Standing guard

Thousands of Syrian Christians persecuted by Islamist rebels have fled the country that they’ve inhabited for 2,000 years. But some are starting to fight back, Balint Szlanko writes

Afran Danho of Al Malikiyah volunteers four times a month with one of the Christian neighbourhood militia groups that have formed across Al Hasakah province in north-east Syria. Achilleas Zavallis
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Sitting on plastic chairs outside a wooden caravan by a dusty road on the town’s outskirts, two young men balance AK-47 rifles on their knees. Every now and then, cars or motorcycles chug down the dirt road; recognising their drivers, they mostly just wave them through. But sometimes they get up, check ID cards, study the faces of passengers, ask questions, peek into the boot.

Civilian-clothed and rather harmless-looking, the two young volunteers are manning a checkpoint on the edge of the town of Al Malikiyah, not far from the front line of a year-long war between the emerging Kurdish autonomy of north-eastern Syria and Islamist militants, some of them linked to Al Qaeda. “It’s our country, so we have a duty to protect it,” says the 20-year-old Rami. “Dangers? Sure there are dangers. But we don’t care.”

There are plenty of checkpoints round these parts. But these youngsters come from Syria’s Christian minority, who have so far been featured in the news mostly as victims in an increasingly vicious and sectarian civil war. Forming about 8 per cent of the country’s population, or some 1.7 million people, they have struggled to find their place in a country that is home to a conflict involving Sunni Arab rebels, extreme Islamist groups, the Assad dictatorship and an expanding Kurdish nationalist movement. Many have given up: some 450,000 Christians have left their homes in two and a half years, according to the patriarch of the country’s Greek Catholic Church, many of them to Europe. Many have been kidnapped by armed groups of one faction or another; their once-thriving community in Aleppo, formerly the country’s commercial capital and now a war zone, has been destroyed. Having long secured a relatively good deal under the Assads’ minority regime, they are now left with practically nothing, the weakest group in a brutal civil war. Many think they may be going the way of their brethren in Iraq, about half of whom left the country due to the war there.

But some have decided to resist, forming their own neighbourhood watches – some call them militias – in the north-east of the country. They are assisting the Kurdish security forces in protecting the area from Islamist rebels; some have joined the Kurds outright, wearing uniforms in their police and militia; many are donating blood and handing out aid; and some have joined forces with their Muslim neighbours to rebuild some of the churches that have been damaged in the brutal to and fro of the civil war. “Leaving is wrong,” says Rami of those who have fled. “This is our country. If we leave, who is going to protect it?”

Rami and his friend Sharbel are good examples of the ambiguous position their community inhabits. Having taken up arms, they are in effect assisting the Kurdish majority of north-eastern Syria to build an autonomous zone amid the chaos of the war. The Kurds used to have the worst deal under the old regime, with many of them stripped of their Syrian citizenship. Now their areas are some of the safest in Syria, and they have just set up a temporary administration. Treading a careful path between the government and the Sunni Arab rebellion that they have little in common with, the Kurds – and the Christians who have joined them – are in effect contributing to the dismemberment of the Syrian state.

Yet these Christian youngsters are no anti-government rebels. They are only helping the Kurds because they are interested in keeping the Islamists out, considering them the biggest threat to their way of life. Even now they are expecting to be called up by the government’s army and, they say, “when the call comes, we’ll go”. But surely they agree that the regime is largely responsible for Syria’s destruction? Not at all.

This view seems to be shared by a great many Christians here. Sitting in his small medical equipment factory in Al Malikiyah, where he employs seven men, Afran Danho offers the most extraordinary conspiracy theories to explain the Christian predicament. “Since 1918, there has been a plot against us to make us leave the Middle East,” he says. “Mainly the Zionists and the European governments are behind this. Why else would they offer us asylum in Europe in such big numbers? Surely not because they like us so much.” Persecution theories like these are commonplace among his people, as is the recollection of the well-documented and widely recognised genocide of Armenians and other Christian groups by the Ottomans in 1915.

Danho is Assyrian, a Christian community that speaks Syriac, which is related to Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. They form a unique community within Syria’s Christians, considering themselves a nation and the original inhabitants of this country. “After a few generations, few will remember their language and their culture. In this way, we are dying out,” he laments, pointing to the evils of emigration. To slow the process, he and some friends are running a Christian self-help organisation – one of many – that donates blood, delivers aid and organises programmes for kids.

Yet their love for their community leads them down some curious paths. Danho says, for example, echoing many other Christians here, that “Syria used to be a paradise before the war. There were never any sectarian problems here, in fact things were getting better all the time.” Many Christians here think that foreign terrorists – Afghans, Chechens, Saudis – are responsible for the war, parroting the government’s line. Few of the country’s formerly oppressed groups would agree with any of this, least of all the region’s new masters, the Kurds.

Danho and many of his fellow Christians also think that government forces will soon return to these areas, from which they withdrew in July 2012. They don’t think the Kurds will come into conflict with them – my Kurdish guides alternately smile and grimace at this – but that there will be a new democratic system, a government of national unity, in which everybody will equally participate: a delusion of extraordinary proportions under Syria’s current circumstances and foreseeable future.

Yet it is not totally surprising: many Christians had a good deal under the Assad regime, working in plush government jobs or owning land. Visiting their neighbourhoods and going to their richly adorned churches – the big Syriac Orthodox church of Al Malikiyah was built only a few years ago with their own money – is like stepping into another world from dusty and downtrodden rural Syria. Nice homes, mostly well-groomed men and women, a better, softer life than was the lot of most Syrians.

