17 April 2018

Why Syrian Christians loved Hâfiz

Hâfiz al-’Asad

A common response – sadly too common – to the recent statement by the Christian churches of Syria condemning the American attack on their country, was that the hierarchs of these churches were displaying their sycophantic opportunism and currying favour with the government. As one of my gentle readers commented a couple of days ago: ‘Disgusting statement by bishops who could not care a damn about the suffering’ of Syrians. With respect, this sort of response is sadly mistaken, historically-illiterate, and – in the context of our day and age, right now – remarkably dangerous.

In due time, I will follow up with a contemporary look at the attitude of Syria’s Christians toward the current president, Baššâr al-’Asad. For now, however, I will focus on his father. I am currently reading From the Holy Mountain, a work of remarkable travel literature rich with historical detail, written by the Scottish Catholic journalist William Dalrymple. It is worth reading for its own sake, of course, and at this point I’m only a third of the way through. It is Dalrymple’s attempt to follow the pilgrimage route of the seventh-century Byzantine monastic and spiritual ‘novelist’ Ioannes Moskhos, who travelled from Mount Athos into the Egyptian desert, keeping a record of his travels which was eventually published as the contemporarily-popular devotional ‘novel’ The Spiritual Meadow. (Guess what I’ll be reading next?)

In any event, in our own modern time, Dalrymple journeys from Greece through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel and ends up in Egypt – along the very route that Ioannēs Moskhos took, or at least something as close to it as he could manage. Like Moskhos, he describes the living environment – the villages, the cities, the countrysides and the ruins – that he passes through, as well as the sites of historical interest that would have dated back to Moskhos’s day. As he enters Syria, he visits the (now-kidnapped) Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Aleppo. In the office, Dalrymple recounts, ‘I was shown to a gilt armchair beneath a huge photograph of a beaming President ’Asad, and a fractionally smaller portrait of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch.

Why such love for such a ‘repressive’ and ‘ruthless’ dictator? Unlike those of his host, Dalrymple’s sentiments toward the senior al-’Asad not positive. He hints darkly at the sinister reputation of the mukhâbarât (al-’Asad’s Cheka-style secret police) and asides on the corrupt policies of the Syrian government with a characteristically-understated British distaste. He also relates some amusing anecdotes and Soviet-style black humour he heard from his hosts about al-’Asad. But his host is voluble about the situation in Syria, and gives a different take, to say the least, situated in the local context.
We have always thought of ourselves as citizens, not refugees… Christians are better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East. Other than Lebanon, this is the only country in the region where a Christian can really feel the equal of a Muslim – and Lebanon, of course, has many other problems. In Syria there is no enmity between Christian and Muslim. If Syria were not here, we would be finished. Really. It is a place of sanctuary, a haven for all the Christians: for the Nestorians and Chaldeans driven out of Iraq, the Syrian Orthodox and the Armenians driven out of Turkey, even some Palestinian Christians driven out of the Holy Land by the Israelis. Talk to people here: you will find that what I say is true.
What Dalrymple discovers is that the Christians of Syria really do think highly of Hâfiz al-’Asad and his government. The Armenians who fled genocide and repression in Turkey found a haven in Syria, and the Arabs who met them treated them with hospitality. Aleppo became, in the period between the First World War and the Syrian Revolt, a kind of ‘Noah’s Ark’ (in Dalrymple’s words) for the different Christian communities that were being massacred and displaced by the Turks – and of course, the Mandatory government saw these recent Christian arrivals as ready allies (which was, as Michael Provence’s book makes clear, not always the case).

The socialist Arab Ba’ath, a progressive, egalitarian and sæcular current within the broader stream of Arab nationalism, was heavily Christian in character from the beginning – just as Arab nationalism itself was. Michel ’Aflaq, an Antiochian Orthodox Christian, was among the first forerunners of Ba’athism. And the Ba’athist coup d’etat in 1970 was largely welcomed by Syria’s Christians. As Dalrymple puts it, ‘the period of uncertainty for Syria’s Christians came to an end’ with Hâfiz al-’Asad’s rise to power. The Alawites – the branch of Shi’ism to which al-’Asad belonged – had long had close and friendly ties to Syria’s Christians, to the point where Sunni Muslim fundamentalists disparage them as Nusayrîyyah (literally, ‘little Christians’). Hâfiz al-’Asad was no exception to this rule. Dalrymple again:
In ’Asad’s Syria Christians have always done well: at the moment, apparently, five of ’Asad’s closest advisers are Christians, including his principal speechwriter, as are two of the sixteen cabinet ministers. Christians and Alawites together hold all the key positions in the armed forces and the mukhâbarât… The Christians themselves estimated that they now formed slightly less than 20 per cent of Syria’s total population, and between 20 and 30 per cent of the population of Aleppo, giving that city one of the largest Christian populations anywhere in the Middle East.

The confidence of the Christians in Syria is something you can’t help noticing the minute you arrive in the country. This is particularly so if, like myself, you cross the border at Nisibis: Qâmishli, the town on the Syrian side of the frontier (and the place where Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim was brought up) is 75
per cent Christian, and icons of Christ and images of his mother fill almost every shop and decorate every other car window – an extraordinary display after the furtive secrecy of Christianity in Turkey. Moreover Turoyo, the modern Aramaic of the Tur ’Abdin, is the first language of Qâmishli. This makes it one of a handful of towns in the world where Jesus could expect to be understood if he came back tomorrow.
The fear of Christians in Syria was not of the government. Even in 1994, when Dalrymple was writing, the fear expressed to him by the Christians of Aleppo and elsewhere was related to the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. An Armenian man Dalrymple interviewed put it this way:
After ’Asad’s death or resignation no one knows what will happen. As long as the bottle is closed with a firm cork all is well. But eventually the cork will come out. And then no one knows what will happen to us.
As I said, I hope to bring this topic more ‘up to date’ in a later post. But in such historical circumstances as these, the continued pro-government stance of Syria’s Christians, from the progressive presidency of Hâfiz al-’Asad until the present time, hopefully makes some greater sense. The precariousness of Syria’s Christian populace has been felt, in the bloodiest and most painful possible way, in these six years of civil war, as the anti-government rebels – overwhelmingly made up of Sunni Muslim fundamentalists of the most debauched and violent sort – have committed heinous atrocities upon Christians, Shi’ites and Yezidis. It is unsurprising to say the least that they turn to the government and to the Syrian Arab Army – built upon the promise of a semi-sæcular modus vivendi – to defend them.


  1. Americans would do well to read and understand this article.

  2. Welcome to the blog, Scott, and thank you! I appreciate it!