Syria’s Christians fear an Islamist takeover should the current government be overthrown. During the ongoing civil war there has been a well-documented rise in the number of salafi-jihadist groups operating in Syria that pose a direct threat to Syria’s Christian community.1 These militant opposition forces espouse an Islamist ideology, which incorporates elements of Wahhabism2 and Salafism3 and whose stated goals and objectives are by definition hostile towards Christians. Firsthand accounts from Syrian Christian refugees in Lebanon reported by award winning investigative journalist Nuri Kino detail the horror in which they described kidnappings, rapes, harassment, theft and other violent reprisals at the hands of Islamist groups.
Those who survived reported “just being Christian is enough to be a target,”4 disproving theories that violence and kidnapping directed towards Syrian Christians is purely incidental or for economic reasons. One individual openly declared “We’re not poor. We didn’t run from poverty […] we ran from fear.”5
There are several dozens of armed Salafi-jihadist groups both foreign and domestic currently operating in Syria that explicitly advocate Islamist agendas and possess the intentions and capabilities to commit violent persecution towards Syria’s Christians. Most notably from the global Sunni jihadist milieu is al-Jabhat al-Nusra lil-Ahl al-Sham min Mujahedin al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad (The Front for Supporting the People of Greater Syria by the Mujahedin of Syria on the Battlefields of Jihad) A.K.A. Jabhat al-Nusra, which in December 2012 the U.S. government officially listed as a terrorist organization.6 Also, on April 9 of this year the leader of Tanzim Qai’dat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn(Organization of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia) A.K.A. al-Qaeda in Iraq released an audio announcement that officially declared the unification of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra including the establishment of an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, effectively expanding the threat to Syria’s Christians.7 The other notable militant Islamist group is al-Jabhat al-Islamiya al-Suriya (Syrian Islamic Front), a large armed coalition force comprised of several interdependent blocs and alliances organized throughout Syria.8 Even the relatively less hardlineal-Jaysh al-Suri al-Hurr (Free Syrian Army) and al-Majlis al-Watani al-Suri (Syrian National Council) are by no means monolithic entities, rather both exist as umbrella organizations comprised of several independent and competing ideological currents and sub-currents including Islamism.
Indeed, regardless of the means employed whether violent or non-violent to achieve the stated goals and objectives of these Islamist movements, the future is unfortunately no less hostile towards Christians. Within an Islamic State governed by Shari’a (Islamic Law), Jews and Christians, known colloquially as ahl al-Kitaab (People of the Book), are afforded a certain protected status called dhimmi, but only if they willingly submit to a tribute or coercive tax known as jizya.9 Based on Islamist interpretation, which is strictly literal and employs the “doctrine of abrogation” promulgated by the 13th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyyah,10 the later and more belligerent suras (chapters) of the Qur’an take precedence over the earlier and more tolerant suras.11 As a result, the salafi-jihadists frequently reference Sura al-Tawba (The Repentance) otherwise known as Sura al-Bara’a (The Ultimatum), which is the 9th chapter of the Qur’an, to justify their violent actions. Numerous internationally recognized translations of Verse 29 of Sura al-Tawba explicitly state,
Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.12
Ultimately, Syria’s Christians as well as Jews will be forced to suffer persecution at the hands of Islamists unless they convert to Islam, submit to Shari’a and pay the jizya, emigrate or die.
Guilt by Association: Syria’s Christians Labeled Pro-Assad
The question of who would protect the Syrian Christians after the fall of Assad has historically led many Christians to support the status quo out of fear.13 A Congressional Research Service report from August 2012 accurately portrays the dilemma of Syrian Christians who are “caught between their parallel fears of violent change and of being associated with Assad’s crackdown.”14 According to a September 2012 report by the Institute for the Study of War, President Assad has “used the threat of jihadists within the opposition to galvanize support for the regime among the Alawite and Christian communities.”15 Similarly, the U.S. State Department’s 2011 International Religious Freedom Report for Syria also recognizes the rising level of animosity towards Syria’s Christians as well as Assad’s attempts to translate their fears into political support by sponsoring pro-government demonstrations in predominantly Christian neighborhoods and violently rebuffing those viewed as undermining this effort.16 Consequently, even individual Christians who have neither professed nor shown any inclination of support for the regime may still be identified as pro-Assad and thereby targeted for violent persecution by the Islamists and other opposition forces, or by government security forces for being perceived as unsupportive.
