Tag Archives: religious freedom

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading

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Who are the Chaldeans?

A friend of mine recently met some Chaldeans in Michigan, and as I am his go-to guy for all matters Middle Eastern and Christian, he asked me who they were.  Here is my response, lightly edited for broader publication:

The subject of Chaldean ethnicity is rather complicated.  Basically “Chaldeans” are Catholic Assyrians,” as these two terms get used in modern Iraq.  The connection with the “Assyrians” of the Old Testament (much less the astrologers of Daniel 2) is debatable.

A more detailed answer must be aware of the fact that Christianity in Iraq has almost disappeared as a result of a very difficult past century.  Widespread massacres in 1915 (better known in the West as the Armenian Genocide, although Armenians were not the only targets) killed large numbers and drove them south into the central Iraqi plain.  At the end of World War I, while the victorious Western powers were meeting in Paris, British officers in Iraq encouraged an Assyrian leader named Agha Petros to try to capture a territory for an Assyrian “homeland” and present the victors with a fait accompli; the attempt was disastrous.  The British Mandate government which subsequently ruled Iraq frequently used the Assyrian Christians as a paramilitary force, which made them deeply unpopular with other groups in the area.  After the British pulled out in 1932, the Simele massacres of 1933 further reduced Assyrian numbers and solidified Iraqi national sentiment against the Assyrians.  Many Assyrians emigrated from Iraq in this period.  Those who remained stabilized as a small minority within Iraq, and pressures to abandon the Assyrian neo-Aramaic language in favor of either Arabic or Kurdish have been intermittently very high.  Saddam Hussein was seen by a few (notably Jean-Maurice Fiey before 1973) as more friendly to Christians (his foreign minister Tariq Aziz is a Chaldean Catholic), though his Arab Nationalist Ba’ath party also discouraged the use of Assyrian neo-Aramaic in favor of Arabization.  Assyrians today speak not only of the genocide of 1915, but also of a cultural genocide.  So one must be careful how one addresses the history of an endangered minority.  Nevertheless, history cannot be written to serve present pain.

Most Assyrians emphasize that their ethnic identity has not changed since before the rise of Islam.  So I’ll give you three perspectives: the “traditional” Assyrian view (as forcefully expressed by various Assyrians I have met), the widely held scholarly view, and my compromise.

The “traditional” Assyrian view

Don’t be misled by the label “traditional”; one Orthodox priest used to say that unchanging tradition is whatever your grandmother did.  It need not be older than a century.  But this view says that the ancient Assyrians who ruled much of the Near East from their capital at Nineveh never died out.  Instead they were conquered by the Babylonians (in 612 BCE), the Achaemenid Persians (in the late 500s BCE), Alexander the Great (shortly before 300 BCE), the Parthians (in the 220s BCE), the Romans (briefly in the 110s CE), the Sasanian Persians (in the 230s CE), the Muslim Arabs (in the 630s and 640s), the Mongols (in the mid-13th C), and the Ottomans (in the 1530s).  In the meantime, the apostle Thomas had sent his disciple Addai to Edessa (modern Urfa in SE Turkey), and Addai in turn sent his disciple Mari to Seleucia and Ctesiphon, the capitals of the Persian Empire.  They converted the Assyrians among various other peoples, and although they used Syriac in the churches, they continued to speak Assyrian neo-Aramaic.  Assyrians practiced Christianity in large numbers and flourished in the plain around Mosul (founded across the Tigris river from ancient Nineveh), until at the end of the 14th C Timur Lenk (“Tamerlane”) conquered the region and slaughtered them, and many of them retreated to the mountains to the north.  (In the 16th C, many of those left in the plains adopted Catholicism and became “Chaldeans.”)  The “Mountain Nestorians” were the target of American and British missionary ventures in the 19th C, and during the sufferings of the twentieth century, those who could fled to the West (especially Chicago, Stockholm, and Melbourne, but also London, Detroit area, and other places).  Thus they are the ancient Assyrians, who recently have suffered genocide and cultural extermination.

