Assad shoves Christians into the firing line

Official photograph apparently showing President Bashar al-Assad receiving General Dawood Rajiha (Photo: Balkis Press/ABACAPRESS.COM)

Amid the chaos and carnage in Syria what is happening to the Christian community there? No end seems to be in sight to the torture and slayings ordered by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime which, in five months has left over 2,200 Syrians dead, 3,000 missing, 14,000 imprisoned and 12,000 injured.

The Christian community in Syria, which dates back to the time of St Paul and his conversion on the road to Damascus, makes up 10 per cent of Syria’s population of 22.5 million. Since 1970, the Assads, who are Alawite, a small Shia Muslim offshoot, have stayed in power with a coalition of religious minorities, including the Christians – allies together against the huge Sunni majority. Christians are favoured in many ways. There are now three Christians (two Catholics and one Greek Orthodox) in the government and churches, like mosques, get free electricity and water.

A Catholic news agency in Rome has written that the majority of Christians in Syria have continued to back Assad’s authoritarian rule, stressing that this contrasts with the majority of Christians in Egypt who were supporters of the Arab Spring revolution. But, as foreign journalists are banned in Syria, such a statement can only be an assumption. I personally found that many Christians, fearful of the network of spies and informers, are terrified of the consequences of talking even anonymously.

But one Christian definitely in favour of the regime is the army general Dawoud Rajiha. On August 8, Assad swore him in as minister of defence. General Rajiha, an active member of the Greek Orthodox Church, took over from General Ali Habib, an Alawite. Al-Jazeera reported that Habib’s sacking was due to disagreement with Assad’s regime over the use of force against protesters.

Appointing a Christian as the supreme military chief in charge of the brutal crackdown to keep Assad in power could be seen as a cynical act: a desperate move to widen Assad’s power base and make him look non-partisan. But General Rajiha’s new position may well put Christians in the firing line. If Assad falls there could be retribution against Christians because of his role. On the other hand, in a power vacuum General Rajiha, along with other military men, could find himself running the country.

Some people are surprised at the absence of Christian ethics in the lethal force being used against protesters. But then Syria is a highly policed society in which no dissent is allowed. Even Assad’s 35-year-old wife, Asma, who was brought up in London and educated at Queen’s College, Harley Street, with its affiliation to the Church of England, has not been a moderating influence.

Hearing the cry “Syria, for all Syrians” made me nostalgic for Damascus and a charming song written by Napoleon’s stepdaughter, Hortense, “Partant pour la Syrie”, popular in the 19th century.

The high profile of the Christians in Syria and in Lebanon is in contrast to a void of prominent Christians in the Israeli/Palestine struggle. In three weeks’ time the vote takes place in the United Nations for Palestine to become an independent state. Fed up with empty talk, failed peace negotiations and settlement expansion, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, took an alternative route. So far, 122 states (out of 193 UN member countries) have promised to vote “yes”. But there is fear of post-voting violence, and even talk of how to avoid a third Intifada.