Christian support for the Baathists


According to classic templates that abound, one would really expect this article to discuss how a Muslim group was supporting an authoritarian, bloody-handed regime. This is because of all the religions it is generally Islam that issues like terrorism, dictatorships and the support of authoritarian regimes are linked and considered synonymous with.

So are there no marginal groups that carry out inhumane acts in the name of Islam? There are. Are there no leading Muslim figures who support, either voluntarily or because of fear, some authoritarian regimes? There are. But today we are going to speak of Christians working to keep some of these very same authoritarian regimes on their feet, and who even see their futures in the continuation of these oppressive regimes.

In Syria, which is undergoing a period of painful change, there are more than 2 million Christians, or around 10 percent of the total population, who want to see the Baath regime continue on its path. Words spoken at a meeting in Paris by Maronite Christian Patriarch Bechara El-Rai sums up this viewpoint: “The collapse of the Baathists could lead the way to the birth of a fundamentalist Sunni regime and this could lead the way to sectarian violence or even the division of the country into three or four parts based on sectarian differences. These are scenarios that are deadly for the future of Christians in Syria.”

The view held by a regular Christian citizen speaking to a reporter from the Independent newspaper in Damascus was not very different: “All of the international media — from Al Jazeera to the BBC to CNN — they all lie. There is no problem in Syria. Today, Christians here live their religions freely. They go to church, drink if they like. If Assad falls from power, all this will end.”

There are some Christian figures in the region who deny this ironic set of views, which seems to tie Christian wellbeing to authoritarian regimes like the Baathists. For example, the Syrian Orthodox patriarch shared the warnings of fellow Patriarch Rai on fundamentalism, but rejected the idea of defending their existence in the region at the cost of the freedom of others. What’s more, some Christian activists in Syria reject what they see as interventions in domestic events by figures like Rai, or the linking of their future wellbeing to the continuation of Assad’s power.

While certain factors such as the attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt, or the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda after the revolutions, make Christian worries understandable, these views also work very well for Assad’s propaganda — repeated both at home and abroad — that asserts, “What follows me will be chaos. I am the protector of Christians.”

From the perspective of history and politics, there are understandable dimensions to this all. To wit, until the time the Ottomans departed in 1918, the leadership in Syria was based on a Sunni majority. In order to create a new threshold for themselves, the French who moved to Syria put the spotlight on the Christian and Nusayri bases of citizens. The ideology that was appendaged to this new threshold was Arab nationalism. If one really takes note, one can observe that it was largely Christian intellectuals at the helm of this ideology. When the revolution took place in Syria, the Baathists took this same threshold of citizens as its essential basis. At the point where Arab nationalism began to lose its strength, sectarianism entered into the loop. And so, democratization in the wake of the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria will mean that these old structures will lose the privilege once afforded to them, while new structures gain this privilege. The most critical subject at this point in the discussion is the fact that members of the Christian minority in Syria are lending support to Bashar al-Assad out of fear that in his wake, they will not be granted the rights they have had, or they will lose their current freedoms. Just as this is significant in terms of the legitimacy of the regime at home, it is also significant in terms of international balances and especially the West’s approach to Syria.

The following important warning is being offered to Christians in Syria who support the Baathist regime from authorities watching the developments closely, and from Western circles who support the idea of change there: It is only democracy that can guarantee not only the rights of Christians but in fact all Syrians. The degree to which the Christians continue to support the Baathist regime, despite the wishes of most Syrian citizens, means their situation could become worse post the collapse of the Assad regime as they will be identified with the old regime. In the meantime, it appears that this warning could serve well not only for Christians in Syria but also for Sunni businessmen, diplomats, intellectuals, and Nusayri bureaucrats who persist in lending support to the oppressive Assad regime.

(Published in Turkey’s Today’s Zaman on Nov. 25)