The “standard” scholarly view

A few scholars accept the “traditional” Assyrian view, but most do not.  The skeptics point out that when the American missionaries traveled to the “Mountain Nestorians” in the 1830s and 1840s, they claimed to be the ten lost tribes of Israel!  On the most common view, the term “Chaldean” was not used within this community before the 1700s, being translated from the Latin.  The first use of the term “Chaldean” to refer to a contemporary community since antiquity was in 1445, when a branch of the Church of the East in Cyprus submitted to the Papacy and was called “Chaldean”.  The merger didn’t last long, but in 1553 a monk from northern Iraq traveled to Rome to ask to be appointed “Patriarch of Babylon,” and he and those who followed him were termed Chaldeans in Latin.  In Renaissance Europe, the main dialect of Aramaic which was studied was the one in Daniel 2 (and other biblical texts), which was termed “Chaldean” due to the fact that in the text it is the Chaldeans who first speak it to Nebuchadnezzar.  So when Christians from northern Iraq showed up speaking a (rather different) dialect of Aramaic, they were labeled “Chaldeans”.  The term “Assyrian,” it is claimed, was not used for a contemporary community until the English adventurer/archaeologist (Indiana Jones type) Henry Layard discovered the ruins of ancient Nineveh across from the city of Mosul.  In light of 19th C European theories of racial fixedness and physiognomy, Layard and other Brits after him declared that the Christians of the area were clearly “Assyrians,” from their facial resemblance to the stone reliefs which colonial antiquities collectors were busy bringing back to the British Museum in London.  In the second half of the 19th C, the term “Assyrian” was adopted by the community itself as an importation of European nationalism in order to argue for their right to political autonomy against the Ottoman Empire (just as the Greeks had done earlier).  With the genocide in the early 20th C and the 1933 massacres, ethnic identity assumed primacy over religious identity within this community, especially as they continued (whether still in Iraq or now in the West) to lobby for political autonomy using European terms.  Thus there is no continuity between the ancient Assyrians and the modern Assyrians.

My views

There are various mediating positions which scholars adopt between the extreme view just summarized and the “traditional” view.  A few details: the term “Assyrian” was known and used before 1840, in various centuries.  For example, the 2nd C Christian author Tatian identified himself in Greek as “Assyrios.”  The Armenians used “Asoristan” (the “land of the Assyrians”) straight through the medieval period, and also (though less commonly, perhaps) used the group name “Asorik’.”  The Syriac terms “Athor” (a place) and “Athoraya” (a person from that place) were very rarely used from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.  Additional citations can be found on the Wikipedia page “Assyrian Continuity“.

The difficulty is that proponents of Assyrian continuity typically fail to ask the question what “Assyrian” means in different contexts, but assume its meaning is unchanging.  What Tatian meant, I am not sure, but probably appealed to a Mesopotamian birth (and not all Mesopotamians are or were “Assyrians” in the modern sense).  The eleventh-century Greek historian Michael Attaleiates termed one person an “Assyrios” on account of his having been born in Antioch in Syria, not in Mesopotamia at all.  The Armenian “Asuristan” is clearly a designation for Iraqi Mesopotamia as distinct from “Mijaget” (“Mesopotamia”), which was used for upper Mesopotamia in what is now Syria and Turkey, and “Sham” (Syria southwest of the Euphrates).  The Syriac “Athor” refers to the region around Mosul in northern Iraq, and “Athoraya” refers exclusively to someone from that small region, not to any of the people in other regions (such as the mountains of Kurdistan or Hakkari, or the plain west of the Lake Urmia in NW Iran) whose descendants now call themselves “Assyrians.”  So some memory of Mosul as the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire seems to have survived.

But pre-modern Middle Easterners did not use ethnic names for enduring descent groups, as became popular in modern Europe.  So “ethnic” labels such as “Assyrian” should be understood with reference to places, languages, or religious groups.  (Indeed, the “ethnic” term preferred by 17th C poets who would later be called “Assyrians” was not “Athoraye” but “Suraye” – i.e. Syriac speakers.)  Given the American missionaries’ reports that the “Mountain Nestorians” in the 1830s believed they were the ten lost tribes of Israel, it seems likely that leaders in the community were willing to adopt whatever “ethnic” label would be most advantageous, and one can hardly blame them in light of their subsequent sufferings.  Thus it is simply false to say that there has always been a well-defined ethnic group known as the “Assyrians” to themselves and to others, who preserved the cultural identity of Sargon and Sennacherib and the ancient Assyrian Empire.

On the other hand, it is certainly true that the ancient Assyrians were not exterminated, so the modern Assyrians are probably descendants of the ancient Assyrians.  But the ancient Assyrians are not known to have practiced strict endogamy, so they certainly intermarried with newcomers in the form of Israelite captives, Kurds, Persian conquerors, a small group of Greek invaders, Armenians, Arabs, and finally Turks.  Just as my own “northwestern European” cocktail of ancestry is not distinctively French, English, German, or Irish, much less any specific tribe in any of these areas, so modern Assyrians can count their ancestors from many different groups.  Modern Assyrian culture is probably also a continuous development from ancient Assyrian culture, but again not exclusively, as their Aramaic dialects absorbed words of Persian (in at least two waves), Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish.  So ancient Assyrian culture would be as unrecognizable to modern Assyrians as painting oneself blue is to modern Brits.  In the 15th C, the Church of the East still thought of itself as a universal church, and identified several ethnic labels within its ranks.

