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Syria has been described by archaeologists, historians, religious leaders, and travellers alike, as a crossroads of civilisation and of faith. Situated at the interface between Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, caravan routes travelled across Syria from Mediterranean lands to Egypt and from the Fertile Crescent to the Arabian Peninsula. It was a gateway via the Mediterranean to the west and the south, and the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers acted as corridors to the east. Damascus was a starting point for the Silk Route to Central Asia, India and China. Occupied and conquered by successive empires, each culture has left its mark and added to the rich diversity of culture, language, art and architecture for which Syria is renowned. Simultaneously, successive conquests by other empires and nations have deeply affected the way Syrians in recent decades have understood their relationship and their engagement with the outside world. It is therefore a country of rich cultural and religious diversity in which almost the full breadth of Islamic and Christian expression are found.
Christianity has been present in Syria since its earliest days, and prior to the rise of Islam was the dominant faith in the region. Ever since the emergence of Islam, the two faiths have engaged, mutually influenced each other, and notwithstanding occasional periods of hostility, have coexisted. Both have diverse and long-established traditions in Syria, with Christian denominations from all five ecclesiastical ‘families’ of churches, existing alongside broad expressions of both Sunni and Shia Islam. In Syria, this plurality of religious and cultural expression involves multiple communities living alongside each other. Though there have been instances of inter-communal tensions and violence, most notably in 1840 and 1850, this plurality has for the most part been characterised by an attitude of mutual acceptance and tolerance.
This coexistence is real, but Christians can still sometimes be negatively identified with western powers whose people happen to share the same religious faith. In Syria, Christians and Muslims for the most part, hold equal status in the law under the Constitution, something that is widely applauded and allows a high degree of religious freedom.
There are multiple reasons why the violence reached the levels that it did during the Syrian conflict. Whilst religious ideology played a role in the violence, social, cultural, economic and political tensions and interests, both within the country, and exacerbated by external political and economic interests, actions and policies, have all contributed, and many Syrians emphasise that the roots of the conflict were not primarily sectarian but were much more complex and multi-layered.
It should not be forgotten that Syria has historically been a place of refuge for multiple communities. Over the years, the country has hosted millions of refugees, amongst them Armenians, Syriacs, Kurds, Palestinians and Iraqis. Many have stayed and made their home in the country, their religious, cultural and social traditions adding to the rich diversity and complexity of Syrian society.
Although rooted in Syrian history, the interreligious dynamics represent a confluence of regional forces that have created a distinct and dynamic religious context. The development and influence of Sunni political Islam during the last century; the ascendancy to power of the Alawite community; the Shi’a revival in Iran, Iraq. Lebanon and the Gulf, and the increasing tensions between these two expressions of Islam; the civil war in Lebanon; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the existential threat to Christian communities in Iraq: all these have been major forces for change in the relational and communal dynamics in the region. The conflict in Syria has added to mistrust between communities, though as the study will show, many Syrians wish to recover the trust and plurality that have traditionally been embedded and valued in their society, and dislike the use of sectarian narratives in the national discourse.
Even during the conflict, Christian and Muslim leaders have played a significant and visible role in demonstrating harmony and respect between communities, by regularly appearing together at public events, and meeting together to consider their responses to the humanitarian needs of their communities. However, the religious and political context in the Middle East is changing. The new religious and social demographic that emerges from the displacement or migration of millions of people is likely to have a significant impact on society in the whole region.
The religious context in Syria has been understudied and little understood outside the country. From a social and religious perspective, both prior to the conflict and even in its midst, Syria represented one of the most diverse and pluralistic contexts in the region. To lose this identity would be catastrophic for all the communities in the region, and would also have a serious impact on the place and role of women in Syrian society who, particularly in urban areas, currently enjoy more social and cultural freedoms than women in most countries in the region. Throughout the conflict, in the face of extremist ideologies and increased sectarian tension, diverse communal groups have continued to coexist. Understanding and engaging with the way in which these groups have achieved this is one step towards preserving Syria’s historic diversity. It will also help discern how Christian and Muslim communities can recover trust, tolerance and peaceful coexistence and respect, not just in Syria, but in the region and beyond.
