Syria currently is a secular state and Syrian Jews and Christians have long had a secure home there with their rights protected by the state. Christians have had roles in the government, civil service and armed forces.
In 1972, in Damascus, I interviewed Rabbi Salim Totah, the 65 years old head of the Jewish Community Council in Damscus. I wonder if he is still alive? What does his community today think of the strife that is encroaching on their quarter. A foreign resident of Damascus told me then of the Jews in Damascus that “it is no bed of roses for them, but it is not a concentration camp either.” Today expulsion hovers on the horizon like the fate that Libyan Jews suffered.
The Jews I visited in the Haryat al Yahud quarter in Damascus back then had their own schools and the freedom to own property and engage in professions and trade. A business man told me, “We prefer to live together so we are near our synagogues, schools and kosher shops”.
Will that continue under the successors to the Assad regime?
A internet blogger, Alan Melkman, poses what could have been an alternative:
“Consider now another possible scenario.
“Suppose instead of encouraging the opposition we, the West, had stood alongside Russia and China, supporting Assad and condemning the rebel atrocities.
He adds in another post, “Rather than bringing a speedy end to the brutalities, the actions of Clinton etc. have, by providing support and facilitating the supply of weapons through other countries and organisations, merely prolonged the agony and increased the body count by giving a life line to the Assad opposition. Some might argue that had the West lined up with Russia and China then the conflict would already have been at an end with the brutal Assad still in control. But then better the devil you know than the Islamist devil you also know – especially if you are a Christian.”
Reports are coming out, although not in the popular media which are the tails that wag the dog in this and earlier conflicts, that in March, Islamist militants went door to door in neighbourhoods of Homs, expelling local Christians. Of the more than 80,000 Christians who lived in Homs prior to the uprising, approximately 400 remain today. 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.
Residents trapped in Christian neighborhoods of Syria's bombed-out city of Homs were evacuated last week after an agreement between army and rebel forces. Between Tuesday and Wednesday, more than 60 people were taken to safety, according to the Associated Press. Most identified as Christians.
The evacuation momentarily settles fears of Christians being caught in the middle of further clashes between the rebels and the army. Thousands of Christians in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, have already fled to a nearby area known as the “Valley of Christians.”
Christians in Syria make up about 10% of the population. The largest Christian denomination is the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, closely followed by the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, and then the Syriac Orthodox Church; there are also a minority of Protestants. The city of Aleppo is believed to have the largest number of Christians in Syria.
The President of Syria has to be a Muslim, as a result of popular demand at the time the constitution was written. However, Syria does not profess a state religion, and does not officially favour any religion over another.
The Christianity Today web site earlier this month published an article on the plight of Christians in Syria, which said, in part:
“"We do not support those who are calling for the fall of the regime, simply because we are [for] the process of reform and changes," said Yohanna Ibrahim, Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, at a religious summit in France.
In late May, International Christian Concern, an evangelical ministry to the persecuted church, released to Christianity Today an anonymous open letter from a "trusted Syrian source" that explains why many Syrian Christians support Assad's regime. The two-page letter calls for help from the larger Christian community. It says in part:
• "Christian service has flourished remarkably in Syria. We regard Syria as a model Arab country when it comes to freedom of worship."
• Radical Muslim groups are "responsible for the disturbance" in the country. "Christians are the first to be persecuted when we talk about governmental change."
• "We are seeking [Christians'] help to prevent what happened in Iraq and Egypt from happening in Syria. Christian service in Syria is in danger now."
The so-called “Friends of Syria” so avidly supported by Hillary Clinton and William Hague would dop well to heed the exhortations of the frustrated founder of the Libyan Democratic Party, Ahmed Shebani, who watched as Mahmoud Jibril al Warfally’s National Forces Alliance swept to victory in the recent parliamentary elections in Libya.
“We derive the separation of mosque and state from within Islam itself,” he told me in an e-mail recently.
Taking inspiration from the Young Turks of early last Century, Mr. Shebani states “ We have deliberately raised the ideological ceiling very high in order to significantly change the Muslim political discourse. We want to be a shining star in the sky that guides travellers in the desert to democracy.”
With some 7,000 members and a significant proportion of women in the Democratic Party’s ranks, Mr. Shebani claims to be the fastest growing political party among Libyan youth. “Libya has a demographic bonus whereby 70% of the population are below the age of 30. We are specifically addressing the youth,” he says.
“The Democratic Party of Libya is the only political party that avowedly believes in the right of return of Libyan Jews,” he asserts. The Jewish presence in Libya had been continuous for over 2200 years till it was unjustly terminated in 1967.This is a historical and an archaeological fact. Stones do not lie.”