But as Christians in the Hakkari Mountains and Iraq encountered European ideas of ethnic persistence and self-determination, they cast about for which ethnicity they could claim, and “Assyrian” seemed a sensible choice which was close to hand.  The problem is that those European ideas of ethnic persistence and physiognomy are demonstrably wrong, and yet ethnic essentialism persists among Middle Eastern Christians still hoping in vain for Western world leadership to live up to Western political ideals of national autonomy and self-determination.

You can see why it’s a sensitive topic.  But the short answer is that “Chaldeans” are Catholic “Assyrians.”

A Middle Eastern Perspective on Evangelii Gaudium

Today I read a commentary by Fr. Samir Khalil Samir on the sections regarding Islam in Pope Francis‘s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium from last November.  Fr. Samir is a well-regarded scholar of Muslim-Christian relations and Islamic Studies, as well as a Jesuit from Egypt.  As usual, I do not agree with everything he says about Islam, but he does have more experience than most people in actual inter-religious dialogue.  It is necessary to warn that the summary at the top just under the title significantly skews the balance of Fr. Samir’s remarks as a whole, so do not judge the whole based solely on the abstract.  I link to the article here as a thought-provoking perspective.

Louis Sako on Middle Eastern Christians

A few days ago the Telegraph ran an opinion piece by Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon.  Patriarch Sako is an Iraqi with a long history of calling for peace and dialogue in his country.  In this piece, he argues that just as Christianity contributed to Islam in the first centuries of the new religion, so it must learn how to do so again, that Middle Eastern Christians should refuse to emigrate from the Middle East, and that other countries should apply pressure to Middle Eastern countries to ensure that Middle Eastern Christians are not merely a tolerated minority, but citizens with full equality under the law.  It is an interesting piece and well worth reading.

Unfortunately many western readers may not be aware of the degree of the crisis that Middle Eastern Christianity is experiencing, and therefore Patriarch Sako’s points may sound like special pleading.  In part this is due to the human tendency to simplify for the sake of memory, and therefore the Middle East is (mis-)remembered as entirely Muslim for at least a millennium, if not since Muhammad himself.  An article I currently have under review reveals something of how mistaken this is for the case of Syria and Palestine, where even a millennium ago the rural population seems to have been almost entirely non-Muslim, and since in pre-industrial agrarian societies rural populations necessarily dwarfed urban populations, this means that the Muslims were a small portion of the population in the area we now know as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.  When did Islam become not only the religion of the rulers but also the religion of most of the subjects in the Middle East?  The answer must vary for different areas, but scholars presently have no plausible answer.  In the case of Syria and Palestine, I would guess it was after the Crusader period, into the thirteenth or fourteenth century.  In the case of Lebanon, it was in the early twentieth century.  There were still Christian bishops in Arabia in the tenth century (despite the rumor that Muhammad expelled all Christians from the peninsula).  Certain areas of Iraqi Kurdistan are still majority or exclusively Christian, although those areas are smaller and more remote with each passing decade.

One interesting statistic which Patriarch Sako cites is that 850,000 Iraqi Christians have left the country since the US invasion in 2003, which is over half of the Christian population in Iraq before the war.  When Patriarch Sako was born Christians were 10% of the Iraqi population, while today it must be around 2% (=(1,500,000-850,000)/31,234,000).  A similar trend happened slightly earlier in Palestine over the course of the last 90 years, and is ongoing with the Christian populations of Syria and Egypt.  When I was in Aleppo three years ago (before the current violence), I met an Iraqi Christian who was trying to get to Toronto.  The Middle Eastern Christian population is being erased culturally, historically, and demographically.

And yet, it is easy to understand why Christians leave the Middle East.  Extremist groups kill Christians because they view Middle Eastern Christians as foreign agents and illegitimate members of Islamic society, a view which is alien to historical Islam.  On the other hand, the dominant view of traditional Muslim legal authorities, that Jews and Christians should be tolerated as long as they pay an extra tax and never do anything to imply that their religion is better than Islam (such as riding a horse or ringing a church bell), has always left non-Muslim populations vulnerable to violence by extremists.  After Muslim Brotherhood supporters torched dozens of Coptic churches last August, the Coptic authorities again pointed out that they do not have equal or adequate protection from the Egyptian police.  That is why Patriarch Sako is calling not merely for Christians to be viewed as a “tolerated minority,” but as full citizens with equality before the law.  But when the law is not doing its job, finding a less dangerous place to live is fully understandable, even as it makes matters that much more difficult for those left behind.

