Why Iraqi Christians are Moving to Syria
The recent spate of attacks on Christian churches in Iraq is symptomatic of the general insecurity that Christians (about three percent of the population, around 800,000 people) face in the occupied country. The interim constitution states that "Islam is the official religion of the State and is to be considered a source of legislation" and while recognizing religious freedom "respects the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people." For some, Islamic identity means the imposition of Muslim morality. In Sadr City, the Mahdi militia is shutting down Christian-owned liquor shops. Some shop owners have been killed, some Christian women attacked for appearing in public inappropriately attired. Others have been attacked because of a widespread belief that Christians are abetting the occupation.
The irony here, of course, is that Saddam’s Iraq was a secular state, ruled by the Baath Party. The Iraqi regime, although suspicious of and sometimes brutal towards the Shiite majority, supported Shiite and Sunni mosques, Assyrian and Chaldean Christian churches, and even the sparsely attended Baghdad synagogue, while forbidding proselytization in general. Saddam appointed Tariq Aziz, a Christian, to top posts; in response, enraged Islamists tried to assassinate Aziz in 1980. Osama bin Laden hated Saddam’s Iraq for its specifically non-Islamic character. Now with the fall of the Baath regime, Islamic fundamentalists (of various types) have been unleashed to redefine the role of religion in the country. The U.S. occupation officially dissolved the huge Baath Party, purged Baathists from their posts (including those in medicine and education) and officially approved the wording of the constitution, while creating the power vacuum in which numerous Islamic militias now thrive.
Here’s a second irony. According to the New York Times (August 5) some 4,000 Iraqi Christian families have taken refuge in Syria. Others go to Jordan or Lebanon, but Syria is the favored destination. Ruled by a branch of the Baath Party at odds since the 1960s with its Iraqi counterpart, Syria remains a secular republic. Ten percent of the population (about 1.8 million) is Christian, and Iraqi Christians reportedly feel little discrimination in the country. There is no rigid dress code such as one finds in Saudi Arabia and some other Arab nations; the liquor stores are open.
"We are safe here, and so we feel free," says Abdulkhalek Sharif Nuamansaid, who has brought his family to Damascus from Baghdad. "The Syrians are brothers to us. There is no discrimination here. That is the truth, and not a compliment." According to a 2002 report by International Christian Concern, a group that monitors persecution of Christians globally, "No government acts of religious persecution have been witnessed" recently, and "There is no evidence that prisoners are being held for their Christian beliefs at this time."
But Syria is vilified by the Bush administration, just like Iraq, and for the same (ostensible) reasons: weapons of mass destruction (chemical weapons Syria acknowledges it possesses—as a deterrent from an attack by nuclear-armed Israel), and terrorist connections (to anti-Israel groups). Add to these charges the fact that Syria occupies parts of Lebanon (where it has with Arab League authorization stationed troops, now numbering 16,000, since 1976). Add the charge that, in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Syria has harbored fleeing Iraqi officials (an action which would, if it occurred, seem perfectly legal), that Iraqi funds in Syrian banks have facilitated resistance activities, that Iraq accepted WMD from Iraq prior to the invasion (which would explain why none have been found), and that Syria actively supports the passage of Arab fighters across its border with Iraq. And of course the built-in charge of rule by a dictator, which a Washington intimate with Musharraf, Mubarak, Karimov etc. applies with straight-faced selectivity whenever useful. (The "we overthrew a dictator" claim is all they really have now, after all, on Iraq). The neocons have targeted Syria for regime change for a long time, for reasons they cannot discuss openly: acquisition of U.S. hegemony over Southwest Asia. providing geopolitical advantage vis-à-vis Europe, Japan, China, etc. well into what they call the New American Century; and the imagined enhanced security of Israel). They are doggedly building their case, with help from Israel’s Likud government—the origin of the WMD transfer report.
But to successfully press the case for regime change in Syria, its advocates must try to establish some link between the trauma of 9-11 and this next targeted nation. This they do through the sleight-of-hand of linking Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Hezbollah (with offices of some sort in Damascus) with al-Qaeda, not because they actually work together, but because they’re all on the State Department’s official list of foreign terrorist organizations (along with various nationalist and communist and other groups unrelated except for their putative terrorism).
This terrorism is understood by President Bush to constitute a single, simple Evil that God has appointed him to smite. The administration has not accused Syria of direct support for al-Qaeda, and Syria has in fact been helpful in the fight against it. But Bush can exploit confusion and the willingness of many Americans to conflate all Arabs targeted by the administration as components of that looming Evil. The confusion troubling Dubya’s mind so obviously in any unrehearsed public situation has long been this administration’s forté; the useful confusion spreads, at a frighteningly rapid pace, from the inarticulate presidential podium to the pulpits and editorial pages of Middle America and the barking anchors of Fox News, NBC and CNN.
