2017-12-15T222735Z_1500586402_RC1C7B6A7990_RTRMADP_3_CHRISTMAS-SEASON-SYRIA-e1513681757444-960x576-1513681777

Christmas lights re-appear after dark years for Syria’s Christians

On 1 January 2010, al-Qaeda famously bombed the Saints Church in Alexandria, Egypt, killing 23 people and injuring 97. Syrian pundits argued back then that this could “never happen to Syria,” claiming that there was no serious jihadi threat like the one in Egypt or Iraq.

Scores of Iraqi Christians had been arriving in Syria since the 2003 invasion of Iraq – armed with horror stories about how al-Qaeda had stormed their homes, killed their sons, beheaded their priests and bombed their churches.

Syrian Christians shook their heads in disbelief. They had seen all of this happen before, in Lebanon, during the country’s horrible civil war that started in 1975 and ended two decades later. But they never imagined – not in their wildest dreams – that only three years later they themselves would suffer the same fate at the hands of Islamic State (ISIS) as it emerged from the chaos of the Syrian battlefield, overrunning entire cities and towns, from 2012-2015, and setting up its own self-proclaimed capital in the sleepy city of al-Raqqa, on the Euphrates River.

In June 2013, a 49-year Catholic priest was captured and shot dead at his church in the Christian village of Ghassaniyeh, in the Homs Governorate in central Syria. The murder was claimed by Jabhet al Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Then, in December 2013, al-Nusra fighters abducted 13 nuns from a monastery in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula. Before taking the hostages, they terrorized the village, trying to convert Christians to Islam. At checkpoints, Christians were asked to recite verses from the Quran. Those who failed to do so were shot at close range.

Al-Nusra also struck at the ancient St. Thecla Convent, and then smashed a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary in Maaloula’s central square. In April 2013, they kidnapped Boulos Yazigi, the Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo and Iskenderun, and Yohanna Ibrahim, the Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo. Both remain missing as of December 2017.

In March 2014, an assortment of Islamic fighters stormed the Armenian town of Kasab in the Syrian northwest, destroying two of its historic churches. During the years of ISIS rule in al-Raqqa (2014-2017), Christians were given three options: either convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, or be put to the sword. In April 2015, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill said that 400 Syrian churches had been destroyed, warning that Christianity as we knew it was on the verge of “extinction” in the Middle East.

Much of that violence and fear finally appears to be a thing of the past, as one ISIS stronghold has crumbled after another, under the might of US-backed Kurdish troops in al-Raqqa, and the might of the Russian and Syrian armies in other parts of the country. For the first time in six years, Syrian Christians are now celebrating Christmas free to carry out their religious traditions without being intimidated or attacked, or worried that a suicide bomber will blow himself up at the gates of their churches in Damascus and Aleppo.

Colorful Christmas trees have been decorated throughout major Syrian cities and towns, and the famed Choir of Joy of the Lady of Damascus Church is putting on a three-day performance at the Damascus Opera House, performing Christmas carols.

Mortars from the Damascus countryside, which long rained on the nearby Christian quarters of the capital, have all but ceased, and 24-hour electricity has been restored, not only to the Christian parts of Damascus but to the rest of the city as well.

In recent years, Christmas had become a quiet and solemn occasion of very little festivity, carried out in haunting darkness due to the crippling power shortages which sometimes lasted up to 20 hours per day.

Promoting itself as the “protector of minorities,” the Syrian government has tried hard to court Syrian Christians, appointing a Christian lawyer from the town of al-Hassake in the Syrian northeast, as the speaker in parliament in 2017. The post has not been held by a Christian since 1949.

In a Russian-authored draft constitution, expected to see the light in 2018, the long-observed Article 3, which names Islam as the official religion of the president of the republic, has been scrapped, much to the delight of Christians (who are nevertheless certain that due to demographics and power politics, one of their own could never make it to the presidency). Islamists are furious and insisting that it be re-instated, pointing out that no government since 1920 has dared meddle with the clause.

Syriac Orthodox worshippers attend the inauguration of Hasakeh's newly appointed bishop, Maurice Amseeh, at the Saint George Cathedral in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakeh on August 19, 2017. Amseeh inauguration came four years after his predecessor left the country. Photo: AFP / Ayham al-Mohammad

Syriac Orthodox worshippers attend the inauguration of Hasakeh’s newly appointed bishop, Maurice Amseeh, at the Saint George Cathedral in Syria’s northeastern city of Hasakeh on August 19, 2017. Amseeh inauguration came four years after his predecessor left the country. Photo: AFP / Ayham al-Mohammad

Throughout their history, Syrian Christians were always regarded as patriotic, sober, hard-working, honest and law-abiding citizens who were good with languages, well exposed to the outside world, and generally better educated than other Syrians. Before 2011, they were estimated at around 1.8 million out of a total population of 23 million. No breakdown exists as to how many of them have been killed or have left the country, but more than nine million Syrians have left Syria,  mostly as refugees, and nearly 500,000 people have been killed.

Christians are found among the dead, wounded, and displaced in Syria, sharing a plight of misery with Muslims. The forced exodus was extremely painful for a community that regarded itself as the true inhabitants of Syria, having existed there since long before the Muslim conquest of 634. Since the creation of the republic back in 1932, Syrian Christians have been treated as first-class citizens, although they were constitutionally barred from the presidency.

Over the past century – and especially during the years of civilian democratic rule – Christians became famous in all walks of Syrian life. One assumed charge of the Syrian Air Force in the 1950s, while another was appointed Chief of Staff of the Syrian Army during the second major Arab-Israeli War, in 1973.

The list also includes the prominent philosopher and historian Constantine Zureiq, who was president of Damascus University, Attorney General Hanna Malek, and two-time prime minister Fares al-Khoury, one of the founders of the Damascus University Faculty of Law and its long-time Dean. Among al-Khoury’s many feats, he helped to author Syria’s first republican charter, co-founded the United Nations in 1945, and led the Syrian nationalist movement from the 1920s until 1946.

Even the founder of the ruling Baath Party, Michel Aflaq, was an Orthodox Christian from Damascus. Unfortunately, he quarreled with his subordinates and was subsequently sentenced to death. Exiled to Iraq, he died as a guest of Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s.

Published in Asia Times on 24 December 2017.