Arab Spring Turns to Christian Winter

By William Dalrymple

Wherever you go in the Middle East today, you see the Arab Spring rapidly turning into the Christian winter.

The past few years have been catastrophic for the region's beleaguered 14-million strong Christian minority.

In Egypt, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood has been accompanied by anti-Coptic riots and intermittent bouts of church-burning. On the West Bank and in Gaza, the Christians are emigrating fast as they find themselves caught between Benjamin Netanyahu's pro-settler government and their increasingly radicalised and pro-Hamas Sunni Muslim neighbours. Most catastrophically, in Iraq, two thirds of the Christians have fled the country since the fall of Saddam.

It was Syria that took in many of the 250,000 Christians driven out of Iraq. Anyone who visited Damascus in recent years could see lounging in every park and sitting in every teahouse the unshaven Iraqi Christian refugees driven from their homes by the sectarian mayhem that followed the end of the Baathist state. They were bank managers and engineers, pharmacists and businessmen - all living with their extended families in one-room flats on what remained of their savings and assisted by the charity of the different churches.

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"Before the war there was no separation between Christian and Muslim," I was told on a recent visit by Shamun Daawd, a liquor-store owner who fled Baghdad after he received Islamist death threats. I met him at the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus, where he had come to collect the rent money the Patriarchate provided for the refugees. "Under Saddam no one asked you your religion and we used to attend each other's religious services," he said. "Now at least 75 per cent of my Christian friends have fled."

Those Iraqi refugees now face a second displacement while their Syrian hosts are themselves living in daily fear of having to flee for their lives. The first Syrian refugee camps are being erected in the Bekaa valley of Lebanon; others are queuing to find shelter in camps in Jordan, north of Amman. Most of the bloodiest killings and counter-killings that have been reported in Syria have so far been along Sunni-Alawite faultlines, but there have been some reports of thefts, rape and murder directed at the Christian minority, and in one place - Qusayr - wholesale ethnic cleansing of the Christians accused by local jihadis of acting as pro-regime spies. The community, which makes up about 10 per cent of the total population, is now frankly terrified.

For much of the past 100 years, and long before the Assads came to power, Syria was a reliable refuge for the Christians of the Middle East: decades before the Iraqis arrived the people of Syria welcomed the Armenians escaping the Young Turk genocide of 1915. In 1948 they took in the Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, driven out of their ancestral homes at the creation of Israel; and during the 1970s and 80s their country became a place of shelter for Orthodox Christians and Maronites seeking a refuge during Lebanon's interminable sectarian troubles.

For while the regime of the Assad dynasty was a repressive one-party police state in which political freedoms were always severely and often brutally restricted, it did allow the Syrians widespread cultural and religious freedoms. These gave Syria's minorities a security and stability far greater than their counterparts anywhere else in the region. This was particularly true of Syria's ancient Christian communities. The reason for this was that the Assads were Alawite, a syncretic Shia Muslim minority regarded by Sunni Muslims as heretical, and disparagingly referred to as Nusayris, or Little Christians: indeed, their liturgy seems to be partly Christian in origin. Alawites made up only 12 per cent of Syria's population and the Assads kept themselves in power by forming what was in effect a coalition of Syria's religious minorities, through which they were able to counterbalance the weight of the Sunni majority.

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William Dalrymple is the author of From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium. His new book Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42 will be published by Bloomsbury in February.

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