“Arab Spring” is “Christian Winter” — Persecution of Christians is a Regional Issue
Christian persecution is prevalent not only throughout Syria but also the entire region. Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) has consistently published reports testifying that Christians throughout the Middle East, specifically in Syria, Egypt and Iraq, have been suffering persecution at an alarming rate, including a sustained campaign of violence, discrimination, mass emigration and internal displacement — all of which too often go unrecognized and unreported.17
In an urgent attempt to bring attention to and spur action from policymakers, Congressman Wolf recently traveled to the region and met firsthand with Christian refugees from several Arab nations, including Syria, and reported “In fact, it often appears that there is an anti-Christian bias at the State Department. For years the department refused to recognize that Iraqi Christians were being targeted, insisting instead that they were simply victims of generalized violence.”18 Unfortunately, the same can now be said of Syria’s Christians, as Western naivety falsely assumes that anti-Assad opposition forces are automatically pro-democracy, pro-secular, and pluralist and Christians are merely victims of incidental violence. However, a recent report from the British newspaper The Guardian reveals that until recently hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians sought refuge in neighboring countries like Syria, but now they are once again forced to flee due to rampant religious persecution. The report continues by stating the majority of Christians have been emptied from the broader Middle East, and while the “Arab Spring” may have sprung new life for Islamists in the region, it has most certainly brought death to Christianity in places like Syria.19
By Matthew J. Thomas
Matthew Thomas is a graduate from the M.A. program in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, CA. He previously worked as an intern with the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, and as a research assistant with Naval Postgraduate School and Howard’s Global Solutions. His primary research interests are on militant Islamic organizations and the Arab World. He possesses advanced foreign language proficiency in Arabic and Assyrian (neo-Aramaic), and holds a B.A. in International Relations with a Concentration in Muslim Studies from Michigan State University.
1 “Evidence of the Influx into Syria of Foreign Jihadist Fighters,” Insights, Jihadist Website Monitoring Group, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, November 2012. Available online at: http://www.ict.org.il/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=55Of1Jrll6Q%3d&tabid=320. (Accessed 9 April 2013).
2 Wahhabism is the official religious doctrine of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a Salafist form of Sunni Islam founded by the 18th century cleric Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab that is based on an extremely strict and puritanical interpretation of the Qur’an and Ahadith(sayings, statements, acts of Prophet Mohammed), which it considers as the sole authoritative texts.
3 Salafism is a radical movement within Sunni Islam that seeks to restore the 7th century mode of Islamic governance, colloquially referred to as the pure or golden age of Islam, that existed during time of al-Salaf as-Salih (virtuous ancestors), specifically the Prophet Mohammed and al-Sahaba (companions) who include al-Muhajirun (“the emigrants” or initial followers of Islam who made the hijra or migration with Mohammed from Mecca to Medina) and al-Ansar (“the helpers” or Medinan followers of Islam), as well as al-Rashidun, known as the four “Rightously Guided Caliphs” namely Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib.
4 Quote taken from p. 17 in Nuri Kino, “Between the Barbed Wire,” UngdomsInitiativet, 11 January 2013. Available online at:http://www.betweenthebarbedwire.com. (Accessed 9 April 2013).
5 Quote taken from p. 11 in Ibid.
6 “Treasury Sanctions Al-Nusrah Front Leadership in Syria and Militias Supporting the Assad Regime,” U.S. Department of Treasury, 11 December 2012. Available online at: http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/pages/tg1797.aspx, (Accessed 9 April 2013).
