What Do Aramean (Syriac) Christians Really Want in Syria?
By Daniel Gabriel, Human Rights and UN NGO Director, World Council of Arameans (Syriacs)1
Syria is at a critical impasse. While the so called “Arab-Awakening” has called for increased democracy and freedom across the Middle East, countries like Syria are now experiencing the complete opposite. We are seeing calls for the shedding of more blood and we have seen the demise of society, the fear of all, a horrific future for minorities and an imminent sectarian war.
The indigenous Aramean (Syriac) people are one of the affected minorities. Together with other Christians, they account for 10% of the Syrian population. Most Christians from Syria hold a more impartial, democratic and peaceful view towards the conflict. But today, the ethnic Arameans (Syriacs) and their fellow Christians, who have lived in relative harmony for many years with other ethno-religious groups, fear for their lives. Different sides of the battle demand sides be chosen and have left the Aramean (Syriac) Christians in Syria with few choices; support the rebel fighters, join the Syrian army or leave the country. Unfortunately, staying in Syria in peace and waiting for issues to resolve themselves is no longer an option for the great majority of the Aramean (Syriac) population.
The Aramean (Syriac) Christians try their utmost to remain in their homes out of fear of what is outside on the streets. Christians are being kidnapped and held for ransom, they are being used as human shields because they lack protection and religious places of worship are being targeted. They are being targeted simply because of their ethnicity and/or religion. This is especially the case in the Jezireh, Damascus, Aleppo areas and also increasingly in the Kurdish controlled north.
Such horrific activities have led to many of the Christians leaving those areas. Reportedly 90% of the Christian population has escaped from war torn Homs region. All borders into Turkey are now controlled by the Free Syrian Army. They do not permit Christians to come through, only Muslims – in one instance, an Aramean family trying to escape the war into Turkey was told by FSA rebels at the border “you Christians support Assad so you must die with him too”. The crisis has resulted in a large number of Christian refugees but also a significant number of internally displaced individuals.
While world powers fight the war outside of Syria, they neglect the Syrian population on the ground. As more and more weapons flood the country, the call for peace and dialogue has seemingly dissipated.
The indigenous Aramean (Syriac) people of Syria plea with the international community to continue real and meaningful dialogue. Aramean Christians request that there be no pre-conditions for dialogue and that all talks work towards a democratic and peaceful solution.
So what do Christians in Syria really want? Of course, there is no such thing as a homogenous voice of the Christian community. There are different voices to be heard – some for Assad and some for the rebels. Nonetheless, one thing is certain – the great majority are sitting on the sidelines waiting to see how this one plays out and in the meantime, praying that the end of this war is imminent and peace and democracy will reign.
As foreign fighters and dangerous Islamists infiltrate the Syrian borders with foreign weapons in tow, more sane voices would argue that this must stop. And yet the fact remains that both sides must put down their arms and agree a cease-fire if this war is really to end. The Kofi Annan 6 point plan failed to gain the support it needed to succeed and now Mr Lakhdar Brahimi, the new Syrian Envoy, has his work cut out for him to find a solution to the 19 month war.
The Christian community in Syria also pleads for increased security. The fear of further sectarian violence is real and this is why we must pressure all groups in Syria to not target minorities and to provide those most vulnerable with further protection. As Aleppo turned into a battlefield overnight, we have seen the Front of Aleppo Islamic Scholars state called for Christians to support the FSA and provide names of all those Christians who support the Assad government.
With the sectarian violence set to surge it is clear that we need the United Nations Security Council to agree on a Resolution stating that all vulnerable minorities must be protected as a priority and their future safeguarded in Syria by all warring parties. The Syrian Government, Syrian National Council, the Free Syria Army and the Kurds should immediately make similar unambiguous public statements about protecting minorities.
The lack of security for Christians has led to a significant mass exodus to countries like Turkey and Lebanon, not to mention the thousands of internally displaced persons trying to survive the onslaught. While we would like the Aramean (Syriac) Christians to stay in their indigenous homes, we must also face the hard facts on the ground. Staying in Syria may no longer be tenable and this is why the international community must focus on remedial actions with increased security, lifting sanctions against the Syrian people, no further demands that Christians join the war from either side of the battle, targeted humanitarian relief and an agreed refugee intake across Europe.
The Christians of Syria are in a desperate state and we sadly may be witnessing Iraq 2.0, which resulted in Christian numbers dwindling from 1.4 million Christians down to 400,000 in Iraq. It is up to the international community and the warring parties in Syria to show that they indeed believe in true democratic principles and human rights. Time is no longer on our side.
1 Founded in 1983 as a global umbrella organization to represent the Aramean (Syriac) people, the World Council of Arameans (Syriacs) (“WCA”) is their only United Nations NGO. It enjoys worldwide recognition and support from all its Aramean (Syriac) National Federations and Local Associations as well as by the leadership of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the second largest Christian group in Syria.