“A reconciliation with these Muslims, who wake up one day and simply strip away what little you have—never!” starkly pronounced to French Catholic aid worker Alexandre Goodarzy his future Syrian Christian wife. Such experiences with Syrian Christians in his newly-translated memoir, Kidnapped in Iraq: A Christian Humanitarian Tells His Story, indicate the centuries of oppression Middle East Christians have experienced living under Muslim domination.
As previously discussed, Goodarzy’s years of experience in Syria and the wider Middle East serving SOS Chretiéns d’Orient serve to debunk any naivete about a democratic “Arab Spring” emerging from the Middle East’s post-2011 upheavals. Jihadists, not moderate democrats, dominated the rebellion against Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, one member of Syria’s Christian minority told Goodarzy. Thus, “if they win, they’ll try to force ‘conversion’ and the mosque on every last one of us.”
Syria’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, viewed as heretical by many among the Sunni Muslim majority in Syria and the wider Middle East, formed the domestic base of Assad’s regime. Sunni jihadist rage therefore targeted both Alawites and Christians, Goodarzy noted:
When the Muslims would leave their mosques on Fridays, some of them would shout out through megaphones, ‘Alawites in the tomb and Christians in Beirut!’, and then ‘Widen the Alawites’ graves—throw in the Christians too!’
Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Mosul, indicated during a 2017 lecture tour in France that many Muslims in the Middle East shared such sentiments. Discussing the Islamic State takeover of Mosul in 2014 at a conference, an attendee asked Daoud “if any Muslims had helped him and his fellow Christians during the war,” Goodarzy notes. Daoud’s “direct answer made the whole audience laugh,” Goodarzy recalls:
“Yes! Those who hadn’t read the Koran.” The implication, of course, is that “well-informed” Muslims whose allegiances are not tempered or held in check are intrinsically inimical to Christianity.
One Christian in Maaloula, Syria, explained to Goodarzy how Christians have become accustomed to conflict among Muslims in the region. After civil war fractured Syria in 2011, local Christians “didn’t want to get involved, and we kept out of it as long as possible,” the Christian stated. For Christians living among rival Middle Eastern Muslim groups, “after centuries of their conflicts, we are just plain tired of getting caught in the crossfires in these endless confrontations between Muslims and other Muslims.”
Such conflict and oppression had taken its toll over time on a Christian community that had once formed a majority in the Levant. Before the seventh-century Islamic conquests, Syria “had even been the ultimate Christian country. Saul, the persecutor of Christians and the future St. Paul, was touched by Christ’s grace on the road to Damascus,” Goodarzy writes. In Antioch, the “first church was built, and here the name Christian came into being.”
Then came a succession of Muslim rulers, who subjugated Christians as dhimmis with burdens such as the jizya poll tax. “Each Christian generation only found peace among the Muslims in the eventual lull that followed the militant clashes of each new empire or caliphate,” Goodarzy writes. The jizya
would become heavier and heavier, eventually forcing Christians to be converted to Islam or to be exiled. As the centuries passed, each new Muslim conquest would intensify the conversion of countries to Islam. Proportionally, true Christians reacquainted themselves with dwindling numbers, dhimmitude, slavery, persecutions, and martyrdom.
This continual erasure of Christianity represents, however, in many ways a self-inflicted wound for the region’s Muslims. “Our society needs Christians,” Jean-Clément Jeanbart, the archbishop of Aleppo in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, stated in September 2016, Goodarzy notes. Christians “selflessly work to have people live in harmony, to accept each other. Here, Christians have often been at the leading edge of medicine, science, and town planning, in particular,” Jeanbart said. Another Syria Orthodox priest explained to Goodarzy how simplistic claims of a medieval Muslim age are. “Our people brought knowledge and literature to the conquering Arabs, which led to a golden age, but they have credited themselves with that contribution to civilization,” the priest said.
This longstanding Christian battle for survival in Syria and the broader Middle East makes understandable the realpolitik alliance that has often existed between Christians and dictators such as the Assad dynasty. As the next article in this series will explore, for Christians and other minorities at least, dictators, however infamous, are often the least of political evils in the region.