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Syrian Christians Caught in Sectarian Fears

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Syria's conflict is sometimes cast as a religious one, between the Sunni majority and the leadership of an Alawite minority.

Yet the secular government has its defenders, who look to it as a protector of all minority rights, especially for Christians.

At the Greek-Melchite Catholic Church in the historic Christian quarter of Old Damascus, Father Rafi Halawe said Syria's dozens of minority religious groups are searching for a peaceful resolution.

Syria's Christians make up one of the earliest groups woven into the nation's multireligious fabric. But some see a threat to centuries of coexistence in the current conflict.

Halawe said there are religious sects that exist only in Syria, and that they are trying to find an end to the violence through dialogue and reconciliation. He said it is religious extremists who stand in the way, and he blames the arrival of armed elements who seek to label others as non-believers.

Government acts on fears

The government drives home this view constantly to its minority allies, stoking fears of sectarian violence and in the process drawing some minorities closer to the government, whether they wholly approve of it or not.

In some of the harder hit areas of Damascus, the government provides checkpoints to mixed communities.

Residents echo the sentiment that people of all faiths have long gotten along, with integration in schools and businesses making religious distinctions insignificant.

Death notices taped to the walls of the Old City are a reminder of the young Christian men who die fighting in the conscripted government military.

Those still living are among those the opposition wishes would defect and join their ranks. The rebels say they are fighting for all Syrians against an oppressive system, and argue they are working hard to contain jihadist elements in their midst.

Moderate Sunnis, seeking to find a negotiated end to the war, are quick to reassure others that coexistence remains possible.

Sheikh Abdel Salam al-Harash said it infuriates him that Islam and its banners “are distorted” by some in the conflict, because the message is one of peace.

The sheikh, who leads a conference of Muslim scholars, is Lebanese, and remembers well the sectarian war his homeland endured for 15 years. Asked whether he is concerned about the possibility of a similar conflict in Syria, home to some of the earliest Muslims and Christians, the skeikh dismissed the idea of any prolonged battle.

Iraq comparisons

Still, some see another parallel to the Christians in Iraq, many of whom fled sectarian violence after the U.S. intervention in 2003, never to return.

But for some Christians in Damascus, leaving is not an option.

Giselle, a member of the Greek Melchite Church in the Old City, said the country is tense, but she will not abandon it.

“Of course not,” she said, noting Christianity has its roots in Syria. It is, she said, a Christian land.

Not far from where she lives and prays is the city's great shrine, the Umayyad Mosque. Built on the site of an Christian basilica, it is believed to contain the remains of Saint John the Baptist, revered as a contemporary of Jesus Christ.

Both Christians and Muslims come to the mosque to pay homage. The pilgrims' hope is that future generations will be able to do the same.

Japhet Weeks contributed to this report for VOA.

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