What distresses me is the degree to which non-Middle-Easterners often unwittingly, through sheer ignorance, adopt the new xenophobic viewpoint of the extremists and consider Middle Eastern Christians as some kind of outsiders in Middle Eastern society.  They were part of that society long before Islam, and have never ceased to be a part of that society.  Indeed, Middle Eastern society is more dominantly Islamic now than at any point in the past.  And yet most educated people in the West are completely unaware of this past, and even historians with their over-developed desire to distinguish between terms still regard “Middle Eastern history” and “Islamic history” as fully synonymous.  (Neither is a subset of the other, for not only have non-Muslims always been a large portion of Middle Eastern society, but there are more Muslims outside the Middle East than in it, since Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country.)  I think progress toward a more inclusive and peaceful Middle Eastern society will be made when people recognize that that society has always been more diverse than today’s propagandists of whatever stripe would have us believe.

Why does the Muslim Brotherhood Hate the Copts?

In retaliation for the government crackdown on the protest camps ten days ago in Cairo, supporters of ousted president Muhammad Mursi attacked government buildings and over a dozen churches (one source says as many as 80) belonging to Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.  This leads to the question, why were Coptic religious sites targeted by certain members of the Muslim Brotherhood?

This question is intermittently raised by the Anglophone news media I have read, but the answers provided seem to me unsatisfactory.  It is usually explained as irrational violence toward a vulnerable minority, end of story.  But I think this question is a very important one to answer for Egypt today.  In attempting to understand the reasons for these attacks, I am not in any way legitimizing violence.  I am merely rejecting the comforting fiction that mob violence is irrational and incomprehensible, which we repeat in order to reassure ourselves that “we” are superior to “them” and perhaps there’s nothing we can really do about “that” anyway.  Instead, as Natalie Zemon Davis demonstrated long ago with regard to religious violence in 16th century France, violent mobs have a logic of their own.

But let’s be clear on what the question is first.  Who is doing the arson?  Certainly not all Egyptians, nor all Egyptian Muslims, as some photos on Twitter showed lines of Muslims defending Coptic churches.  Not even all Mursi supporters or members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who number at least tens of thousands, went about torching churches.  It’s more than a handful, but fewer than the majority.  Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood officially condemned the attacks in two news posts to its English-language website (here and here).

On the other hand, these condemnations were first issued very late at night on Thursday 15 August, while the attacks happened on Wednesday 14 August, so the Brotherhood took its own sweet time to condemn the arson.  In the meantime, a Facebook page which claims to belong to the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party) in the Cairo suburb of Helwan posted on Wednesday evening an inflammatory justification for attacks on churches (translated from Arabic in the second screenshot on this Coptic webpage, but reported sufficiently elsewhere to confirm that this is not made up):

The Pope of the [Coptic] Church participates in deposing the first Islamic president elected.  The Pope of the Church accuses the Islamic shari’a law of backwardness, inflexibility, and reactionism.  The Pope of the Church uses Black Block groups to stir up chaos, to block roads, to besiege mosques and to take them by storm.  The Pope of the Church mobilizes the Copts in the 6/30 demonstrations to bring down the Islamic president.  The Pope of the Church objects to the articles of Islamic identity [in the Constitution] and withdraws from the Constituent Assembly for the Constitution.  The Pope of the Church is the first to respond to al-Sisi’s call to authorize him with the killing of Muslims, and the result of that mandate was the slaughter today of more than 500 killed.  The Pope of the Church sends a memo to the present Assembly to abolish the articles of shari’a.

After all this, people, you ask, “Why are they burning the churches?”  A hint: burning places of worship is a crime, but that the Church should wage war against Islam and against Muslims is a greater crime.  For every action there is a reaction.

The second condemnation on the MB’s English site refers to this and alleges that these sentiments have nothing to do with the party itself:

Currently, there are false Twitter and Facebook accounts in the name of the Freedom and Justice Party publishing justifications for the burning of churches.

Since the Muslim Brotherhood is widely accused by its critics of talking out of both sides of its mouth, it is plausible to many that the English condemnations are intended for an international audience, while the Arabic list of grievances on Facebook were intended for an Egyptian rank and file.  While every mention of Copts on the English website is positive, referring to Mursi’s alleged attempts to include Copts in the Egyptian government and a Coptic presence in the pro-Mursi sit-ins recently broken up in Cairo, the Arabic page tells a different story.

