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ICC Note: Many Christians in Syria—who have historically experienced a higher degree of freedom in Syria than in most other Middle Eastern countries—have refused to actively oppose the regime which, according to Islamists, means they are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. While these Christians denounce the brutality of the regime, they fear that any government that replaces Assad will be dominated by extremists who will severely persecute religious minorities. In this article, Al-Ahram reports on Syria’s ancient Christian roots which “are an intrinsic and fundamental part of the fabric of Syrian society,” said Suleiman Youssef, an Assyrian political activist.
By Bassel Oudat
5/8/2013 Syria (Al-Ahram) – Syria is believed to be the land from which Christianity spread to the four corners of the world, and it is home to a church dating back to the time of Christ’s disciples. It was here that Paul the Apostle began his journey, and the country still hosts some of the world’s oldest churches. Some Syrians still speak the ancient Aramaic language that Christ spoke, and for centuries Syrian Christians were fully integrated into the larger society and co-existed with other faiths and cultures.
However, today Syria’s Christians, along with other segments of society, are facing new challenges triggered by the uprising of the Syrian people against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. They also bear the burden of the distinct challenges that face the continuing presence of Christianity in the Middle East as a whole.
The exodus of Christians from Syria has been increasing over the past four decades since president Hafez Al-Assad, father of Bashar Al-Assad, took power in 1971. When the country became independent in 1945, Christians represented some 20 per cent of the population, but by 1980 this figure had dropped to 16.5 per cent, or around 2.5 million people, and it dipped to 11 per cent in 1990. Today, it is estimated at six per cent of the population, or 1.5 million people.
According to Syrian scholars, the exodus of the country’s Christian community compromises the region’s culture and diverse heritage, and it has taken place despite the fact that the country’s constitution and laws grant Christians full rights. Christians have been appointed to senior government positions, such as the present parliamentary speaker Faris Khouri, and they have served as cabinet ministers, army chiefs of staff, and held senior positions in political, diplomatic and administrative institutions.
However, none of this seems to have stopped Syrian Christians from wanting to leave the country, in search of a better life in Europe or the US. Some have been fearful of the rise of Islamist fundamentalism over recent decades, though this has not been the community’s only concern.
Christians form the second-largest sect in Syria after Muslims, and they belong to many denominations. Eighty per cent are Orthodox (Eastern Church), and the rest are Catholics, Maronites, Protestants, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs. The headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and the East is located in Damascus, and the culture and traditions of Syrian Christians differ from those of Christians in the West. The province of Haska has the highest concentration of Christians in Syria, accounting for 25-30 per cent of the population there.
Syrian Christians, like Syrian Muslims, are found across the political spectrum and have the freedom to build churches and houses of worship that they administer independently. The country’s personal status laws require the Church’s consent to marriage and divorce, but otherwise in the eyes of the law Christian females are treated the same as Muslim women. Overall, co-existence between the religions has been exemplary.

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