The Many and the Happy Few
By William Dalrymple
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Syria – Politically repressive, the minority Alawite rulers have encouraged a surprising religious tolerance.
Across the length of what was once the Ottoman empire , in the 20th century a savage polarization replaced pluralism. In dribs and drabs, and sometimes in great tragic exoduses, religious minorities have fled to places where they can be majorities; and, when they are too few in number to do that, have fled the region altogether, seeking out places less heavy in history such as America and Australia. While Europe became more multicultural in the 20th century, over the same period country after country in the Middle East changed, in the opposite direction, into a series of monolithic, mono-ethnic blocks.
That Syria offers a hopeful exception to this rule may seem surprising. Syria may be a one-party police state, but it is a police state that tends to leave its citizens alone as long as they keep out of politics. And while political freedoms have always been severely and often brutally restricted, both the current and the previous president, Hafez al-Assad, have allowed the Syrian people widespread cultural and religious freedoms. Today, these give Syria ‘s minorities a security and stability far greater than those of their counterparts elsewhere in the region.
This is particularly true of Syria ‘s ancient Christian communities. On my last visit, the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, Mor Gregorios Yohanna Ibra him, told me: “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. If Syria were not here, we would be finished. It is a place of sanctuary: for the Nestorians driven out of Iraq , the Syrian Orthodox and the Armenians driven out of Turkey , even the Palestinian Christians driven out by the Israelis.”
The confidence of the Christians in Syria is something you can’t help noticing, particularly if you have arrived from eastern Turkey . There, until recently, minority languages such as the Syrian Christians’ Aramaic were banned from the airwaves and the classroom. Christianity in eastern Turkey is a secretive affair and the government has closed all the country’s seminaries. But cross into Syria and you find a very different picture. Qamishli, the first town on the Syrian side of the frontier, 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 paranoia of Christianity in Turkey .
The reason for this is not hard to find. The Assads are Alawite, a Shia Muslim minority regarded by orthodox Sunni Muslims as heretical and disparagingly referred to as Nusayri, or “little Christians”: indeed, their liturgy seems to be partly Christian in origin. Bashar kept himself in power by forming what was in effect a coalition of Syria ‘s religious minorities through which he was able to counterbalance the weight of the Sunni majority. In the Assads’ Syria , Christians have always done particularly well: in his final years as president, five of Hafez al-Assad’s seven closest advisers were Christians.
William Dalrymple is the New Statesman‘s south Asia correspondent