Monday, May 16, 2011

SYRIA: Christians vulnerable

Flavia Krause-Jackson, diplomatic and UN correspondent for Bloomberg News, has written a daunting article entitled, Syrian Christians Say ‘Arab Spring’ Changes Could Hasten Extinction (13 May 2011). She hits the mark with her opening line: "As the Arab Spring protests reach Damascus, Syrian Christians look warily at a future without a time-tested autocrat to protect them from religious intolerance."

Krause-Jackson quotes Archbishop Cyril Aphrem Karim, leader of a U.S. branch of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, who observes: “History has proven to us that Christians [in the Middle East] have always had more secure lives, better treatment by people who may be looked on as dictators, like Saddam Hussein. [In Syria], our feeling is, if the regime falls, the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood will seize power and that is bad news for us.”

Syria pivotal as regional struggle for balance of power escalates

When US-allied dictators fell in Tunisia and Egypt, the Shi'ite revolutionary regime in Iran scoffed while the US-allied dictators in the House of Saud trembled. Everything changed, however, when Bahraini and Saudi forces, with the tacit approval of the US, crushed the "pro-democracy" protests at Bahrain's Pearl roundabout.
(See: Bahrain topples its own people
By Pepe Escobar for Asia Times online, 11 May 2011)

While the media have been confused by what they regard as "mixed responses", this is only because they fail to realise that who falls is far less important than who rises.

In Bahrain the protesters were Shi'ites; their success would have been Iran's gain. When, in Bahrain, Sunni power crushed Shi'ite dissent, the "Arab Spring" transformed into a struggle over the regional balance of power.
See: Bahrain and the Battle Between Iran and Saudi Arabia
By George Friedman for Stratfor Global Intelligence, 8 March 2011

For decades, the US - Sunni Arab axis prevailed.

Then the Iraq War opened the way for Shi'ite Iran to gain the ascendancy.

Now, as the struggle for the regional balance of power heats up, Syria becomes absolutely pivotal; for while Syria is majority Sunni Arab, it is integral to the Iran-Hezballah axis and central -- both geographically and strategically -- to the "Shi'ite Crescent".

SYRIA

The fate of Syria's minority Christians is, to a large extent, tied to the fate of Syria's ruling minority Alawites. For, as Reva Bhall reports for Stratfor Global Intelligence, "Rather than exhibiting a clear Sunni-Shi'ite religious-ideological divide, Syria's history can be more accurately described as a struggle between the Sunnis on one hand a group of minorities on the other."

In her excellent report, entitled Making Sense of the Syrian Crisis (Stratfor, 5 May 2011), Bhall examines the rise of the once impoverished, marginalised Alawite minority: from persecuted peasants to ruling elite and hegemonic power in only 50 years.

"The Alawites", she explains, "are frequently (and erroneously) categorized as Shiite Muslims, have many things in common with Christians and are often shunned by Sunni and Shiite Muslims alike. Consequently, Alawites attract a great deal of controversy in the Islamic world. The Alawites diverged from the mainstream Twelver of the Imami branch of Shiite Islam in the ninth century . . . Their main link to Shiite Islam and the origin of the Alawite name stems from their reverence for the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The sect is often described as highly secretive and heretical for its rejection of Shariah and of common Islamic practices, including call to prayer, going to mosque for worship, making pilgrimages to Mecca and intolerance for alcohol. At the same time, Alawites celebrate many Christian holidays and revere Christian saints."

According to Bhall, non-Sunni Muslims (mostly Alawites) comprise about 13 percent of the population, Christians about 10 percent and Druze about 3 percent. She describes the Alawites as "a fractious bunch", historically divided along tribal lines. She also notes that they have often embraced taqqiya -- lying about or hiding their religious affiliation -- as a means of avoiding discrimination and persecution at the hands of the majority Ottoman-backed Sunnis.

Between 1920-1946, when Syria was under the French mandate, France supported and empowered the minorities, particularly the Alawites, as a counterweight to Sunni power. During this period, the internal balance of power in Syria shifted as France reversed Ottoman policies, and encouraged the minorities to take up posts in the military, police and in intelligence.

Furthermore, France convinced the "Nusayris" (as the Alawites were then known) to change their name to "Alawites", so as to accentuate their link to Shi'ism.

By the time the French pulled out of Syria (1946), the lower ranks of the military had been flooded with Alawites, thereby setting the stage for the coups to come. In 1947, the Baath Party was formed. With a platform of secularism, socialism and Arab nationalism, the Baath Party both appealed to the minorities and split the Sunnis, who became divided (therefore weakened) between pro-Baath secularists and anti-Baath Islamists.

Years of coups and counter-coups eventually culminated in the bloodless coup of 1970 that brought to power Gen. Hafiz al-Assad (father of the current president Bashar al-Assad). The only Alawite leader capable of uniting the Alawite tribes, he consolidated Alawite hegemony, built strong ties with the Druze and Christian minorities, co-opted the secular Sunni elite, repressed Salafi Sunni fundamentalism, and ruthlessly crushed all dissent.

Yet the Sunnis were still the majority, and regionally, the Alawites were still regarded as heretics. Needing regional allies, President Hafiz al-Assad forged close bonds with Musa al-Sadr, the most prominent Shi'ite leader in Lebanon. His efforts were rewarded, for in 1973 al-Sadr issued a fatwa recognising Lebanon's Alawites as Shi'ites.
(See: The Shiite Turn in Syria
by Khalid Sindawi, 23 June 2009
Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, vol.8. Hudson Institute)
And so Syria, though less than one percent Shi'ite, was brought into the Shi'ite fold for domestic and regional strategic purposes. This was a coup for the Alawites, providing them with regional allies without whom they would have always remained vulnerable. But more than this, it was a massive coup for the region's Shi'ites, for without Syria there would be no "Shi'ite Crescent".