7 “Al-Qaida Iraq branch announces merger with Syrian militant group,” The Washington Post, 9 April 2013. Available online at:http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/al-qaida-iraq-branch-announces-merger-with-syrias-militant-group-fighting-assad-regime/2013/04/09/1853cfc8-a0f4-11e2-bd52-614156372695_story.html. (Accessed 9 April 2013). For a safe copy of the original audio message in Arabic see, Aaron Y. Zelin, “al-Furqan Media presents a new audio message from the Islamic State of Iraq’s Shaykh Abu Bakr Al-Hussayni al-Qurayshi al-Baghdadi: ‘Announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham,” Jihadolgy.net, 9 April 2013. Available online at: http://jihadology.net/2013/04/09/al-furqan-media-presents-a-new-audio-message-from-the-islamic-state-of-iraqs-shaykh-abu-bakr-al-%E1%B8%A5ussayni-al-qurayshi-al-baghdadi-announcement-of-the-islamic-state-of-iraq-an. (Accessed 9 April 2013).
8 Aron Lund, “Syria’s Salafi Insurgents: The Rise of The Syrian Islamic Front,” Utrikespolitiska Institutet, Occasional Paper No. 17, March 2013. Available online at: http://www.ui.se/eng/upl/files/86861.pdf. (Accessed 9 April 2013).
9 See p. 22 in Ibid.
10 Ibn Taymiyyah is a 13th century Islamic scholar and theologian from the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence that is most famous for the fatwa (religious edict) that declared it permissible to wage militant jihad against the Mongols, who sacked the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate at Baghdad in 1258, because they were perceived as living in a state of jahiliyya (ignorance) and pre-Islamic paganism. The fatwawas controversial because previously it was considered forbidden to violently oppose the Caliphate, since such actions would constitutefitna (secession). Islamists use this fatwa and historical context to justify their extremist ideology by engaging in takfir (act of calling another Muslim an apostate) and denouncing the current Muslim regimes as un-Islamic and in a state of jahiliyya.
11 See p. 76 in Bale, “Islamism and Totalitarianism.”
12 See translation by Yusuf Ali for Verse 29, Chapter 9 of the Qur’an taken from “Quran.Com.” Available online at: http://quran.com/9/29. (Accessed 10 April 2013).
13 See p. 4 in Michael Singh, “Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis,” Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 19 March 2013. Available online at:http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/testimony/SinghTestimony_20130319.pdf. (Accessed 9 April 2013).
14 Quote taken from p. 2 in Jeremy M. Sharp et al., “Armed Conflict in Syria: U.S. and International Response,” Congressional Research Service, RL33487, 21 August 2012. Available online at: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33487.pdf. (Accessed 9 April 2013).
15 Quote taken from p. 38 in Elizabeth O’Bagy, “Jihad in Syria,” Middle East Security Report 6, September 2012, Institute for the Study of War. Available online at: http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Jihad-In-Syria-17SEPT.pdf. (Accessed 9 April 2013).
16 See p. 7 in “Syria: International Religious Freedom Report for 2011,” U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Available online at: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/193119.pdf. (Accessed 10 April 2013).
17 “Wolf Calls on Religious Leaders in West to Speak Out on Behalf of Persecuted Church Globally,” Congressman Frank Wolf, 9 January 2013. Available online at: http://wolf.house.gov/index.cfm?sectionid=34&itemid=2108. (Accessed 10 April 2013). See also, “Wolf Issues Report Following Trip to Middle East,” 7 March 2013. Available online at: http://wolf.house.gov/press-releases/wolf-issues-report-following-trip-to-middle-east. (Accessed 10 April 2013).
18 Quote taken from p. 14 in “First the Saturday People, then the Sunday People: Report on a trip to Lebanon and Egypt,” Congressman Frank Wolf, February 2013. Available online at: http://wolf.house.gov/uploads/lebanon_egypt_tripreport2.pdf. (Accessed 10 April 2013).
19 Rupert Shortt, “In the Middle East, the Arab spring has given way to a Christian winter,” The Guardian, 2 January 2013. Available online at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2013/jan/02/middle-east-arab-spring-christian-winter. (Accessed 10 April 2013). See also, Sam Dagher, “An ‘Arab Winter’ Chills Christians,” The Wall Street Journal, 5 December 2011. Available online at:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203710704577053221510203422.html. (Accessed 10 April 2013).