The religious and cultural identity of Syria is profoundly influenced by the history of Christianity. Since its earliest days, Christianity has been present in the region. Within a few years of Jesus’ resurrection, St. Paul was heading to Damascus to persecute an already established Christian community in the city (Acts 9:1-22). St. Luke tells us that it was in Antioch in Syria that Christians were first labelled as such (Acts 11:26), and the many remains of Christian Churches and buildings dating from the earliest days of the Christian faith in the region witness to the strong presence of the Christian faith at the time.
The Early Centuries
Prior to the conquest of the Middle East by Islam in the seventh century, there was a diverse Christian presence on the fringes of the Arabian Peninsula and along the Euphrates. Throughout the 3rd and 4th centuries of the Christian era, monks and missionaries had preached in the region, and many tribes had been converted. Monasticism had a deep impact on the practice of Islamic devotion – an influence that continues in Syria today. In the dying years of the Roman and Greek Empires, many Arab and Yemenite tribes migrated from all over the Arab peninsular to the region of the Euphrates and Tigris and were converted. The trade routes in turn spread the Christian faith throughout the Arabian Peninsula, to Abyssinia in the south, and north and east to Persia and beyond.
Such was the influence of the eastern church, that at the Holy Synod of Nicaea in 325CE it was reported that the Patriarch of Antioch, a Syrian, “governed a jurisdiction that extended all over the continent of Asia, even including India.” Moreover, Syriac Christianity was a ‘genuinely Asian Christianity’. It did not come with the European ‘cultural, historical and intellectual trappings’ of the streams of Christianity that developed in the West, but was rooted in the Arab world and shared the same culture, traditions and social customs of the region. By the time Islam emerged, Christians were, ‘by far the majority of the population,’ from Alexandria to Persia, and from the Arabian peninsula to North Africa.
Given the cultural and linguistic diversity and plurality of the Christian communities across the ancient world; theological interpretation of doctrine varied widely as Christians sought to define their message in the light of local philosophical and cultural traditions. Theological disagreements in the early Church, rooted in Christological debates concerning the nature of Christ, were to help cause the fracturing of the Christian community that remains a characteristic of ecclesial diversity today.
In 451CE, the Council of Chalcedon affirmed the dual divine and human nature of Christ in one person. The consequent schism resulted in the creation of the Miaphysite family of Churches, a family that were well established by the end of the sixth century and spread from the Levant to Central Asia.
Encounter with Islam
Doctrinal controversies and Byzantine persecutions of the ‘heretical’ Christians of the east weakened Christian communities in the region and ensured that when the Arab armies invaded in the seventh century, they were vulnerable to conquest.
Initially, under the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus (661-744), and then under the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad (750-1258), Christians were able to enjoy a period of relative stability under occupation. During this period, Christians adopted the language of Arabic, and became vital conduits of Greek philosophy and theological dialogue, taking an influential administrative place within the courts of the Caliphs.
During the 8th and 9th Centuries, Syriac scholars from the eastern Churches were involved in the ‘translation movement,’ undertaken by the Abbasid Caliphs, during which a huge of amount of Greek philosophical, medical and scientific works were translated to Arabic, mostly by Christians. It is worth noting that, “the merits of Arab science in the mediaeval era are often extolled. It is too often forgotten or unknown that although the Arab world of the time was certainly Muslim in structure, the scholars who held philosophical, scientific and linguistic knowledge were mostly Christians, not Muslims, and that those who imparted this knowledge from Greek or Syriac, were almost exclusively Christians.” As, “heirs of Syrian and Greek cultures, these sons of the Arab world (the Christians), were vital intermediaries for the transmission of science to the new rulers.”