It is striking to me that the English condemnations are very different in Arabic on the Brotherhood’s Arabic page (starting with a different MB representative condemning the attacks in the different languages).  The later article is closer to the English condemnations: “Based on our Hanafi law and by application of our principles which cannot be divided, we condemn with all our might any assault, even in speech, against the churches and properties of the Copts.”  The earlier Arabic article condemns “violence against mosques, churches, or state institutions.”  While the article then reiterates that “all citizens” condemn “violence against churches and state institutions,” it goes into greater length regarding the specific source of outrage: “Likewise [the MB spokesman] condemned emphatically and with all his might the burning of any of the houses of Allah, such as happened in the Rabi’a al-‘Adawiya mosque, adding, ‘Those who commit wrong will know what fate they will meet'” [Qur’an 26:227].

So what do these reveal?  The later Arabic condemnation of the attacks on churches asserts MB’s integrity (“our principles which cannot be divided”), but it is indisputable that Hanafis (a variety of Sunni Islam) have in fact participated at various times in history in riots against Coptic Christians, so it is not clear what appeal to Hanafi integrity accomplishes.  The earlier Arabic condemnation of the violence barely refers to the attacks on Coptic Christians, instead raising anger at the state’s crackdown on the main pro-Mursi sit-in.  The second English condemnation by the Brotherhood would have us believe that the Facebook message condoning burning churches has nothing to do with them, but “are attempts to ignite sectarian divisions to distract everyone from the real issue,” which is presumably the military coup which deposed Mursi.

Whether the incendiary Facebook message was part of a central Muslim Brotherhood plan to have their cake and eat it too, or whether it represents the views only of certain more violent or perhaps less savvy members of the MB, it was most likely posted by a disgruntled Mursi sympathizer.  It seems to present an argument that burning churches is okay because all churches belong to the Coptic Pope, who is somehow responsible for the government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.  The final line seems to imply both an inevitability of the attacks on Coptic churches and the accusation that the Copts started it.  The take-away message seems to be that the Copts brought this violence upon themselves.

The particular complaints primarily revolve around the ouster of President Muhammad Mursi.  Copts were certainly not the majority of those who protested against Mursi on 30 June, nor was Pope Tawadros II the only religious leader depicted in al-Sisi’s televised announcement of Mursi’s ouster (Ahmad Muhammad Ahmad al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Sunni religious leader, also supported the ouster).  Pope Tawadros II was also not the only member of the Constituent Assembly to boycott the deliberations over allegations that the Islamists were pushing through an Islamist constitution – liberals and secular Muslims also protested and withdrew from the Assembly.  Whether Pope Tawadros II was the first to respond positively to al-Sisi’s request for a popular mandate to respond forcefully to the Muslim Brotherhood seems irrelevant to me, since his support was hardly the most significant, and the allegation of the Coptic Pope employing the army (“black-block groups”) to besiege mosques also seems to presume a far greater level of Coptic influence in Egypt than seems remotely plausible to non-Islamists.

On the other hand, perhaps the very identifiability of Copts as a subgroup with public institutions in the form of churches makes them more vulnerable.  The Muslim Brotherhood cannot very well attack the Grand Imam of al-Azhar without losing its credibility as the voice of Sunni Islam.  While Muslim Brotherhood preachers can fulminate against liberals and secularists among Muslims, those groups do not have publicly-known headquarters or separate mosques which could be targeted.  Coptic Christians, however, are a small portion of the population and do have public buildings which can be destroyed.

Of course, the particular conflict over the ouster of Muhammad Mursi should not obscure the fact that many of these attacks may be simultaneously motivated by more local concerns.  A rivalry between two neighboring businesses means one thing if both are owned by members of the same group, but when one is owned by a Muslim and another by a Copt, then the rivalry is a potential site for religious strife as well.  Or a neighbor who does something which inconveniences other neighbors can take on a religious dimension if there is an identified religious difference.

One aspect of the recent violence against Coptic Christians cannot be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood, however, and that is the lack of protection of minorities by state institutions such as the army and the police.  Attacks against Coptic Christians increased towards the end of Hosni Mubarak‘s presidency, and have progressively increased with each successive twist and turn of Egypt’s revolution, under the army generals who replaced Mubarak, under Mursi who replaced them, and now under the army-appointed civilian government which has replaced Mursi.  In each case, complaints arose that the police did not take steps to prevent or repel the attacks, often only arriving at the site hours after being called.  This official non-protection of the Coptic minority cannot be blamed on Mursi or the Muslim Brotherhood, since the police were one of the government sectors which resisted Mursi’s control.  Instead, as pointed out by an article on al-Jazeera, the lack of public protection for Copts is a “decades-old problem.”

In the slug-fight between the Egyptian army under al-Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no question that the army can win the physical battles.  This is already appearing in the muted response to calls for public protests in support of the Muslim Brotherhood last Friday.  On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood survived under decades of repression before being legalized in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.  Whether the army can ultimately defeat the Muslim Brotherhood will depend on who does a better job at the war of words and public opinion.  But if one side is actively targeting Coptic institutions and the other is unwilling to defend them, life will only grow more difficult for the minority.