In 1980 the Assad regime formed a strategic alliance with Iran. Since then, Iranian Revolutionary Guards have served alongside the all-Alawite Syrian Republican Guards, protecting the Assad regime. Dissent was not tolerated. The 1982 crackdown in Sunni stronghold of Hama -- which resulted in tens of thousands of Sunni deaths and drove the Muslim Brotherhood deep underground -- remains deeply etched in the Sunni memory.

The alliance has also resulted in Iranian Shi'ite missionaries having free range in mostly Sunni Syria. In 1997, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Zaydan al-Ghazali, converted to Shi'ism and forcibly took control of the Abi Talib Mosque in Dar'a. Armed with Iranian funds (inducements), and promoting "temporary marriage" (sacralised prostitution), he converted many; and because he was supported by Syrian Security, anyone who opposed him ended up in prison (Sindawi 2009).

Relations with Iran have only grown stronger since Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000. Hundreds of thousands of Iranian and Iraqi Shi'ites have since been naturalised as Syrian citizens.

However, nothing has drawn Syria's Sunni masses to the Iran-Hezballah axis as did Hezballah's 2006 war against Israel. While Syria is still only around one percent Shi'ite, Shi'ism has been popularised to the extent that analysts talk of "Shi'itization" (NYT , Current Trends).

Naturally this horrifies the Muslim Brotherhood and the US-Saudi axis. While Israel, the US and the Saudis don't actually want to see the Assad regime fall, they would love to prise Syria out of the Iran-Hezballah axis. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezballah -- if they are to remain ascendant -- cannot afford to lose Syria. For if Syria was to realign, then Hezballah -- the belligerent, anti-Semitic Iranian proxy terrorist organisation that dominates Lebanon -- would lose its supply lines and its strategic depth.

Consequently today, Iranian forces are aiding the Assad regime while Salafi jihadists from Saudi Arabia are aiding the Syrian opposition. As such, Syria risks being torn apart by an Iraq-style sectarian conflagration over the regional balance of power. Should this eventuate, Syria -- like Iraq -- will drown in blood.

SYRIA'S CHRISTIANS

In Baath Party-ruled Syria, repression has been political, not religious, and so Christians have enjoyed a greater degree of religious freedom in Syria than those in other Muslim states where Sharia is observed (it was the same in Baath Party-ruled Iraq). As Krause-Jackson (Bloomberg) notes, under the Assad dynasty, Syrian Christians have swelled the ranks of a professional middle and upper class, enjoying secure lives while accounting for only one-tenth of the population.

Most Syrian Christians are deeply concerned that if the regime loses control, they will suffer immensely in the resultant chaos. Consequently, Syrian Christians are maintaining a very low-key approach both politically and religiously. They kept their observance of Easter very quiet this year, cancelling traditional public processions and celebrations.

The Melkite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Gregory III Laham, noted in late April, that the riots were not as yet sectarian, being rooted as they have been in grievances that are social (repression and inequality) and economic (unemployment plus massive fuel and food price hikes). However, he cautions, criminals have become involved now and weapons are flooding in. What is more, he adds, there are fundamentalist Muslims calling for jihad.

See: Syria: Melkite Patriarch on fears of a future of chaos and fundamentalism
Interview with Gregory III Laham, Melkite Patriarch of Damascus.
by Bernardo Cervellera, AsiaNews 29 April 2011

On 11 May, Barnabas Fund reported that as "demonstrations against the Syrian government intensify, Christians are coming under increasing pressure to join the uprising - or leave.

"In one Christian village outside the southern city of Deraa a home came under fire by a group of masked men on motorbikes, while Muslim residents in the village of Hala have issued an ultimatum to their Christian neighbours either to join the demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad's regime or to leave. Their demands are making life extremely difficult for the Christians, who have closed their shops and are considering what course of action to take. Churches have also received threatening letters."

Archbishop Cyril Aphrem Karim told Bloomberg correspondent Flavia Krause-Jackson that during recent protests in Damascus, he spotted banners bears slogans such as: “Christians to Beirut, Alawis to the grave.”

As Krause-Jackson notes: "Karim’s Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Egyptian Copts and Iraqi Chaldeans are among the myriad Christian communities that originated 2,000 years ago in the Middle East. . . Still, a history that predates Islam won’t guarantee the communities’ survival."

Most tragically Archbishop Karim is forced to lament: “I don’t feel the U.S. is really concerned by Christians in the Middle East. They listen, they show interest, but we don’t see, especially from the State Department, tangible signs they are worried and want to do something for them. There is just not much sympathy.”

There are about 1.4 million Syrian Christians in Syria, comprising 6.3 percent of the total Syrian population (Operation World). On top of this number, Syria hosts some 1.2 million Iraqi refugees, including hundreds of thousands of Assyrian and Chaldean Christians and thousands of Mandaeans.

Who will protect them from religious intolerance as this wave of majoritarianism (as distinct from democracy) sweeps over the region?

It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD

than to trust in princes.
(Psalm 118:8-9 ESV)

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UPDATE: excellent article
Syria Christians fear for religious freedom
By Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT | Wed 18 May 2011
(Reuters) - Syria's minority Christians are watching the protests sweeping their country with trepidation, fearing their religious freedom could be threatened if President Bashar al-Assad's autocratic but secular rule is overthrown. . .

UPDATE:
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) 137
Syria: Christians fear for their future
| Wed 07 Dec 2011