As early as 2002, CNN’s influentially insufferable Lou Dobbs proclaimed that the "War on Terrorism" was in fact a "War on Islamism." Then, following protests by rational people that targeting "Islamism" would produce animosity towards Islam in general, he changed that to war on "fundamentalist Islamic extremism" or "radical Islamism." In at least one broadcast, he referred to Iraq as a radical Islamist nation, making no sense whatsoever but eagerly abetting the confusion-capitalizing warmongers’ cause. Small wonder, given the disinformation spread by authoritative-looking captains of the free corporate press, that the majority of Americans might still believe that Saddam had something to do with 9-11. Disinformation surrounds reportage on Syria as well, so one ought to stress again and again that Syria is in fact a secular rather than "Islamist" society. One in which Christians, after fleeing the ruin of their lives in the New (increasingly intolerant) Iraq, somehow feel comfortable.
The U.S. and the Ba’ath Party
What is the Baath Party, which so emphasizes secularism and seeks to curb the influence of the Muslim clerics? And why does the Bush administration hate it so much? The press has generally avoided these questions, while making it clear that the Baathists (variously termed "Stalinists" and "fascists"—these being very different, irreconcilable things) are really bad. So let’s explore them briefly. Baath means "Resurrection" or "Renaissance" in Arabic. During the 1930s, middle-class intellectuals in Syria began to organize a movement against foreign domination (France had colonized Syria in 1916, and Syria remained under French or British control to the 1940s). Movement leaders Zaki al-Arsuzi, Salah al-Din al-Bitar, and Michel Aflaq opposed such colonialism, but were also influenced by trends in political thought in the colonizers’ countries. They were emphatically opposed to Islamic fundamentalism and the application of Sharia law; Aflaq was an Orthodox Christian. For the Arab world to enjoy a renaissance, they felt, it must reject religious bigotry, and commit itself to secularism, and western-style law and constitutional structures.
In 1947 the Baath Arab Socialist Party was formally inaugurated in Damascus as an organization espousing pan-Arab nationalism, anti-colonialism, and "socialism" (the latter understood to mean a strong government role in steering economic development, but clearly distinguished from and opposed to socialism in the Marxist-Leninist sense). Factions of this party have subsequently not only governed Syria and Iraq, but been influential in Jordan and elsewhere. The Baathists have met strong opposition, both from Communists (who were once the best-organized and largest party in Iraq) and Islamists, both of whom the U.S. and its intelligence community have traditionally opposed. Thus, according to Roger Morris, a former National Security Council staffer in the 1970s, the CIA chose the Baath Party "as its instrument" in the 1950s.
Intimate ties between the Agency and Saddam Hussein date to 1959 when Saddam botched an assassination attempt on then President Abd al-Karim Qasim. Qasim, a military officer who had seized power in a coup overthrowing the Iraqi monarch, had alienated the U.S. by withdrawing from the anti-Soviet Central Treaty Organization (Baghdad Pact), developing cordial relations with the USSR, and tolerating (although he cracked down on it hard sometimes) the strongest communist party in the Arab world. The CIA and Egyptian intelligence skirted him out of the country to Lebanon, where the CIA paid for his Beirut apartment, and then to Cairo, where according to UPI intelligence correspondence Richard Sale, he met with CIA operative Miles Copeland and station chief Jim Eichelberger.
Qasim was overthrown in a Baath coup in 1963. Under the new government headed by President ‘Abd as-Salam ‘Arif, Saddam (age 26) was placed in charge of the interrogation and execution of communists whose names the CIA happily provided to the new regime. ‘Arif turned on his erstwhile supporters, provoking a split in the Baathist Party, while the above-mentioned Christian Baathist Aflaq promoted Saddam to become a member of the Baath regional Command.
Jailed between 1964 and 1966, Saddam rose within the Baathist ranks. His cousin and mentor, General Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, seized power in 1968, and Saddam became the number two man in the Iraqi government, in charge of internal security. Engineering al-Bakr’s resignation in 1979, Saddam took power, invading Iran the following year and soon acquiring U.S. support and approval. During his rule, the Baath Party maintained the longstanding discrimination against the Shiites. In 1991, following the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Shiites rose up against the regime, encouraged by the first Bush administration (which failed to provide promised assistance). They were crushed brutally. In 1999, the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, spiritual leader of the Shiites, was assassinated in Najaf, reportedly on Saddam’s orders. Truly, Saddam’s was an irreligious regime.
