Earlier this month, reports came from the Syrian city of Qusayr of an ominous warning to the town’s Christians: Either join the Sunni-led opposition against Bashar al-Assad or leave. Soon after, thousands of Christians fled the town.
After decades of protection by a secular-leaning dictatorship, the Qusayr ultimatum warned of a dark future for Syria’s Christian community. As the 15-month conflict rages with no end in sight, Syria’s many minorities have come face to face with the emerging threat posed by radical Sunni Islamists. These elements have established themselves as a key factor in Syria’s future, backed by immense political and economic support from the Arab world and indifference from the West.
Throughout the years, Christians, like many other minorities in the region, have lent their support to those regimes that have guaranteed their security and religious freedom. In Iraq, Christians rose to the highest levels of society under Saddam Hussein’s regime, while in Egypt, Coptic Christians were protected from ultraconservative Salafists under Hosni Mubarak. As secular leaders from the secretive Alawite sect, the Assad dynasty largely preserved Christian life, protecting Syria’s minorities from what was perceived as a collective threat from the country’s Sunni majority.
Watching their once-shielding dictators fall like dominos across the region, Christians have suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of history. Faced by a rising tide of radical Sunni Islam, Christians in Iraq and Egypt have fled by the thousands. In Syria, concern over Christian repression has fallen on deaf ears, drowned out by popular support for the country’s opposition in the face of the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown.
This March, months before the Qusayr ultimatum, Islamist militants from the opposition’s Faruq Brigade had gone door to door in Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan neighborhoods of Homs, expelling local Christians. Following the raids, some 90 percent of Christians reportedly fled the city for government-controlled areas, neighboring countries or a stretch of land near the Lebanese border called the Valley of Christians (Wadi al-Nasarah). Of the more than 80,000 Christians who lived in Homs prior to the uprising, approximately 400 remain today.
The cleansing of Homs’ Christian neighborhoods occurred as the Syrian military bombarded the Sunni opposition stronghold of Baba Amr, naturally focusing the international media on stories of children maimed by Assad’s artillery shells and sniper bullets. At the United Nations, Assad’s opponents could not afford to highlight Christian persecution in Homs, as they risked catering to a Russian-led campaign to preserve the dictator’s rule by de-legitimizing the Syrian rebels for their atrocities.
As rebel forces continue to chip away at Assad’s control over the country, Syria’s Christians continue to be expelled or held at the mercy of an increasingly extremist Sunni opposition.
For the newest generation of Sunni jihadists, Syria has become the latest front in the struggle to wrest control of the region from rival religious sects and foreign occupation. Many of these fighters hail from the vast reaches of North Africa and the Gulf, arriving in Syria with weapons, funds and a radical ideology.
Inside Syria, the reluctance of the international community to thwart Assad’s onslaught has left the Sunni population with feelings of isolation and abandonment, driving large swathes of youth into the arms of radical clerics. This uncompromising ideology leaves little place in Syria’s future for the country’s many minorities — including Christians.
Saving Syria’s Christian community is coherent with Western strategic interests. If the experiences of Iraq and Egypt are any indication, religious intolerance breeds insecurity and volatility. The Syrian case is no different. Assad’s opponents on both sides of the Atlantic must prevent radical Islamists from embedding themselves in the Syrian opposition and should adopt a firm stance against their patrons in the Gulf.
As Kamal Jumblatt, the former leader of Lebanon’s Druze minority, once said, “In the Middle East there is space for all men, just not their ambitions.” Jumblatt himself was eventually assassinated at the hands of Hafez al-Assad, but his words ring true to this day.
The ousting of the Assad regime has become a global moral obligation, but so has the duty to ensure that Syria’s future holds a place for all minorities.
This article was written by Daniel Brode, Roger Farhat, and Daniel Nisman and was also published in the New York Times Global edition on July 28, 2012.