As I wrote here last fall, Syria’s Christians have shown a lot of ambivalence about the civil war taking place in their country. Assad runs a police state, but his secular government protects Christians, who make up about 10% 0f the population, allowing them churches, schools, and community centers. When Syria’s Christians consider the persecution of Iraqi Christians that followed the fall of Saddam, and the persecution of Coptic Christians that followed the fall of Mubarak, they wonder what a “democratic” government in Syria would do for them. Not without reason, they worry that the Sunni opposition, if it ever gained power, would be less concerned with their human rights than the Ba’ath Party.
Two recent articles provide some background on the situation. The first is an essay in the New York Times by Clark University historian Taner Akcam, whose recent book I noted here. Akcam writes that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recip Erdogan has been speaking a lot lately about the need to protect human rights in Syria. Erdogan’s statements are unlikely to reassure Syrian Christians, Akcam writes, given Turkey’s history of genocide against Christians in the last century (and, one could add, given the continuing human rights concerns of Christians in Turkey today). Far from making amends, Erdogan’s government denies that a genocide even took place. Akcam writes, “Syrian Christians listening to Mr. Erdogan and his denialist rhetoric are reminded of 1915, and that makes Turkey look very much like a security threat to them.” In other words, the more Turkey suggests it will play a role in a future Syria, the more Syria’s Christians fear for their human rights, and the more inclined they are to support Assad.
Then there’s this interesting piece by Philip Smyth in The American Spectator. Smyth write that Christians in Syria and elsewhere in the region are beginning to distance themselves from the Arab cultural and ethnic identity. Although the Mideast’s Christians traditionally have endorsed pan-Arabism, he writes, they increasingly identify themselves with cultural and ethnic affiliations that predate the Arab Conquest — for example, “Aramean,” “Assyrian,” “Chaldean,” and “Syriac.” They seek to revive endangered languages like Aramaic; some even hope to establish independent homelands, a goal which, given present political realities, seems quite remote. I don’t know if Smyth overstates the case. The resurgence of non-Arab identities, though, suggests that, notwithstanding the movement’s human-rights rhetoric, the Arab Spring does not appeal too much to the region’s Christians. Perhaps that’s because they fear the Spring will turn out to be more Islamist than Arab.
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