But many Kurds say that the brotherhood the Christians now profess to have with them wasn’t always there, just as the much-vaunted communal diversity of Syria disguises some deep fears and distrusts. One Christian armed volunteer doesn’t even recognise one of my Kurdish guides for a fellow Syrian, thinking him Chinese for his vaguely Asiatic features.

“Before the war, the Christians had a good time. The government helped them and did their best to cause problems between them and us,” says a young Kurdish activist and a former student of English at Aleppo University. “They’d tell them we wanted to secede from Syria. Many of the Christians were government informers and took the regime’s side in the 2004 Qamishli uprising,” he adds, referring to the massive Kurdish riots of that year that were violently quelled by the government. “I’m pretty sure that if it comes to war between the regime and us, the Christians will support the regime.”

With some of the Christians arming themselves and government forces still ensconced in the regions biggest city, Qamishli, this is not an entirely theoretical question. There are three Christian neighbourhood watches in the region, uniformed groups with their own light weapons and arrest powers. Two of them are run by the Syriac Union Party (SUP), an organisation that wants nothing to do with the regime. Other Christian groups, such as the Assyrian Democratic Organisation (ADO), oppose the government, too, and have joined the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition umbrella group.

“We are against the regime, but many Christians are afraid of change, of what comes after the regime, of who will rule Syria,” says Akkad Abdul Ahad, a young, smart-looking man of 23, who edits ADO’s newsletter and helps organise its aid effort. That seems fair enough. And some Christians, while at first voicing very pro-government views, later make it clear that they really don’t care that much who is in charge as long as they don’t threaten their physical safety and identity as some of the radical Islamists do.

But with all these armed groups around, the possibility that things could get out of hand can never be discounted. The Christian neighbourhood watch that operates in the city of Qamishli is not under SUP control and has been described by many Christians as being riddled with regime informers and sympathisers. Pictures circulating on social media show the Qamishli group posing with pictures of the dictator Bashar Al Assad and the Syrian government flag. By January this year, they split into a pro-government and an anti-government group. All these Christian militias cooperate with the Kurdish police, running checkpoints and patrolling together. Kurdish commanders say they are relaxed about the Sutoro – the security wing of the SUP – but that wasn’t always the case: a few months ago, when the Sutoro first appeared in Al Malikiyah, the Kurds disarmed them, telling them if they wanted to join the security forces, they were free to join theirs (so far only a very few have). Yet another group, the so-called Syriac Military Council, joined the Kurdish militia on the frontline in its offensives against the Islamists in January.

If these developments give some cause for concern – since Lebanon’s devastating intercommunal war in the 1970s and 1980s the term “Christian militias” has taken on fearsome associations in the Middle East – there is also grounds for hope. The areas controlled by Kurdish forces are some of the most ordered and civilised in Syria right now. The towns and villages away from the front line are peaceful, managed by a single authority, and the economy is chugging along, though prices have skyrocketed. In many towns, there is a reliable electricity supply. This does give opportunity for sectarian coexistence and cooperation, and not just in the domain of security, with its obvious scope for misunderstandings.

One such example is Mahjoub Abdul Ahad, a Christian glassmaker in the town of Ras Al Ayn, 180 kilometres west of Al Malikiyah. Abdul Ahad (no relation to Akkad) and his Sunni Muslim partner Mahmoud are trying to fix the Orthodox church of Mar Tuma (St Thomas). The church’s two towers have been damaged by rockets launched by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), according to Abdul Ahad. Since July, opposition forces, including the FSA and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have been positioned just outside the town, occasionally firing rockets and mortars against it that have left some people dead or injured.

The church’s two crosses came off and are now lying at the bottom of the tower, sadly askew. The dome is riddled with gunfire, as is the gate. The cross inside the church is broken. Many of the windows are shattered, too. “They say they are Muslims, but Islam is not like this,” Abdul Ahad says, shaking his head, referring to the Islamist rebels. Now they are trying to fix the windows, while other people are contributing in different ways. “Some work on the doors, some on the windows, some on other things,” he says, walking about the church, as Mahmoud is trying to pry the broken pieces of glass from the window frame one by one.

“People from all the different communities are helping to try and restore this to its original state,” he says again and again. Only then does it occur to him to point out that his partner, Mahmoud, is Muslim. Is he? Mahmoud puts down his tools and nods. “Before the war, people wouldn’t even say he was a Christian and I was a Muslim. It would have been a shame to say such things. And now I’m coming here and he is helping with the mosques,” he says.

Such cooperation is encouraging. But out of Ras Al Ayn’s nearly 300 Christian families, now only 30 remain. Out of Al Malikiyah’s 1,000 or so, perhaps 300. The new Syriac church’s facade in Al Malikiyah is adorned with the picture of two bishops who disappeared in Aleppo in April. The text reads: “We are praying for their souls.” Some of the Christians are stubbornly resisting the forces that are trying to uproot them from their land: Islamic radicalism, civil war and, to an extent, modernity itself that has left them with a lower birth rate than their poorer Muslim cousins. In some ways, it is a miracle that they’ve survived for so long: 1,400 years since the coming of Islam. But amid the increasing brutality of Syria’s war, and with their community seemingly so split on where to turn, it is difficult to see what can stop their continuing decline.

Balint Szlanko is a freelance journalist with an interest in conflict, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

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