Religious Minorities in Turbulent Periods: The Recurring Dilemmas for Christians in Syria

By Tasopoulos, Ilias | Hemispheres, July 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Religious Minorities in Turbulent Periods: The Recurring Dilemmas for Christians in Syria


Tasopoulos, Ilias, Hemispheres


Syrian Christians in historical perspective

Religious minorities have been shaping society and politics in the Middle East for a long time, either as being part of the state structures or by becoming a target for regimes and political forces. The history of Christians in Syria provides a prime example of the significance of minorities for the states of the region, affecting and at the same time being influenced by the developments in the country.

While a Christian presence was one of the strongest in the region since the Early Ages, the Arab uprisings have brought unexpected consequences for it. Bearing in mind of the special role of Syria in times of crisis in the Arab world, this paper will examine the impact of the Arab uprisings on the Christian populations. Therefore there will be a short review of how Christians were incorporated into the domestic political structure of modern Syria, before focusing on the impact of the Arab Uprisings on the Christian communities.

Starting from the late Ottoman era, the participation of Christian populations in the political processes in the country depended on their integration into the new regional structures that were emerging. Although they had inhabited the region for centuries, Christian populations only assumed center stage as recently as the 19th century, as the lands of Syria were incorporated into the global political and financial system. Excluded from the state offices of the predominantly Muslim Ottoman Empire, due to their religion, Christians excelled in banking and trade or even opened their own stores from scratch, making considerable fortunes in the process and achieving a position of influence in the local markets.1 Along with an increase in significance and importance, numbers of Christian inhabitants rose in size and came to consist of almost twenty percent of the population of Syria and Iraq.2

Christians along with Jews, have been at the forefront of the incorporation of Syria in the world market, acting as intermediaries between the international system and regional powers, facilitating European commercial and entrepreneurial endeavors in Syria. Armenian merchants and moneylenders and Greek Orthodox traders cooperated primarily and closely with European trading houses. As the Lebanese American historian Phillip Khoury argues, "the religious protection that Christians sought and received from the European powers and the education afforded them by missionaries, specially prepared them to serve as agents of European commercial and political interests".3 Christians organized local trade networks, not only facilitating the import of European products into Syria, but also the purchase of raw materials for the operation of Western companies in the country. It was only natural that this infuriated local merchants and other professionals, who saw their way of life altered and their already low income further reduced. These developments made locals turn against Christians and view Christian connections to Europe as the main cause of their misery. Resorting to the protection offered by the European powers seemed like a one-way street for Christians, as they faced attacks by angry mobs, persecution from local political enemies and increasingly heavy levels of income taxation.4

The rising European influence on the collapsing Ottoman Empire helped Christians enjoy several advantages, as the Ottoman authorities accorded a protection status to Christians, albeit whilst treating them as second class subjects (dhimmitude). Pressures from the European powers, especially after the massacres of 1860, led the Porte to defend Christian populations more vigorously from sectarian attacks. Christians could pursue their activities easily, benefiting from declining tax rates on their income and provisions which enabled them to choose between the European and the Islamic legal system in their commercial relations.5 Christians were able to dominate the Syrian financial system, with successful enterprises in sectors including banking, money-lending and insurance. …

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