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Color Me Christian

The Plight of Syrian Minorities

by ANNA HAQ

As the conflict in Syria rages, attention is increasingly drawn to the role of Islamist militants. The dire reality of religious and ethnic minorities comes to the surface. On July 18, BBC World News featured reportage on the Syrian government shelling of the town of al-Husun that lies at the foothill of Crac des Chevaliers. The 11th-century Crusader citadel rests magnificently at the top of a massive hill at the heart of a valley in west Homs known as “Wadi al-Nasarah,” the Christian Valley. To its southwest nestles the historic Antiochian Orthodox Saint George’s Monastery. BBC presented the attack on al-Husun town and this World Heritage Site to illustrate the hostility endured by Syria’s Christians.

Last week armed rebels affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusrah attacked a government checkpoint at the village of al-Qumeirah, which is located approximately five kilometers from the Syrian-Lebanese border near a border crossing point for armed rebels. This route stretches past Tal Kalakh, al-Zara, al-Hasrajieh, al-Shuwaihed, and al-Husun – all largely anti-Assad Sunni Muslim villages, some of them shelters for rebels. This important path is mostly under the control of Jabhat al-Nusrah whose fighters not only took refuge at Crac des Chevaliers, they also occupied a small Roman Tower about 300 meters west of al-Zara town. Taking refuge in these historic sites grant them some luxury of time as they know the government will be highly reluctant to destroy the national heritages (although the example of Aleppo’s souk suggests otherwise). All olive fields on this route are under the control of Jabhat al-Nusrah, who burn them if their owners express disapproval at al-Nusrah’s presence. Al-Zara Thermal Power Plant, which provides 13% of the total generated power capacity in Syria, has been a regular target of the mortars of Jabhat al-Nusrah.

When Jabhat al-Nusrah lost Tal Kalakh to the Assad army late in 2012 after what seemed endless series of severe battles, al-Husun became their second most important center after al-Zara. The armed rebels who took shelter in Tal Kalakh and had already announced it as one of the Emirates of their new Islamic State, sought the historic Crac des Chevaliers for refuge. Until Sunday July 14, Assad’s army had not directly engaged the rebels hidden in al-Husun. Tensions started from the spring of 2012 when the armed rebels kidnapped two civilians driving on the main artery road which connects the many villages of the valley to each other and the valley to the main Homs-Tartous highway. The notables of the valley started a series of interventions and negotiations with the rebels with the help of civilians from the town of al-Husun. The negotiations were fruitful and the civilians were set free for a ransom. Shortly after, many of the civilians of al-Husun left their town and sought refuge in the neighboring villages to assert their affiliation with their life-long Christian neighbors. Those earned the honorary title of Shurafa’ al-Husun, The Nobles of al-Husun. But the government raid of July 14 was not to protect the Christians of the Valley. It was in response to a horrifying massacre the armed rebels had committed at al-Qumeirah checkpoint slaughtering 14 young men, four of them are army soldiers (the number of unarmed murdered civilians from the village itself remains unknown).

As early as March 2011, the Christian Valley became the most sought refuge of the people of Homs regardless of religion or sect. The Valley constitutes approximately 32 villages; 27 of them are inhabited by Christians (mostly Greek Orthodox). Among the remaining five villages, four are mainly Alawites leaving only al-Husun inhabited largely by Muslim Sunnis. The Valley, which is known for its beautiful mountains and cool summer nights, has been a summer resort for many, especially those who originate from its small villages. During the first decade of the new millennium, investors poured their cash into the constructions of luxury buildings and hotels to accommodate the rising number of tourists. The people of the Valley, however, tried their best to salvage their villages as much as they could from the negative effects of tourism. In the 1990s, the inhabitants of the Valley had to succumb to the government changing of the Valley’s name into Wadi al-Nadarah (the Green Valley), when it simply added a dot on top of the letter ‘Sad’ turning it into a ‘Dad’ thus erasing the religious identity of the valley only on paper – nevertheless, the Valley is still known with its original name not only in the country in the whole of the Levant.