In Syria, meanwhile, the Baath Party experienced ups and downs and factional struggles. It was dissolved along with all other political parties during the period of union with Nasser’s Egypt (1958-61), but was the ruling party throughout the presidency of Hafez al-Assad (1970-2000) and remains such under his son Bashir al-Assad. In 1973 al-Assad (a member of a minority Alawi Muslim sect) revised the Syrian constitution, omitting the requirement that the president be a Muslim. This occasioned riots by those accusing al-Assad of atheism; they were suppressed by the army, but the requirement was reinstated. In 1980, members of the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate the president, and in February 1982 this group rose up in rebellion in the town of Hama. Again they were suppressed by the army, while al-Assad sought to strengthen his legitimacy among Syria’s Sunni majority my espousing popular Islam. "But," according to Ray J. Mouawad, writing in the Middle East Quarterly in 1991, "that did not negatively affect the status of Christians in Syria nor their attitudes toward the regime; indeed Christians in Syria perceive the actual regime as their protector. Accordingly, Christians find it easy to obtain authorization to repair or build new churches and to pray or have processions in public without harassment. They enjoy more religious freedom than they did under the Ottoman Empire before 1918. Their religion is not mentioned on identity cards. Legislation is entirely secular with the exception of personal status laws that are applied by specific tribunals and vary according to the differing communities. Friday is the official day off, but in consideration for the Christian population, work starts at 10 a.m. on Sunday. All the Christian holidays are official state holidays and members of the clergy are excused from military service. Christians are united behind the regime, particularly since the events in Hama, conscious that it is their protection against a possible Islamic drift." http://www.meforum.org/article/17
In 1983 the Mufti of Jerusalem issued a fatwa against al-Assad (for his hostile treatment of the Palestinian Liberation Organization). Plainly the Syrian government has acquired its share of Muslim enemies.
Targeting the Least "Islamist" Regimes in the Arab World
So ironically, Iraq and Syria, led by two of the least Muslim regimes in the Arab world, are the two most targeted by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the attacks on the U.S. by an Islamic terrorist group intimate with neither. Again ironically, these two have been particularly tolerant of their Christian communities whose existence dates back nearly 2000 years. But the targeting makes sense when you recognize that any modern society featuring a coeducational free education system, with a rational bureaucracy, national health care system, and separation of religion and state, is likely to develop more rapidly and become stronger than medieval monarchies and mullocracies. And any Arab state reaching European levels of economic and military attainment while not swearing allegiance to the hyper-power is, in the neocon perspective, a valid candidate for regime change. Lands governed by kings, sultans emirs in concert with the Muslim clergy may nurture in their madrasses Islamist extremism, and hence become a threat (as Donald Rumsfeld in his famous leaked October 2003 memo suggests).
But these have been the historical favorites, good business partners disinclined to threaten Israel; indeed Morocco, Tunisia, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar all now have some level of diplomatic and trade relations with Israel. The fact that al-Qaeda-type ideology might appeal to many in such countries, resulting in terrorist attacks on U.S. targets, causes some neocons to contemplate their ultimate replacement with American-guided "democracies" and de-Islamicized education systems. But for the time being, an officially Muslim state supportive of U.S. goals in the region, even if its citizenry rejects those goals, is far more palatable than a secular state defying and obstructing them. Hence the 1991 expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait, resulting in the return of a loyal, non-threatening monarch.
The Baathists’ positives do not mitigate their horrific human rights records, of course (not that the Bush administration is in any position to judge such matters). But this issue of the fate of Arab Christians might perhaps influence the way that Bush’s Christian fundamentalist social base sees the evolving situation in the Middle East. Franklin Graham, who says Islam is "a very evil and wicked religion" is chomping at the bit to bring the Truth to the benighted Iraqi people. His flock should know what Bush policy actually entails for the existing Iraqi Christian community. (Of course, I don’t know whether Graham acknowledges that the Assyrian and Vatican-recognizing Chaldean churches are "really" Christian in his fundamentalist understanding of the term.)
One wants to visit Bush-friendly Christian churches and stand at those pulpits and cry out: "Brothers and sisters, the problem is not ‘forces of good’ versus ‘forces of evil,’ but secularism vs. religious fundamentalism, all over the world! Bin Laden’s fundamentalism produced 9-11; Bush’s, the bleeding sore of Iraq. The problem is Bush’s extremist Christian fundamentalism, versus not just Muslim fundamentalism, but even the most religiously tolerant regimes in Muslim nations! Why are Christians fleeing ‘liberated’ Iraq? Because, brothers and sisters, the illegal war toppling the Baathists in Iraq has produced terrible suffering among Christian believers, and Baathist Syria bad though it may be provides succor. If secular, religiously tolerant Syria is next on the ‘War on Terror’ attack list, even though it’s got nothing to do with al-Qaeda and 9-11, is there not something very wrong (even evil) in the administration’s whole approach to the region?"
I’m not optimistic the message would resonate, but Christians who agree might give it a try.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org