Syria has one of the world's oldest Christian communities. It was the Christian community of Antioch that was the most dynamic in the early phases of Christian expansion and where the very name of "Christian" was first applied as a collective name, while the apostle Paul was converted on the road to Damascus, modern Syria's capital.
Syrian Christians face deadly attacks both by Islamists within the country and by Islamist-affiliated Turkey. Turkey launched multiple attacks against Kurds and Christians in north Syria last November, prompting the NGO Genocide Watch to issue a Genocide Emergency Alert: "These military attacks by Recep Tayyip Erdogan's regime are part of a wider Turkish policy of annihilation of the Kurdish and Assyrian [Christian] people in northern Syria and Iraq. Turkey has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including bombing, shelling, abduction, torture, and extrajudicial killings. The attacks are part of Turkey's genocidal policies towards Kurds, Christians, and Ezidis."
Despite being a NATO member, Turkey has allied with former ISIS, al-Qaida, and Tahrir al-Sham jihadists who "are committing massive human rights abuses and have an agenda to create a caliphate, and they will eradicate the religious minorities in this area," Charmaine Hedding, president of the humanitarian NGO Shai Fund, said during a December webinar covering the Turkish attack. Turkey has conducted three ground operations, which have led to Islamists controlling large areas of northern Syria, human rights violations and mass displacement of religious minorities, including Christians, and destruction of places of worship.
In July 2022, one Christian was killed and six were injured in a drone attack at the consecration of a Greek Orthodox church in Al-Suqaylabiyah, near Hama. The attack was organized by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a U.S.-designated terrorist group and former al-Qaida affiliate.
Syria has been embroiled in a bloody civil war since 2011 that has affected the status of its once flourishing Christian community. In its 2023 Annual Report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that Syria be put on State Department's list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs), the most elevated level of severe violations of religious freedom. Persecution of Christians emanates from the Islamist elements still active in the northern part of the country. Although the situation has stabilized in great parts of the territory, threats against Christians remain. "Christians in Syria still grapple with daily persecution that may become violent, despite the public threat from so-called Islamic State having largely subsided.... Sharing the gospel is very risky, and church buildings have often been completely destroyed. The abduction of church leaders continues to have a considerably negative impact on Christian communities," according to Open Doors, an organization supporting persecuted Christians worldwide.
The most violent persecution of Christians has occurred in the Islamist-ruled northern part of the country where radical Sunni Islamist opposition groups operate with the support of neighboring Turkey. In northern Syria, religious minorities, foremostly Christians, have been persecuted for years by Turkish forces and their affiliated Islamic militias. Vibrant cities like Idlib have seen their Christian population disappear under Islamist rule. The area is controlled by terrorist group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.
But the persecution cannot be solely attributed to Sunni influences. According to Lela Gilbert's forthcoming book Iran's Jesus Revolution, Iran has also taken full advantage of Syria's chronic instability, positioning IRGC troops and its most powerful militias – most notably Hezbollah – inside Syria. And these heavily armed fighters are dangerously close to the borders of Israel, Iran's most hated target. As for Syria's religious interests, Philos Project's "Invisible Jihad" reports,
Syria's importance for Tehran's long-term goal of dominating the Middle East cannot be overstated. Syria has linked the IRGC-QF to its proxy [Hezbollah] in Lebanon through the so-called "land bridge," and it also provides an additional front against Israel... With Assad losing against the popular uprising in 2011, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF) restructured the Syrian Army and created several militias within the Shia Liberation Army (SLA). Iran's massive intervention saved the Assad regime, but the civil war costs were staggering. Approximately 600,000 people were killed, 6.5 million were internally displaced, and 6.6 million people fled across the borders. Christians were disproportionally affected...
The Philos Project's report goes on to say that before 2011 the Christian population of Syria was 2.3 million. By 2022, it was only 677,000. During the devastating Syrian Civil war, President Bashar al-Assad was forced to rely on Iranian help. In earlier years, he had not oppressed his Christian minorities and even appeared to be supportive of them. But when Assad began to utilize Iranians as military advisors to the Syrian army during the war, there was a change of position, and the elimination of Christians became part of the regime's war strategy. Some have reported than Iranian soldiers and the Lebanese Hezbollah wore the uniform of the Assad regime army instead of their own, intentionally disguising their identity, but Syrian Christians recognized who they were by their accents.
In Aleppo, Christians numbered about 150,000 before the war; today there are only 30,000 left. Incidents of persecution of Christians include murders, kidnappings, rapes, forced conversions, and desecration of religious sites. The situation is more stable in the Kurdish-controlled northeastern part of the territory, where Christians can exercise their religious rights freely. After all, in these regions the Christians themselves guaranteed the Kurds' freedom, since they took up arms against ISIS.
The population of Syria was significantly diverse before the war. Sunni Muslims made up 74 percent of the population, 13 percent were Alawites, members of a heterodox Shia sect to which President Bashar al-Assad and the ruling elite belong, while Christians numbered approximately 10 percent. Syria's Christians include Greek Orthodox, Melkite, Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean, Assyrian Church of the East, Evangelical, and other denominations. The conflict has affected Christian communities hard. When the civil war broke out in 2011, the Christian population numbered 2.2 million, forming one of the most vibrant historical communities in the Middle East. Today, after 12 years of war, the Christian population of Syria has dropped substantially to approximately 603,000, about 3.1 percent of a population of 19.4 million, according to the World Christian Database and the Index of Persecution of Christians in Countries Worldwide published by Open Doors. Over the last decade, hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled Syria seeking safety abroad, mostly in Europe, but also in neighboring countries of the Middle East.
The future of Syria's Christians is linked to the end of the ongoing civil war, a prospect still not achievable in the near future but worth striving for.
IPT Senior Fellow Ioannis E. Kotoulas (Ph.D. in History, Ph.D. in Geopolitics) is Adjunct Lecturer in Geopolitics at the University of Athens, Greece. His latest book is Geopolitics of the War in Ukraine.
Copyright © 2023. Investigative Project on Terrorism. All rights reserved.