Despite rising sectarian tensions, the people of the Christian Valley, largely peasants who live off their farms, remained highly hospitable. Many of them host their neighbors who had to flee Homs and most recently Aleppo. Syria’s minorities, Christians and Alawites, who occupy these mountainous regions, sought security not only in their land but, since the 1960s, in education and cities. A considerable number left their rural homes in that decade for cities, where they were the first university graduates who took advantage of the burgeoning of the decently paid state sector in the 1970s. A schoolteacher of the early 1970s would earn approximately 350SP per month, which afforded him/her a life of literary and artistic events and regular vacations in addition to the mortgage payments of their newly acquired flats in those cities. Nevertheless, this security seemed temporary to many of them who insisted on building houses or small flats in the villages where they originate. The driving motive was, says Adnan (68 year old retired University professor), that “in case of political instability, our mountains will protect us. There in the cities we will remain strangers forever. We are guests, temporary guests.” Despite his wife’s disapproval, Adnan managed to build a modest house in his home-village. “She did not want to ‘invest’ in a small village,” he says with warm laughter. “But in the early 1980s, when the Muslim Brotherhood rose against the government in Aleppo, my wife Siham was a member of the Syrian Women Association. One morning we woke up to the Red X sign painted on our door. We knew we were targeted. We reported the threat to the police who advised us to hide somewhere safe. The police drove us to the village where we stayed at my brother’s house for three weeks. When we were given the orders to return to Aleppo, Siham was convinced of the necessity of building this house.”

In his modest summerhouse of three bedrooms, Adnan hosts his friend’s family. Another University Professor, Ibrahim is a Palestinian. He is Sunni by birth but he assures me, “like Adnan I am secular. Our generation did not know Muslim and Christian. We were all comrades.” When asked why left Aleppo and sought refuge at Adnan’s, he nodded saying “I am against the Assad government, have always been.. but I am against this chaotic rebellion too. I lived at the edge of al-Midan neighborhood in Aleppo for the last twenty years. It is a largely Sunni area in which secularism became dangerously intolerable. People’s reactions to my comments on the situation changed from frowns to threats. I couldn’t risk the safety of my wife, my life companion. But I am Palestinian, or that’s what my travel documents say. For me leaving Syria is nearly impossible unless I head for a refuge camp. I grow up in one and do not wish to die in one!”

Ibrahim was born in Haifa in 1946, his family was forced out of their home in 1948. His parents made it to Damascus where their children grew up. When Ibrahim obtained his Bachelor Degree in the Humanities he was assigned a teaching job in rural Aleppo. He studied for his doctorate in the evenings and graduated from the University of Aleppo with a PhD in Arabic Literature. “I am Syrian. I grow up on this land where I raised my children too. I benefited from free education in the same way I am benefiting now from the free food vouchers the government provides. Do not get me wrong though. We do need political reform in Syria but this revolution was very immature. It was made to be stolen by these thugs.”

Despite many of the Syrians’ gratitude for the government’s aids in terms of vouchers for free rice, burgle wheat, sugar, tea, and cooking oil (among other necessities) many of the liberal Syrians feel bitter at their defeat. “It is sad that this regime will come out of this tragedy as a hero,” says Adnan. As the value of the Syrian Pound deteriorated in recent months reaching its lowest point in the second week of July with the rate of $330 to one Syrian Pound, the Syrian government attempted to retain the value of its currency. As of July 15, the rate is fluctuating between $217 and $220 to one Syrian Pound. Every time the US dollar shoots up, the prices of commodities in Syria triples. One pound of green beans was sold for 10SP in summer of 2010. These days if you are lucky to find it you will have to pay around 150SP per kilogram. Only the price of a pack of bread has been fixed at 15SP since it is the only commodity that is completely controlled by the government. “There is a deep sense of fear among us. We are not sure we will have access to necessities in hours, let alone days.” Adnan continues in a sad tone, “we are not worried for ourselves. We lived in good times when food was plenty and safety was not a concern. I am worried for the young generation. I am more frightened of the hatred that has been instilled in them.” The many stories shared by brave Syrians who refused to leave their homes confirm one reality: if you miraculously survive a bullet, a mortar, or an explosion, if by the will of almighty you still have a roof over your head and not stranded in some camp at a random border where you have to sell your daughters for cheap dowry to buy bread for the rest of your children, if you’ve managed to escape all of that, soon you will need another miracle to escape starvation.

