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Persecution of Christians in Syria in the light of History

Updated on October 18, 2014

Syria is a country with a long Christian heritage. In the town of Maalula, just outside Damascus, many people still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus speaks in the Bible. It’s one of the very few places in the world where that tongue is still spoken. Some children don’t even learn Arabic, the official language of Syria, until they start school.

Ten percent of Syrians in 2009 called themselves Christian. These Christians are the remains of a rich society and culture; a remnant that continues to practice its faith and traditions amongst a Muslim majority and in a nation governed since 1963 under an 'emergency' law that bands all opposition.

Until recently—as long as one sticks with the religion you are born into—secular Syria has long been one of the places most free in the Middle East for any religion.

Aramaic community in remote Syrian village

A Bit of History

Historically it is from the Aramaic-speaking Semitic peoples of Palestine that Christianity quickly spread. "Semitic" is a derivation of Shem, the name of one of the three sons of Noah in the Bible. Christianity expanded next into Mesopotamia Assyria, Syria (ancient Aramea), Phoenicia and Egypt.

Christianity was the official religion during the time of the Byzantine Empire—for more than a thousand years (from approximately 306 AD to 1453 AD). The Byzantine people viewed their Emperor as a representative or messenger of Christ and so responsible for the propagation of Christianity.

4th Century Byzantine Basilica

By Jim Gordon
By Jim Gordon | Source

At the same time, throughout most of its history, this Christian Byzantine Empire had a multi-ethnic character, even while preserving the Romano-Hellenistic traditions of the Greek Empire. This diversity developed the heritage of one of tradition being laid upon tradition.

So in 636 AD, when Muslims entered Damascus, Islamic places of worship were assimilated and added into the Christian basilica 'facilities' where Christians and Muslims then shared the same space for their prayers. But by the early eighth century, Damascus had become the capital of the Muslim world. The basilicas were completely remade into a mosques, many with rich mosaics and precious stones.

Syria - southern part

A markerDaraa, Syria -
Daraa, Syria
get directions

Location of recent protester and government clashes.

Syrian Christians Under Islam: The First Thousand Years
Syrian Christians Under Islam: The First Thousand Years

Among "the 8 contributing scholars are Sidney Griffith on ninth-century Christological controversies & Samir K. Samir on the Prophet Muhammed seen through Arab Christian eyes."


Modern Syrian History of Deadly Islamic Resistance

The secular diversity of Syria with the layers of historical tradition combine into what has become a challenging environment in which to keep a peaceful coexistence stable. Just how difficult this has been was seen in the events of 1980-82. In the final months of 1979 leading up to this, terrorist attacks had become a daily occurrence, as an Islamic resistance movement began in the northern cities and then gained momentum.

By March 8, 1980, nearly all cities in Syria were paralyzed by strikes and protests, developing into battles with security forces. Many elements, both religious and secular, were involved, including the Muslim Brotherhood. This is when tens of thousands of government troops, supported by tanks and helicopters, killed hundreds of protesters and arrested 8,000, crushing the uprising by April.

The worst came in February 1982, with the Hama massacre, when 10-30,000 were killed by the Syrian army in the town of Hama during a bombardment to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood. This was the climax of the Muslim Brotherhood insurgency campaign that had begun in 1976. This attack on Hama by the then ruling Hafez al Assad regime has been described as possibly "the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East."

Introduction to Eastern Christian Spirituality: The Syriac Tradition
Introduction to Eastern Christian Spirituality: The Syriac Tradition

An "excellent introduction to Syriac Christianity and the way of life they taught, containing gems of quotations from Saints Ephrem, Aphrahat, Evagrius, Isaac of Nineveh and others. The commentary seeks to make these authors' work transparent to the reader."


Despite this, Syria's secular openness to diverse religions has continued to some extent into the present millennium.

  • 2003 - tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians flee to Syria. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, attacks on and massacres of Christians there dramatically increased.
  • 2008 - Syria is praised by religious leaders for its example in taking in 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, after the pattern of its long history of opening its border to refugees.