Syriac Christians Between Syria and Turkey

Yesterday the BBC Magazine ran an interesting article on Abuna Yuqin (“Fr. Joachim”) Unval’s effort to restore the monastery of Mor Awgin above the city of Nusaybin on the Turkish border with Syria, and his response to Syriac Christian refugees escaping into Turkey from the Syrian Civil War.

As usual when popular news media speaks on something that I know something about, I liked it, but I kept saying, “But there’s also…” and “But what about…”  (No doubt the reason I do academic writing rather than journalistic writing is that I cannot get to the point fast enough for a wide readership.)  So I thought here I would give a little wider context to this story, from my perspective as an outside expert.

It is probably worth mentioning that Abuna Yuqin’s denomination is the same as Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, one of the two abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo.

We perhaps think of monasteries as communities of monks, but the reason Abuna Yuqin is the only monk mentioned in the article is that he is the only monk at this monastery.  Restoring a monastery is not easy work, and he needs to prove that it is viable to support a monastery in this environment by attracting both additional monks and sufficient donations.

The “distinctive black cap of his Syriac Orthodox habit” has two panels on the top of the head, with between them thirteen ornate crosses (which from some angles look almost like stars).  I have been told by several monks that these crosses represent Christ and the twelve apostles.  It turns out that it is hard to find a picture of it online or in my own photos (I usually photograph the front of monks rather than their backs), but it is similar to the “koulla” of Coptic monks (depicted here).

The village he refers to is not Nusaybin, the nearest large city, but probably Eskihisar.  Eskihisar formerly had a large Syriac Christian population before 1951, and the ancient village is known in Syriac texts as M’arre or M’arrin (“caves”).  It is frequently linked to the monastery of Mor Awgin in historical texts.  As of a few years ago, the village was entirely Kurdish, so if Syriac Christians are moving back into the village, that is a very significant development.

It is not actually too surprising for Syriac monks to be grateful to Yezidis.  It is true that Yezidis are widely labeled “devil-worshippers” by Muslims and Christians alike, due to their high veneration of Mal’ak Ta’us (“the peacock angel”); the stories they tell of Mal’ak Ta’us closely resemble tales told of Iblis/Shaytan (Satan) in Islam.  On the other hand, Yezidis do not accept converts, and are therefore not a religious threat to other groups, and since at least the nineteenth century Christians and Yezidis have sometimes helped each other in the face of antagonism from the larger populations of Sunni Arabs or Sunni Kurds.  When I visited Dayr al-Za’faran in April 2012, a Yezidi dressed all in white was sitting and chatting beside a Syriac monk dressed all in black, and the two made a wonderful image.  I wish I had a photo of it.

As to “Syriac Christianity dates back to the third century,” we don’t really know its origins.  In fact a Christian community is probably earliest attested in the city of Nusaybin (ancient Nisibis), on the plain below Mor Awgin monastery, in the Aberkios inscription (in Greek) in the mid-second century, although it is only implicit.  The oldest Syriac Christian texts may be the Odes of Solomon, which are variously dated to the first – third centuries (and are rather strange).  Syriac Christians themselves tell the story of how King Abgar of the city of Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey) corresponded with Jesus, who after his resurrection sent Addai/Thaddeus to miraculously heal the king and convert his city already in the first century.  This legend was already rejected in the west by Pope Gelasius in 495.

On the subject of Syriac Christian foundation legends, the story of Mor Awgin as narrated by Abuna Yuqin, that he was a pearl diver who brought the Egyptian monasticism to Syria, is probably a fifth-century fabrication.  It is true that Mor Awgin monastery is really old, but we do not know when it was founded, and it probably is not the oldest.  Syriac Christianity had earlier non-cenobitic forms of asceticism which congealed into cenobitic monasteries in the early fifth century.

Abuna Yuqin also mis-speaks when he says, “We want our brothers to come back from Syria. Most of them fled there during the First World War.”  It is true that large numbers of Christians fled Tur Abdin during World War I as a result of the massacres.  The same massacres which targeted Armenians in eastern Turkey and are therefore known in the West as the Armenian Genocide also targeted Syriac Christians and some Kurds.  Syrian Orthodox Christians refer to those massacres as Sayfo (“the sword”), while the Church of the East calls it the “Assyrian Genocide.”  The survivors of the Syrian Orthodox community of Edessa (modern Urfa) made their way to Aleppo in northern Syria, and are regarded as a distinct community within their own denomination there, with their own traditions of church music and their own carefully guarded manuscript collection.  On the other hand, most of the Syriac Christians within Syria have been there for generations before World War I.  It is very true that the border between Turkey and Syria is artificial, created by European powers to reflect colonial interests (France wanted Syria), and it is equally true that throughout their long history, Syriac Christians have often moved from one region to another if they suspected a different government would be more favorable to them.  They escaped to French Syria from the Sayfo, and now some are escaping back to Turkey from the Syrian Civil War, just as in the Middle Ages they escaped into or out of Byzantine territory depending on the attitude of the Emperor in Constantinople.

