The Loss of Syria: New Violence Threatens Christianity's Ancient Roots

By Amar, Joseph | Commonweal, October 26, 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Loss of Syria: New Violence Threatens Christianity's Ancient Roots


Amar, Joseph, Commonweal


The violence that has engulfed Syria since March 2011 provides the latest and arguably most brutal evidence of the extremes to which a totalitarian regime will go to maintain its grip on power. The depravity of the Assad government, on display for the whole world to see, is nothing new to the people of Syria. And it seems likely that the worst is yet to come. Syria is poised for the kind of tribal and sectarian bloodbath that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but on a much broader scale. And while this will be horrific for all segments of the Syrian population, it will likely be the final blow for Syria's embattled Christians.

The Assad family represents the Alawites, a minority offshoot of Shiite Islam that constitutes 12 percent of the population of Syria. Throughout more than forty years of draconian rule, the Assads, pre et Ills, have manipulated Syria's other minorities--Kurdish, Druze, Ismai'li, Jewish, and Christian--by stoking their fears of a takeover by Sunni fundamentalists and then vowing to prevent it. In exchange, these groups have given the regime their nominal support, which the Assads have then trumpeted as evidence of a policy of benevolent protection.

In the political struggles of the Middle East, Christians--all too aware of their minority status--historically have survived by supporting whatever group has come to power. This has put them in the position of being reliant on the protection of ruthless dictators, a fact not lost on the Islamist extremists who have infiltrated the Syrian insurgency. UN observers have documented attacks against Christians singled out for retribution as a result of their pro-Assad affiliation. Along with other minorities who enjoyed the government's protection, they have been expelled from their ancestral lands, and in some cases kidnapped, raped, and murdered.

The Christians of Syria represent a diverse variety of ancient traditions. Western Christians are apt to be most familiar with the Byzantine, or Eastern family of churches, represented by Greek Catholics, or Melkites, as well as Greek Orthodox. Along with the Armenian Church, Syriac Christianity belongs to the lesser known family of Oriental churches. Armenians found safe haven in Lebanon and Syria following massacres in Turkey early in the twentieth century. Understandably, they dread Turkish intervention, but their anxieties are shared by other Christians as well. While the Assad government allowed Armenian and Syriac, the indigenous languages of its Christian minorities, to be taught and used in worship, Turkey's commitment to its ethnic minorities is open to question. It continues to place restrictions on when and where religious services are conducted, and its much-vaunted program in support of minority languages has yet to be fully tested.

The roots of Syriac Christianity go back to Christianity's very first converts, drawn from the Aramaic-speaking Judaism which flourished in Mesopotamia beginning in the period known as the Babylonian Captivity (587-38 BC). The spread of Christianity followed ancient trade routes that linked Babylonian Jews to their ancestral homeland in Palestine. How Babylonian Jews eventually came to embrace Christianity is not entirely clear, but the eminent Scripture scholar Michael Weitzman has developed the most historically plausible scenario. Following the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Weitzman writes, Jews "turned to seek salvation for the individual and their group, which Gentiles might enter as proselytes. Later, this group might have embraced the church, which shared its dearest values--prayer and faith--while providing a rationale for the neglect of ritual." Such a process would explain not only Syriac Christianity's enduring rootedness in Hebrew scripture, but also its cultural and literary links to Jewish Aramaic culture.

It is ironic that the Semitic cultural and linguistic context of early Christianity has been so thoroughly obscured.

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