In a recent meeting in Budapest, Victor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister and Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, were joined by heads of Christian Churches from Syria to discuss the dire situation of Eastern Christianity. Mr. Orban said, "We are politicians and we want to ask you what we need to do in order to help this area and what your needs are which must be addressed". Mr. Putin added, noting that "despite the fact that the Middle East is the cradle of Christianity, we now see the very difficult situation in which Christians find themselves." Eastern Christians are grateful to Hungarian and Russian sympathetic and supportive sentiments and they are also grateful to Western Christianity for their financial aid, though not substantial. Before dealing with present-day status and future hopes of Eastern Christianity, a brief overview of the recent history of Eastern Christianity is essential.
To appreciate the survival of Eastern Christianity, a historical perspective dominated by two tragic developments, massacres and immigration, sheds light on its present status and future hope. Over the last hundred years, 1915-2015, Eastern Christians have suffered five massacres:
- In 1915, and thereafter, the Ottoman massacre of Christians, also known as the Armenian genocide, in which 1.5 million Armenians - and several hundreds of thousands of Syriac and Assyrian Christians - were brutally massacred, which created a collective martyrdom memory, internalized and everlasting. My Syriac Orthodox paternal grandfather Elia was slaughtered along with two of his sons who disappeared. I will never forget the sight of my grandmother's eyes fixed intently on our house door whenever there was a knock on the door hoping to see her children at the door front; until her final breath.
- In 1933, Iraqi Assyrians were massacred and many of the survivors escaped to Syria and settled in the presently troubled North East Syria. They suffered a second slaughter during this decade at the hands of ISIS and other extremist terrorist groups
- In the 1970's, Christians suffered bloody onslaughts during the Lebanese civil war.
- In the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, Christians were victims of violent onslaughts and many escaped to Syria and Lebanon.
- In the present decade, amidst the ill-named "Arab Spring", Eastern Christians have suffered death, destruction and kidnapping. Two Aleppian Archbishops, Syriac Orthodox Youhanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Paul Yazigi, were kidnapped in April, 2013, while on a humanitarian mission, and their fate still unknown, dead or alive.
Five massacres of Eastern Christians in one hundred years equates to a Christian massacre every twenty years. This means that every Eastern Christian was either a martyr, a witness of martyrdom or a future martyr. Eastern Christians psychological makeup and mental attitude are a reflection of these massacres. They feel insecure, hopeless and abandoned. Should they sit and wait as future martyrs until their turn arrives or make a run for it to the Christian West - enter the predicament of immigration.
Some personal reflections of observations of Eastern Christians, with Syria as a case study, where Christian sects flourished, particularly in Aleppo, a historic hub of Christianity in the Fertile Crescent and in the ‘Christian Valley' - or Wadi al-Nasara, a bastion of Christianity in western Syria. When I raise the subject of the survival of Eastern Christianity with Christians in Syria, the first thing that comes to their mind is the notion of a ‘plan' to empty the region from Christians. I push to get some evidence to substantiate their belief of a ‘plan' and the sources behind it. Some say it is the Islamists, others say it is Israel, still others say it is the Christian West who supported the Syrian uprising and called for the downfall of President Al Assad which created a feeling of uncertainty, insecurity and despair among Christians and the belief that they have no future in the region. The second source behind the ‘plan', although indirectly, is the information Eastern Christians have acquired about the life the Christian West is providing Christian immigrants: Security, residence, welfare, health care, education and above all a hopeful future for their children; none of which is available in the homeland. The life Western Christians provide Eastern Christian immigrants is an irresistible inducement to immigrate, thus the ‘plan' to empty the Homeland of Christianity from Christians.
The survival of Eastern Christianity is relatively important to Western Christians; and their financial support and sympathetic sentiments expressed in the Budapest testify to that. Aid is coming from the Christian West; it is needed and appreciated and has been very helpful to the well-being of many needy Syrians of different religious faiths. However, it is not sufficient to make a difference in the long run, for it covers mostly nutritional, rental and some daily needs, but not infrastructure and constructional needs which means the aid is only for temporary, not permanent survival. The aid comes mostly from Western Christian and International humanitarian and charity organizations; some limited aid comes from Western Christian states. Unfortunately, the same Western Christian states and their regional allies also provide financial and military aid to extremist groups, many of which target and kill Christians.
It should be noted that the continued existence of Eastern Christianity in Syria is due to the continued existence of a sovereign Syria, thanks to the Syrian people, the leadership, the institutions and of course Syria's allies. Nevertheless, insecurity and instability, among other factors, coupled with the availability of immigration routes - whether legally or illegally- has accentuated the erosion of Syria's Christian population. Eastern Christianity will continue to dwindle. However, one hopes for some positive developments towards Christians to slow down the hemorrhage. Unfortunately, that is just wishful thinking.
According to longtime friend, Archbishop Boutros Marayati, the Armenian Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo, "The Christians are afraid, with every new outbreak of violence, many families are deciding to emigrate." The Archbishop was referring to the murdered Father Hovsep Bedoyan, parish priest of the Armenian Catholic parishes of Saint Jo in Qamishli, on November 11th, 2019. The Archbishop recounts: Father Bedoyan was traveling by car to Deir ez-Zor, accompanied by his father, Ibrahim Bedoyan, a deacon and a layperson. The mission, according to the Archbishop: "We are trying to rebuild the church and the houses of the Christians who used to live there, so that they can return to the city." The Archbishop continues, "What we do known is that Father Hovsep was dressed in his priestly attire... his car was clearly marked with the words ‘Armenian Catholic Church'." The Archbishop notes that "shortly before they arrived at Deir ez-Zor, two armed men on a motorcycle overtook their car and opened fire." The father of the Priest was killed, father Hovsep died outside the hospital in Hasake and the deacon was wounded. No amount of Western Christian aid can undo such damage.
Every targeted shooting of Christians in Syria perpetuates this vicious and catastrophic cycle of erosion of an historically important Eastern Christianity culture. In conclusion, unless the world acts immediately, the followers of Jesus Christ move further down the path of becoming a memory.
Elias SAMOPhD, Professor of International Relations at American and Syrian universities