Despite the claim of the opposition that the government has lost its credibility, the Assad regime has established its control not only militarily but also among those who remained on Syrian soil. In Homs, the army made major advances in the neighborhood of al-Khaldieh where the armed rebels gathered after the fierce battles of Baba Amer. On their route to Khaldieh, the armed rebels forced the inhabitants of old Homs, mostly Christians, out of their homes over night. Those who could not leave (the elderly and the sick) sought refuge in the Jesuit Monastery in Bustan al-Daiwan. The rebels would like to think that these sixty hostages might be there only ticket out of a foreseeable siege. Meanwhile, in retaliation for the bombardment of al-Khaldieh, and of what might seem a last hope to wreck havoc among civilians, the rebels have been firing mortars at the neighborhoods of Akrama and al-Nuzha. Concentrations of Alawites and Christians, these neighborhoods seem perfect to target allegedly pro-government civilians.

Of course, not all Alawites and Christians are pro-Assad. Unless directly related to the Assad family, Alawites remain largely peasantry communities. Like many of the Christian minority, urban Alawites are middle-class civil servants who cannot afford a taxi ride toward Beirut or Amman and prefer a dignified death in their homes to the humiliation of refugee camps. “I have been labeled pro-government without given the chance to express my political views,” says Hisham furiously, his gesticulations are wider than the skype window. “This revolution erupted against the tyranny of the Assad family but the Sunni rebels proved to be more barbaric than the Assad army could ever be.” The recent rebel attack on al-Qumeirah checkpoint generated some attention to the plight of minorities in Syria, yet the Alawites have been spared such sympathy. “It is bad enough that the media ignored the situation of religious and ethnic minorities since the eruption of the revolution. Now that they remembered us, they seem to marginalize the Alawites,” Khaled confirms while compassionately tapping the 20-years old Hisham on the back. “I am Christian but I am anti-Assad. Well, I was anti-Assad but the rebels left us no choice. I volunteer for my neighborhood checkpoint to protect my loved ones,” adds Hisham.

The slaughtering of 14 young men at al-Qumeirah checkpoint was the latest scare in west Homs. The bodies of the four soldiers and ten young civilians were found decapitated, heads were taken as trophies. The checkpoint is one among few others set by the government around al-Zara but maintained mostly by civilians to guard their villages from the rebels treading the path from Lebanon to al-Husun. The recent attacks served as a reminder to religious and ethnic minorities of their plight: they are alone in their fight. Earlier in the conversation, Adnan wondered: “where were the BBC when a Christian engineer was slaughtered in his bed in Homs in March 2011? Do they know that he made an exceptional contribution to the Civil Engineering department at al-Baath University for which he received a prize he did not live enough to enjoy? Where were they when many other youth were murdered in their beds by the rebels? Where is the Syrian Coalition? Are they ever going to denounce the barbaric acts of the jihadist? Do they think they can win the liberals back with their cowardly silence?”

“The plight of religious and ethnic minorities is not new to the conflict. It is just that the world choose to uncover it now, as they choose to uncover the armed rebels only recently!” Ibrahim adds.  As Crac des Chevaliers’s strong old towers fight a battle of survival, so do the minorities. As they become the scapegoats in the vicious fight between two powers that deny them a dignified existence let alone a political opinion, their fate remains undetermined, whichever detour the conflict takes.

Anna Haq is the nom de plume of a Syrian writer and intellectual. She would love to use her real name, but thinks it would only unnecessarily inconvenience people she loves. She can be reached at Anna.Haqq@gmail.com.