targeting of a regime official.
Theme 3: Syrian Christians have a ‘special status’.
There is also often an underlying assumption that Christians in Syria are ‘special’ and thus should be singled out for focused reports, because their suffering or plight is different or more acute than that of other Syrians. One of the worst examples of this is a USA Today article in May 2012, which tells us that “the uprising has hurt Christians’ standard of living. Foreign visitors are nowhere to be seen in the Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma in central Damascus.” This seems to imply that only Christians are being impoverished by the revolution, or rather their impoverishment is somehow different or more significant than that of other Syrians, and that the collapse of tourism in Syria is more painful to their neighbourhoods than other Syrians. Another careless remark (In the Washington Post) is: "many Christians simply do not want to upset their way of living in a country where their fate will always be decided by Muslims." This is sloppy, biased journalism at its worst. It portrays Christians as living in a bubble, disconnected and blind to the adverse situation of their fellow Syrians.
Theme 4: Christians are fleeing from “rebel violence”, not from the overall fighting.
AN example is the reports on the evacuation of Christians from Homs. In July 2012, there were several stories on the evacuation of Christians from Homs. Thousands of Christians have undoubtedly either been internally displaced or have fled to Turkey or Lebanon, but in the case of Homs we are never told if Christians were evacuated because of specifics threats or as part of a general evacuation of the city. An example is a Wall Street article in July 2012. First, the author says that rebels “have controlled the Christian neighbourhoods of Hamidiyeh and Bustan Diwan since early February” without mentioning that they’ve controlled other neighbourhoods as well. Second, we are told that tens of thousands of Christians have fled Homs (I stress again that this is absolutely true), yet without mentioning the total number of Syrians displaced from Homs to give us an overall perspective. Around 2 million Syrians are estimated to be internally displaced, a percentage of who are Christians. Third, we are told that “those [Christians] that stayed faced increasing danger”, as if non-Christians did not face danger by not leaving Homs. Forth, is the looting of churches as testified by one of the evacuees. Of course we can’t know for sure if churches are being deliberately robbed or not, but revolution (indeed, any type of prolonged conflict) and looting sadly go hand in hand. While churches have been looted, so undoubtedly have many houses and businesses, especially after inhabitants have fled. Not all the rebels are reincarnations of a non-materialistic Che Guevara, after all.
Christians don’t always come out very well.
Unfortunately several Christians interviewed make sweeping statements, which reflect a certain amount of bigotry and sectarianism. Their comments are based less on fact and more on perception; there is a contradiction between their insistence on being equal to other Syrians (and having a historic place in Syria), and their expressed sense of isolation and suspicion of Sunnis. For example, one Christian man says to Spiegel Online: “… the insurgency has since been hijacked by Islamists … And we know the types of Muslims who have emerged at the head of the rebellion: The ones who would like to lead the people back into the Stone Age." George a 37-year dentist says this to the LA Times: "If the regime goes, you can forget about Christians in Syria … Look what happened to the Christians of Iraq. They had to flee everywhere, while most of the churches were attacked and bombed … Of course the 'Arab Spring' is an Islamist movement… It's full of extremists. They want to destroy our country, and they call it a 'revolution.' " These comments give the impression that Syrian Christian are unaware of the huge amount of mainly peaceful protests that have characterized the revolution since the beginning (and that they can choose to join them).
While we should never underestimate or dismiss the potential threat against minorities in Syria, it is also a mistake to embellish or exaggerate articles on Syrian Christians to fit a certain narrative about the Arab Spring – namely its Islamization. It is difficult for journalists to corroborate witness testimonies given how difficult it is to enter Syria clandestinely, but they also cannot rely on, for example, the statements of one family to build a story of Christian persecution in Syria, as does Spiegel Online in its latest article on Syrian Christians. The Syrian revolution has now entered its eighteenth month and sound informed reporting is badly needed which is not based on prejudgment.