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Assad shoves Christians into the firing line

Syria’s dictator has appointed a Greek Orthodox general as his new minister of defence: Christians may face retribution

By on Wednesday, 31 August 2011

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

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.

  • Etlozano

    It would convenient Catholic Herald verify the information with Syrian bishops before repeat lies from anti-Christian sources. These sources lied on Saddam Hussein, lied on Muammar Qaddafi, have been lying on Iran regime and lie now on president Assad. Maybe are these anti-Christian forces trying to extend war to Syria because this country has become a shelter for Iraq Christian refugees? 

  • http://reflectingonthebeach.blogspot.com/ Ignatius

    Syria is by far the best place place for Christians in the Middle East. There is a level of religious tolerance there unparalleled in other Arab countries. This is mainly because the country is run by a government dominated by the Alawite minority community. The Christians are fearful of change. If Assad goes, they could lose out badly.

    The West, as well as Israel, Turkey and the Saudis, are doing their best to destabilize Syria right now. This has been going on for some time with limited success. The destabilization tactics are similar to what happened in Libya: support armed groups (near the border areas), use deliberate media misinformation, demonize the regime, and weaken the economy. I’m sure the security forces have committed atrocities, but the numbers are vastly exaggerated. They’re coming from a dubious source - the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) – which is a political organisation based in London whose president, Rami Abdel Raman, has consistently sided against the Baath regime and is loosely linked to the Muslim brotherhood. Why doesn’t the media report the very real repression in Bahrain – a country closely allied with Saudi Arabia? There’s a clear political motive behind this.

    After Libya, Syria could be next for a NATO sponsored regime change. After all, Syria is allied with Iran and it has supported Hezbollah. But Syria has kept the peace with Israel for some time and it did accept 1.5 million Iraqis after the bloodbath there. If NATO intervenes, a civil war would be disastrous for all its people, not just for the Christians. I hope it doesn’t happen.

  • David Lindsay

    On one side, Christian-majority provinces, Christian festivals as public holidays, and support for a Lebanese coalition which, though Sunni-headed, includes Maronites and Armenians.

    On the other side, the Saudi-backed “demonstrators”.

  • Anonymous

    “Some people are surprised at the absence of Christian ethics in the lethal force being used against protesters”

    Having seen what happened when the Ba’athists fell in Iraq, I should think Christians have a strong interest in Assad remaining in power at all costs, and for that reason, I hope he does (and indeed, for that reason, the fear of Islamism triumphing in Libya, I was rooting for the Gaddafi regime).

  • Anonymous

    These people are making Christians sa mocking pile when backing a murderous mongrel like Assad – the Penteccostal church would not exist in Syria as it would be seen as to outspoken. In the second world war under Hitler, the Roman Catholic church and to a lesser extent the Orthdox church made peace with the murderous regime of Adolf Hitler – so Assad is blood wrenched dictator, but what come after him may not be to good either

  • Anonymous

    “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.”

    And someone has to carry them out. What’s the betting that the news from Syria becomes yet another Christian atrocity, to join the Sabra & Chatila massacres by the Lebanese Falangists :( ? What *moral* grounds can there be for supporting a regime with a record like that ? How many deaths is tolerable: 2,200 ? 6,000 ? 6,000,000 maybe ? If Syria is not a dictatorship – well, let’s see the evidence, please. If the West is destabilising Syria – what confidence can we have the Vatican is not doing so ? It’s not exactly opposing Western criticisms of the Assad regime. *Ergo*, it must be complicit in the destabilisation, apparently; a conspiracist would be quite right to point out that it is a Western power.

  • Anonymous

    “In the second world war under Hitler, the Roman Catholic church and to a
    lesser extent the Orthdox church made peace with the murderous regime
    of Adolf Hitler…”:

    This is a somewhat simplistic ‘sound-bite’ reiteration of a viewpoint that does not stand up to serious historical scrutiny, johnchristophersunol.  Since the fiction of Hochhuth’s anti-Pope Pius XII  play ‘The Deputy’ in 1963, misinformed denigration of the Church’s stance during the Second World War has unfortunately become a way of life in some circles.  In the interest of balance, may I suggest you read ‘The Cross and the Third Reich’ by John Frain.  This is as good a place as any to start with, if one is to develop a well-informed understanding of how (and why) the Catholic church responded as it did when confronted by the greatest crisis of the twentieth century.

    God bless.   

  • Anonymous

    Yes you are right, the Catholic church and somewaht to a lesser extent the Orthodox church played games with these murderous regimes, if it was not for the good saints like Corrie Ten Boom from the Dutch reform a way out fo those being persecuted would not have existed

  • Mr Grumpy

    “Syria is by far the best place place for Christians in the Middle East.”

    You mean apart from Israel?