However, as Islam emerged, it developed a strong sense of hierarchy as far as the status of religions was concerned. Christians and Jews were classified as ‘Ahl al-Kitab’, (People of the Book), but they were still, ‘kuffar’ or, ‘unbelievers’, holding dhimmi status, that required payment of the jizya tax to guarantee their safety and place in the Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam). Under Muslim control, calm prevailed if Christians did not upset the balance of power. The application of Shari’a Law on non-Muslims restricted the personal freedoms of Christians. They wore distinguishing clothes. They were forbidden to practise certain trades and from taking positions of responsibility in politics or the army. They were permitted to worship freely, but processions, public Christian symbols, and proselytization were forbidden. Marriage between Christians and Muslims was only allowed if the Christian party converted to Islam. Conversion the other way around was forbidden. For all these reasons, Christianity saw a significant decline in numbers during the period of Muslim rule.
Christianity under the Ottomans.
Under the Ottomans, conditions once again improved for the Churches and, “the percentage of Christians in the Fertile Crescent tripled.” There are several reasons for this, one of which was undoubtedly the millet system, under which legal recognition and a degree of administrative autonomy was given to religious communities. Millet bodies, which included the churches, became intermediaries between the Church and the State, and the Patriarchs were given political authority and status within their communities and in the State. The churches were able to manage their own civil, penal and taxation administrative affairs. Requirements for conversion in the event of inter-religious marriage, and the Jizya tax, were gradually removed. The requirement that all Ottoman subjects, regardless of their ethnic or religious status, should serve in the army was altered. Non-Muslims – in return for payment of an exemption tax – were excluded from the requirement for conscription. Other forms of discrimination such as restrictions on land purchase were also removed. Under the ‘tanzimat’ – the period of political and economic reform undertaken by the Ottoman Empire between 1857-1860 – the economic and social incentives for conversion to Islam were substantially reduced, creating increased opportunities for minority communities and serious tensions with some Muslim groups. The Tanzimat reforms were in part at least, “meant for international consumption at a time when the Ottomans desperately needed Britain’s help.” Christians also had a lower death rate than Muslims, partly because they were heavily concentrated in the urban and coastal areas where standards of living were better, and wider contact with the Mediterranean world was possible.
This Christian encounter with the West during the Ottoman period was further secured by the sending of Capuchin, Carmelite, Jesuit and Dominican Catholic missionaries to the east in the 17th Century; by the arrival of western diplomats, and the establishment of Catholic educational institutions. Under this influence, further schisms formed within the Oriental Churches, so that between 1662 when the Syrian Catholic Church was formed, and 1847 when the Latin Patriarchate was established in Jerusalem, the Eastern Catholic family of churches were created. These remained faithful to eastern liturgy but came under the authority of Rome. Adopting Arabic as their main liturgical language they maintained and strengthened their eastern ecclesial identity.
During the formation of nation States, and the colonial endeavours of the 19th Century, the region witnessed the arrival of an array of Protestant denominations. Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, Evangelical churches all established themselves in Syria and throughout the Levant, to create the fifth family of Churches in the region. All have added to the complex, diverse – and sometimes conflicting – Christian mosaic in Syria and the wider region. There have inevitably been times of tension between the faith communities. To many these developments have been a source of Christian enrichment and diversity. Yet, this is not necessarily how all Syrian Christians see it. Some believe that this multiplication of Churches, and the significant and influential presence of western Christianity, has from an eastern orthodox perspective, “increased disunity, division and conflict in the body of the Church.” This remains a profoundly sensitive matter for the Orthodox churches of the east, particularly given the numerical growth in some of the Protestant churches in recent decades.
By Andrew Ashdown
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 Quoted from an unpublished lecture: His Eminence Metropolitan John, Archbishop of the Antiochene Orthodox Archdiocese of Western and Central Europe.(2010) Christians in the Middle East. Lecture Given at St Botolph’s Church without Bishopsgate, London. 12 June 2010.
This article is an edited version of part of a chapter that will be published by Routledge in November 2020: Ashdown, A. (2020) Christian-Muslim Relations in Syria: Historic and Contemporary Religious Dynamics in a Changing Context. London, New York: Routledge