The Religious Landscape in Syria Part 2

28 August 2020

The Twentieth Century Onwards

Towards the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1914, Christians numbered about 24% of the population of the Empire, and 30% in the area of Greater Syria, which includes Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, and Christian communities played a key part in the social, political, economic and religious landscape of society.[1] Yet, with the rise of the nation states; the fall of the Ottoman Empire; the British and French Mandates in Palestine and Syria; and the emergence of the Muslim renewal movements; this situation was to dramatically alter.

As nation states developed, religious identities were manipulated and used to promote ruling agendas within emerging countries. The British and French Mandates in Palestine and Syria played a crucial role in developing this tendency, establishing a power framework that differed substantially to that which existed under Ottoman rule. Perceived economic and political injustices within the nation states fractured societies and religious communities. The betrayal of political commitments to indigenous communities at the end of the Mandates, including the marginalisation of minority non-Sunni groups, and the establishment of the State of Israel, which resulted in the dispossession of several hundred thousand Palestinians from their homelands, created communal, State and religious tensions that remain to this day.

Additionally, the Lebanese war; American interventionism in the Gulf and in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya; the ‘Arab Spring’; the ‘War on Terror’; the growth of Sunni-Shi’a tensions, and the rise of political Islamism – have all contributed to the destabilisation of the region, and the mass emigration of Christians from the Middle East to other parts of the world. In parts of Iraq, Christian communities that dated to the earliest days of the Christian Church have almost disappeared, and in other parts of the region, the ancient presence of Christianity is under threat, or reduced to such a degree, that the Christian influence on Arab society as being part of the historical essence of that society, is being seriously eroded. This changing context could profoundly alter the framing, balance and the culture and history of the religious communities in Syria and the region.

The 20th and early years of the 21st Century have been devastating for Christian communities throughout the region. In contrast to the figures quoted above, it is estimated that today Christians make up less than 4% of the population of the Middle East. In Syria, of an estimated population of Christians of 10-12% prior to the conflict, it is impossible to provide accurate figures, but it is thought that half or more have left the country.[2] In December 2016, Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo suggested that three quarters of the Christian population of Aleppo might have left the city by that date, leaving an estimated 40,000 Christians in the city. In Palestine, Christians now number less than 2% of the population. In Iraq, Christian communities have been decimated by the war and by flight from ISIS persecution. Thus, it is possible to say that, “ninety years have wiped out four centuries of Christian resurgence.”[3] The rise of the nation states has helped provide the context in which this decimation of the Christian communities has taken place. However, there is another story. Modern Syria has been a place of refuge for Christians during a century of crises: for Armenians and Syriacs displaced during the Ottoman period in the early years of the twentieth century; for Palestinians in the mid-twentieth century; and for Iraqi Christians during the 1990s and 2000s. Crucially, the country, home to three eastern Patriarchates, Syrian Christianity has played an important part in the renaissance of Eastern Christianity in the Levant, and in increased western awareness of the importance of these churches for ecclesial liturgy, history and doctrine.

In Syria, Christianity is a natural part of the established ‘mosaic’ of Syrian society, and inhabits part of the ‘sacred space’ that makes up the diverse religious communities in the country. This is visible in the abundance of mosques and churches that stand side by side in the country’s cities, towns and villages. Eastern Christian communities now find themselves in a period of profound uncertainty. Yet, amidst the conflict, Syria has remained one of the most religiously diverse countries in the region, with a historic heritage of coexistence in which religious communities, until the start of the Syrian conflict, lived in comparative stability and mutual respect.


Ecumenical Developments and Recent Challenges

In the face of the conflict in Syria, ecumenical cooperation and engagement has increased between all the Churches, and inter-religious cooperation has grown. Speaking prior to the Syrian conflict, Antoine Audo, the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, echoing many Christian leaders in the region, wrote: “The vocation of Eastern Christians will be to become a bridge, or better, a model of communion between the Christian west and the Muslim world.”[4] He further suggests that “a spirituality of communion, rooted in the person of Christ, may allow each Church to be itself in its liturgical and patristic tradition, at the same time opening itself in a spirit of welcome for the other, and of dialogue.”[5] In a conversation in Damascus in December 2016, Bishop Audo confirmed that this was now more important than ever.

The Churches in Syria, even before the conflict, faced challenges. These included: the diversity of Churches and divergences in identity and theology; the reality of being a minority in a multi-religious and ethnic context; the fact that ties with the West and western Christianity can be seen both as an asset and as a threat by non-Christian Syrians; and the level of emigration.

The ‘protection’ which the State has afforded the Christian and other minority communities, in comparison to the violent extremism that they have suffered at the hands of the militant groups fighting the government, helps to explain the position that Church leaders have maintained during the conflict. Yett there is another tension for Middle Eastern Christians. Moussalli speaks of the, “constant sense of insecurity, a desire for extra security,” that Arab Christians feel, which comes in part from continually feeling “a sense of belonging and estrangement at the same time. Thus without feeling confined in his Arab Christian identity, he (the Arab Christian) nevertheless feels the constant need to reinforce it, to retrieve it, to enrich it and to stress all its nuances…. In his desire to claim both history and modernity, his Christian roots in a predominantly Muslim world, and his openness towards the West, he has the ability to assimilate or distance himself.” Add to this the sense of threat from, “the religious revival in Muslim circles on a social and political level,” and we see the potential vulnerability of the Arab Christian identity.[6]

Since the start of the conflict in Syria, Christian emigration from Syria has multiplied significantly. Razek Siriani writes:

No wonder Christians in Syria felt threatened and unprotected when the uprising started in March 2011 and even more so when it later took on a militant aspect. Christian communities felt that the rise of militant Islam against the ruling regime, and its initial success, would threaten their very presence and protection as a substantial minority group in the country. This led to a mass exodus of Christians, particularly intellectuals and young people, from Syria. This has come about not because Christians feel unaffiliated or disloyal to their land, nor because they feel they have no stake in its future. The reason for the large-scale emigration is that many Christians feel that their lives and the lives of their children are threatened by a grim and uncertain situation. They fear that a society marked by tolerance, safety, plurality, coexistence and a mosaic type of life will probably be replaced by one that is exclusive, monolithic and fanatically Islamic. Such fears are not exclusive to Christians. Many Muslims have opted to leave the country for similar reasons, particularly those whose political affiliations make them feel vulnerable. Yet, many Christians, despite the atrocities and difficulties of life in a war situation, have opted to remain in the country or have left only as a last resort.[7]

Due to the level of emigration, there is an even greater need for further ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue and co-operation. For the loss of Christians in Syria and in the Levant is a dangerous threat to the pluralism within Levantine society, and the longstanding social, economic, political and religious traditions and dynamics that have enabled the cohesion, stability and coexistence of different religious and cultural communities in the region. As part of this, a recovery of the theological traditions of the east, particularly Patristic theology and Spirituality, with its unique oriental roots and character can contribute much to strengthening a shared Christian identity within the Middle Eastern context.


The Muslim Mosaic

Just as the Christian mosaic in Syria is pluralist and complex, the Muslim mosaic is multi-layered and diverse – a fact also under-recognised in western discourse. The landscape of Islam in Syria cannot be separated from regional developments in Islam in recent decades, particularly the titanic tensions between Arab Nationalism and political Islamism, as expressed in Egypt, Libya and Iraq, or the complex geopolitical dynamics between Sunni and Shi’a across the region.

Most figures put the percentage of Sunni Muslims (including Kurds) in Syria prior to the current conflict at approximately 74% – a majority, but one that is far from uniform in political, social or religious adherence and practice. Remaining Muslim groups, including Alawites, Shi’a, Druze and Isma’ili, amounted to a total of about 16% of the population. This communal balance, and the fact that the Alawite/Shi’a minority have held the axis of power for over forty years, and promoted secular modernity, has in part helped fuel resentment amongst some Sunnis that has long pre-dated the current crisis. The government has tried to quell communal tensions by including significant representation from all communities within Parliament and leadership in the Army, and encouraging religious freedom for minorities. However, all communal groups in the country have been accused of manipulating communal tensions on occasion for political advantage.

At the time of writing, and given the displacement and emigration of so many Syrians, it is impossible to provide accurate figures for any of the communities that remain in Syria. The dominance of Sunni Islam within Syria belies the fact that the Sunnis themselves are diverse and represent different shades of religious and political adherence with local and regional variations. Just as some Sunnis espouse strictly conservative Muslim practices, so there are many Sunnis in Syria who welcome the religious and social plurality and diversity of the country, and the secular basis of the Constitution. As Thomas Pierret writes: “there is no such thing as a unified ‘Syrian’ religious scene.”[8] There has always been a, “regional fragmentation,” in the Syrian Ulama, with a particularly strong rivalry between the two urban centres of Aleppo and Damascus. It is important to recognise that many Sunnis support an Arab nationalist perspective as opposed to that of political Islamism. Tension between these two paradigms have heightened significantly in recent years and contributed to political unrest.

The demographic change caused by the conflict is likely to have significant implications. The departure of an estimated 50% of Christians from the country; a reduction in other minorities; and a rise in the number of poorer Sunnis due to the socio-economic crisis, and the emigration of many professional Syrians; will lead to a changing demography that is bound to have an impact on the socio-economic and politico-religious make-up of the country.

Christians have lived alongside Muslims in Syria since the emergence of both religions, and the co-existence of the two faiths over the centuries except for certain periods of tension and violence has been understudied. The religious landscape in Syria opens a door to exploring how Christian-Muslim relations have evolved over the centuries, and how eastern Christian approaches to Christian-Muslim relations may help sustain, strengthen and further contribute to dialogue and conflict resolution in the face of the considerable challenges faced by extremist ideologies today. Eastern churches and eastern theology and spirituality are uniquely placed to play a major role in Christian-Muslim dialogue and post-conflict reconciliation initiatives. HART is proud to partner with the St. Ephrem Patriarchal Development Committee, which represents one aspect of this ancient framework of Christian presence in Syria.

By Andrew Ashdown


[1] Fargues, P. (1998) Ibid.  p.62

[2] Some estimates of numbers of Christians leaving, and remaining in Syria have been published in a report by Open Doors: Those who Remain: Christians in Syria and Iraq. Published 1 May 2017.

[3] Fargues, P. (1998) Ibid. p.63

[4] Audo, A. (2010) Eastern Christian Identity: A Catholic Perspective.  In. A.O.M.J. Flannery (Ed.), The Catholic Church in the Contemporary Middle East (pp19-39) London: Melisende. P.17

[5] Audo, A. (2010). The Synod of Bishops: The Catholic Church in the Middle East. One in Christ. 44(2), 196-210. P.198

[6] Moussali, H. (1998). The Christians of Syria. In A. Pacini (Ed.) Christian communities in the Arab Middle East (pp286-293). Oxford: Clarendon Press. Pp 289-290

[7] Siriani, R. (2018). Syria. In, M.T. Kenneth Ross, Todd Johnson (Ed). Christianity in North Africa and West Asia. (pp102-113). Edinburgh: Edinburth University Press. Pp 108-109

[8] Pierret, T. (2013). Religion and State in Syria. The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution. Cambridge: Cambride University Press. P.12

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

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