My biggest criticism of the BBC article is how it smooths out conflicts with the Turkish government.  On the one hand, when I was in Mardin for a Syriac conference in 2012, I myself heard the governor of Mardin province and the president of the new Mardin Artuklu University (named after a 14th C dynasty which ruled Mardin) publicly call for Syriac Christians to return to the Tur Abdin region.  And since the governor was part of the ruling AKP party, he probably could not have said those things without the permission of Prime Minister Erdoğan.  This call for Syriac Christian immigration surprised me at the time, as it surprises the author of this BBC article.

But this call has a context.  The theme of the conference was Syriac Christianity and cultural diversity, and among the groups acknowledged in the opening remarks to have lived in that region were Turks, Arabs, Kurds, and Syriac Christians.  There was conspicuously no mention of Armenians, who also lived in Mardin and nearby Diyarbakır until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The BBC article mentions heavy government investment in dams in the region, but does not mention the forced resettling of the Kurdish population whose villages will now be underwater.  I visited Hasankeyf, an ancient city on the Tigris, and Kurdish children came up to me and said in English, “Please tell the government not to destroy our homes.”  They were handing out pamphlets to tourists trying to prevent the government from destroying Hasankeyf in the project to build the Ilısu Dam.  The Syrian Orthodox have had their share of harassment: one of the two most important Syrian Orthodox monasteries in Tur Abdin is Mor Gabriel outside Midyat, which has lost property to government expropriation.

(A funny linguistic aside: the road signs to Mor Gabriel do not refer to it by that name, but by the name Deyr-Ül Umur Manastırı.  When I visited, I asked why this was called “Umar’s Monastery,” and I was informed that the “Umur” represents the Syriac ‘umro (“monastery, habitation”), which has been prefixed with the Arabic dayr al- (“monastery of the”), to which has been added the Turkish word manastırı (“monastery”) borrowed from a European language.  So the Turkish name for the place translates from three languages into “The monastery of the monastery of the monastery.”  I think that’s just awesome.)

So what is the government in Ankara doing supporting the opening of Mor Awgin monastery above Nusaybin and calling on Syriac Christians to come “back” to Tur Abdin?  As it was explained to me in Mardin by another foreigner visiting the city, the government knows that even if all the Syriac Christians come back to Tur Abdin, they will still be only a small minority, and therefore not a challenge.  In contrast, the larger Armenian diaspora is making political trouble for Turkey by calling Western governments to recognize the Armenian genocide.  The Kurdish majority of this region is also making international headlines complaining of Turkish nationalist discrimination, for example in the choice of dam locations, to say nothing of Ankara’s fears that the autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq (and the de facto almost autonomous Kurdish region in Syria due to the civil war) might fuel demands for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey.  In other words, what the Turkish government wants is a “model minority” to which it can point to say that they treat minorities well, which would support the Turkish government’s bid to enter the EU.  In the meantime, politics in southeastern Turkey remains a strange game in which ethnic and religious diversity sometimes leads to surprising winners, such as Abuna Yuqin.

The Difference Between Pragmatism and Loyalty

The most important thing to read on Syria this week is not the news that the regime drove rebels out of the Khalid bin al-Walid Mosque in Homs, but rather this opinion piece by Thorsten Janus and Helle Malmvig in the Christian Science Monitor.  But their proposal depends upon the distinction between pragmatical allegiance and belief-based loyalty.  This crucial distinction affects the Syrian Civil War on both sides, and it deserves to be unpacked more explicitly.

The idea is simple: not everyone who declares allegiance to someone agrees with everything that person espouses.  This is true of political parties.  Cold War-era American propaganda pitted the “godless Communists” in the USSR against the “Christian nation” of the USA, so I was surprised to learn, while visiting the Indian state of Kerala, that the local Communist party has many members drawn from the large South Indian community of St. Thomas Christians.  Indeed, the current president of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, is a Christian member of one of Syria’s Communist parties.  The conflict between Christianity and Communism is very real in some quarters (as Russian Orthodox priests will tell you) and not in others, and depends widely on what those two terms are understood to mean in various locales.  Not everyone who votes for a Communist party candidate has drunk deeply of doctrinaire Leninism or Maoism (although some have, to be sure).  Some simply see the Communist option as better than any available alternative.