Syrian Intelligence Officer Captured in Iraq

Kurds say Syria attacked them

Middle East Persecution with Syrian Involvement

Information has surfaced that, in recent years, Syria has been behind murderous attacks and the oppression of some minorities in Middle East countries. For example:

  • Jan 2007 - This video is testimony that orders to slaughter people in Iraq came from the Syrian government—to unite the two countries.
  • Mar 2008 - The next video (below) reports that Kurds say they are victims of unprovoked attacks by Syrian security forces.
  • Apr 2008 - Middle East Christians are reported to be suffering in large numbers as the result of being associated with the like faith countries of Britain and the U.S.—the "foreign aggressors."

On the other hand, in February 2009, as tensions grew throughout the Middle East there were numerous reports of Muslims coming to faith in Christ in large numbers. A hundred new churches were projected in the four countries; Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Syria.

However, a recent crackdown on Christians is causing jitters.

Crackdowns on Christians in Syria

Then came the crackdowns in Syria.

  • Sep 2010 - eight house churches are ordered shut down by the government in northern Syria.
  • Oct 2010 - the estimated 20,000 Iraqi Christian refugees living in Damascus are reportedly turning to prostitution in order to survive, as Syrian law does not permit them to work nor provide them any help, though they had fled with just the clothes on their backs.
  • Nov 2010 - expatriates serving Protestant churches are told their visas will not be renewed. Several buildings where Christian services are held are closed, due to Orthodox and Catholic leaders' complaints to the government—disgruntled by their success.

Mid-March 2011 Protests Break Out

After online calls for a "day of dignity," protesters demanding an end to alleged government corruption took to the streets of cities across Syria on March 18, 2011. But they were met with a sharp response orchestrated by state security forces.

In one video subsequently posted online, water cannon are used on crowds of protesters. Al Jazeera's Bernard Smith reports on the "Facebook youth" who appear to be keeping one step ahead of the authorities.

Syrian forces 'shoot at protesters'

2011 Government Response Turned Violent

  • March 21, 2011 - 11-year-old boy dies after inhaling tear gas that security forces fire on demonstrators.
  • March 23, 2011 - four killed when an "armed gang" attacks an ambulance at the Omari mosque.
  • March 23, 2011 - 13 killed as security forces open fire on protesters in southern town of Daraa. The city is sealed off from people going in, apparently as a way to isolate any further unrest.
  • March 24, 2011 - Officials promise to study the need for lifting the state of emergency that has been in place since 1963 and allowing greater political freedoms.
  • March 24, 2011 - a journalist and blogger are arrested in Syria; Mazen Darwish (founder of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression) for statements he made on arrests the Daraa events and elsewhere in Syria, and Ahmad Hadifa for his support for the Daraa protests via Facebook.

2012 Assad says Syria's enemy is terrorism

Near the end of 2012, the Russian Times reported that President Assad does not see the conflict in Syria as a civil war. Assad says, and has been saying for months, that terrorism by Syrians together with foreign fighters of other state powers that have infiltrated the country are the enemy the Syrian government is fighting. This infiltration started soon after the 2011 demonstrations broke out and is different from what the mainstream media reports as Assad's enemy being Syrian opposition groups.

President Assad says the conflict in Syria would end in weeks if the foreign fighters and arms supplies were stopped; like U.S.-made missiles. U.S. President Obama is said to be one who is supplying these arms.

Assad also accuses the Turkey's PM of ambitious intentions to take control of Syria. He says the PM of Turkey sees himself as the new sultan or Caliph of the former Ottoman Empire. That previous empire had included the lands of present day Syria.

Summary Thoughts

The "violent" and severe government response to protesters stirs memories of the 1982 attack by the father of the current president, Bashar al Assad. Assad accepted the Cabinet's resignation and Syrians were hoping earlier in the conflict that with his announced exploratory committee he would have finally end the decades of emergency law. However, as we saw, that did not happened.

