As Assyrian Christians have been forced out of their homes, they have had to seek sanctuary elsewhere. Many have migrated overseas, primarily to the United States, Germany, Australia, and Sweden, but visas are difficult to obtain, costs are formidable, and subsequent expulsions are not uncommon; even asylum-friendly Sweden has been vigorously deporting Assyrians after somehow determining that there is no longer any “inner armed conflict” in Iraq. For most displaced Assyrians, the only obtainable havens are local. Syria has played a particularly important role.
Of the roughly 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, up to 550,000 are estimated to be Assyrians by Iraqi Christian organizations; other groups put the number at around 350,000. The conditions faced by these displaced persons are debated. Evangelical organizations in the United States often voice concern; according to Christian Solidarity International, the very existence of Syria’s Christian community is now “under threat” as violence against its members “goes unpunished.” Assyrian organizations themselves tend to view the situation much more positively. In 2009, the Assyrian Universal Alliance 26th World Congress voted to commend the government of Syria, as well as those of Jordan and Lebanon, for their “treatment of Assyrian refugees of Iraq.”
Syria is generally portrayed in the American press as an authoritarian regime, harshly antagonistic to Israel, that sponsors Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite organization. Less commonly noted is the secular nature of its ruling Baath Party, founded on an Arab nationalism that cuts across religious lines. The founding figure of Baath ideology, Michel Aflaq, was a Syrian Christian. Syria may support Islamist militants as proxy forces in its struggle against Israel, but it does not tolerate them at home; when the Muslim Brotherhood initiated an uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, the Syrian military responded with a devastating assault that killed an estimated 17,000 to 40,000 people. The Syrian government has a strong incentive to oppose Islamism, as its upper echelons are dominated by Alawites, members of an extremely heterodox sect of Shiite Islam noted for their belief in the transmigration of souls, their Christian-influenced religious practices, and the fact that they have no problems with wine. Most Sunni Muslims do not view Alawites as members of the Islamic community, and extremists among them would target them for physical attack.
Iraqi Christians relocating in Syria join an Assyrian population, several hundred thousand strong, that was established by refugees fleeing massacres in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq in the early twentieth century. This previously established group of Assyrians is concentrated in the northeast; recent arrivals tend to live in low-income urban areas further to the west. All told, Christians account for about ten percent of Syria’s population. The largest denomination is the Orthodox Church of Antioch, which claims descent from the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch. As can been seen on the section of Mehrdad Izady’s map posted above, Syria’s main Christian belt partially separates its Alawite-dominated coastal mountain strip from its Sunni Muslim heartland.
Christians in Syria may have broad religious liberties and safety from physical attack, but they hardly enjoy freedom of expression; Syria ranks 178th out of 196 countries in freedom of the press, comparable to Saudi Arabia and China. Syrian Christians, moreover, have agreed never to proselytize to Muslims, nor to accept Muslim converts. But despite such restrictions, their lot remains enviable in many ways. The government subsidizes churches and allows Christians to organize their own civil courts. On Easter, tens of thousands of Syrian Christians take to the streets of Damascus to publically demonstrate their faith. According to a recent GlobalPost story, many Syrian Muslims are keen to witness such celebrations:
On Thursday night, the courtyard of the Greek Catholic cathedral resembled a rock concert. At least 2,000 people gathered to watch a Passion play, in which Jesus’ crucifixion is re-enacted. Vendors sold cotton candy and popcorn outside the gates. Attendees included many Muslims, said Ghissa, the church’s choir director. “They’re curious to see how we celebrate,” he explained. “And why not? We all get along well in Syria.”
Curiosity may not be the only driving force behind such behavior. As the author of the GlobalPost story goes on the relate:
Inside a pub in the Christian Quarter recently, two friends, one Muslim and one Christian, joked about using each other’s faiths to double their number of holiday celebrations.