This distinction between pragmatic acceptance and doctrinaire loyalty plays out on both sides of the Syrian Civil War.  On the rebel side, international observers have been alarmed at the increasing influence of jihadi extremism, usually linked to al-Qa’idaFree Syrian Army commanders have complained of soldiers defecting to Jabhat al-Nusra, and cited the lack of ammunition held by the FSA compared to the free-flowing arms of the jihadi Jabhat al-Nusra as an explanation for this trend.  In other words, as Salim Idris has grown increasingly frustrated at the failure of western nations to provide his Free Syrian Army with weaponry, the more extreme groups have plenty of weaponry from international sources supporting their jihad against the infidel Syrian regime.  The idea is that many of those fighting for jihadi groups do not necessarily agree with the ideology, but are willing to tolerate it for the sake of getting what they desire more, which is the weaponry to fight against the regime.  This is precisely the argument made by Mouaz Mustafa, the head of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, according to an interview with him two weeks ago, as to why the US should get more involved with the Syrian Civil War.  On his view, providing weapons with secular strings attached will not only contribute to deposing President Bashar al-Assad, but will also diminish the appeal of jihadi groups, because they will no longer have the advantage of greater resources.

On the other side, religious minorities in Syria have by and large not participated in the rebellion, and in many cases have actively supported the regime.  This is equally true of ‘Alawites, other Shi’ites, and various Christian groups.  This does not mean that they approve of everything which the Syrian Army is doing; it merely means they regard the regime’s side of the Civil War to be more likely to hold a future for them.  They have reason to be alarmed.  Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt have increased progressively since the 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, escalating again after the ouster of Muhammad Mursi because his supporters blame the religious minority for the coup.  When two months ago a Syrian rebel commander filmed himself cutting open a killed ‘Alawite soldier’s corpse, removing an internal organ, and biting into it while spewing threats against all ‘Alawites, he made clear to the ‘Alawites that they have no future in a post-Assad Syria.  That has been the message many Syrian Christians have taken from the abduction and murder of Christian clergy by rebel forces.  Fearing a sectarian cleansing of all non-Sunnis, most religious minorities in Syria see no choice but to support the regime.

The Syrian rebels have done very little to convince religious minorities that a post-Assad Syria will be better for them, or that the occasional vague assurances of minority rights in the future Syria will be enacted.  The one-sided portrayal of the Syrian Civil War by the US government, lionizing the rebels and demonizing the regime, has left many Syrian non-Sunnis feeling that America has betrayed its principles of democratic pluralism and minority rights.  This is where the proposal of Janus and Malmvig could be so important.  If the US and the US-backed rebels could somehow convince non-Sunni minorities that they will be allowed to continue breathing in a post-Assad Syria, then their support for the regime might be less unshakeable.  Janus and Malmvig are banking on the fact that the minorities themselves do not want violence, and probably do not like Assad, so an option which assures their future safety would be very welcome to them.  It is an interesting proposal.

The question is whether that assurance could be given in any credible way.  Would Shi’ites and Arabic Christians trust themselves to an American or UN peacekeeping force?  Or would they suspect the force would fail to prevent them from falling victim to violence by other segments of society?  If the Free Syrian Army declared an amnesty for all ‘Alawites, would any ‘Alawites entrust themselves to the mercies of a force whose commanders have promised to purge all supporters of the regime?  Or would they not rather continue to support the regime, distrusting promises of safety from some rebels while others call for their blood?

With regime forces gaining ground in Homs, many non-Sunni minorities may be feeling that they have chosen the winning side.  But if additional arms flows to Syrian rebel forces again reverse the tide of this long-running civil war, as has happened in the past, then the minorities may feel that their backs are against the wall and they have no choice but to live or die with the regime.  The real importance of the minorities will be seen in their potential as stalemate-breakers.  When two armies are very closely matched, even a small force can shift the course of battle.  This was clearly demonstrated in May when Hezbollah, with fewer than 2,000 soldiers, joined the Syrian Army against the rebels, each of which has over 100,000 soldiers, and yet it is precisely from May that regime forces have begun to gain ground against rebel forces.  If the rebels continue to scare non-Sunni religious minorities with threats of vengeance and extermination, they will simply make it all the harder to defeat the regime.  On the other hand, if the rebels address concerns of non-Sunni rights for example by punishing violence targeting religious minorities in rebel-held territory and providing special protection to religious buildings of other groups, then they might gain ground by undercutting Assad’s support.  The civil war in Syria may be won or lost by the allegiances of non-Sunni religious minorities, whose primary motivation will not be ideology but a pragmatic calculus how to survive the war and its aftermath.