The reports of the involvement of Syrian intelligence officers in other conflicts, in Middle East countries outside their own, does not bode well though for the diverse character of Syria's secular heritage nor for the Syrian Christians. The fighting in Syria may end in a drive to unite the Arab countries under an Islamic Middle East.

In Jerusalem, too, Syrian Christians struggle to survive


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    • bilboburgler profile image

      bilboburgler 5 years ago from Europe

      Some pretty confused information here.

      1) The Middle East is a whole bunch of countries each with their own problems

      2) While the people who left Iraq for Syria were initially welcomed with open arms (of all faiths), the shear numbers, more than 10% of population, so swamped Syria that they had to impose work restrictions (on all faiths), 3) unemployment in Syria has been a long term problem before these arrivals. In fact employment is such a key to calming countries down that one is amazed the USA army does not have an Emplyment Division :-)

      4) Within the many version of Islam in Syria there is a basic principles that leading people's faith away from Islam is crime, effectively you are destroying their soul. Hence evangilism is banned.

      5) In the present conflict the Syrian ruling religion is a weired version of Islam, around it it has gathered the Christians and carried out some nasty actions to ensure that many christians fear the Islamic population rather than the President. In my time in Syria Christians would welcome us and report our movements to the secret police more than the Muslims.

      I think that fits in with most of the info above from Syrians.

      Just a bit more history the main Mosque in Damascus was originally a Roman temple, taken by Christians (as it became the official religion of the Roman Empire) it stayed there until the Muslims arrived, who then bought it (yes with money) from the Christians. As a result it has some of the few sets of pictures of people, animals and buildings in a mosque in the world despite it is the third most important mosque in the world.

      It is a pity the Jews left in the 70s

      Keep a faith.

    • Ms Dee profile image

      Deidre Shelden 5 years ago from Texas, USA

      Gabriel, thank you for these updated facts! That certainly is eye opening that at least one third of the people in Syria are Christians. I can understand the Christians being on the side of the regime when something even worse for them would replace it. I have seen revolts instigated by outsiders in other parts of the world so can believe what you have witnessed in Syria.

    • profile image

      Gabriel Nseir 5 years ago

      Hi to all....and thanks for bringing this article to life.

      I have to add some information I am originally Syrian. Firstly being Syrian, it will be a crime saying that I have Arbian roots, because Syrians are not Arabians...Syrians are Arameans, Assyrians...which has nothing to do with Arabs. Secondly all the stadistics that says that there is only 10% of christians in Syria is totally wrong...right now in Syria, without counting the Syrians who are living abroad, and have another about no less than 30% to 34% of the population...In Brasil only there are 8 million of Syrians...which over 80% of those Syrian-Brazilians are you can imagine, in the rest of South America, and North..then Europe and Australia.

      I was there when this fake revolt started...and I saw with my own eyes what was happening...but one thing for sure I can assure you is that 99% of the christians of Syria are totally with the regime...atleast for now..but against of that fake islamic revolt.

    • Betty Johansen profile image

      Betty Johansen 6 years ago

      History is fascinating! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and insight on Syria. We surely have much for which to be grateful in this country. And MUCH to pray about for the folks in other countries.

    • profile image

      exjwlaurie 6 years ago

      Ms Dee, you have done an awesome job bringing light to this story. I only began to study about this yesterday--and here you have written such a thoughtful and concise explanation for us to understand better the plight of these Christians in Syria.

      Awesome job! And thank you for sharing this with us!

    • Ms Dee profile image

      Deidre Shelden 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      Wonderful response and feedback from you, prairieprincess! I join you in your prayers for Syrian Christians. Learning some of the history behind the current events has helped me understand better what is now happening and I'm glad you benefited from it, too.

    • prairieprincess profile image

      Sharilee Swaity 6 years ago from Canada

      Bless you, and thank you so much for writing this. Our pastor told us a few weeks ago, that he had some missionary friends in Syria that were getting nervous about what is happening in Syria, and we prayed for the country. I did not know all of this historical background, and it's really good to know.

      Thank you, too, for this is a reminder to pray for our brothers and sisters, and to be grateful for peace in our country. God be with you!