The Syrian Crisis: Yuhanon Mor Meletius Metropolitan
Syria is a great country with a very ancient culture. Archaeological evidence shows that it existed even before 400,000 BCE in the Paleolithic era. It is said that the Syrian culture is one of the most ancient on earth. It was one of the centers of the Neolithic culture where agriculture and cattle breeding first appeared on earth. City of Ebla in the north was an East Semitic Akkadian speaking city as old as 3000 BCE and was the center of an empire that extended from Mesopotamia to Red Sea. Syria was ruled by Amorites, Indo-European Hittites, Sumerian, Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians and Mitannis. It was the battle ground for several monarchs just because of its strategic position and fertile land. Alexander the Great conquered the land in 333-332 BCE and established the Seleucid Empire with its capital in Antioch. In 64 BCE Pompey captured the city and made Syria a Roman province. Antioch in then Syria was one of the major centers of trade and industry in the ancient world. The language was Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.
Syria holds important position in Biblical History. It is known as Aram who was the son of Shem. Isaac�s wife Rebecca was the daughter of Bethuel an Aremean from Paddan-Aram. Jacob�s wives also came from Laban the Aramean. The �little historical creed� of the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 26: 5 explains Abraham as a wandering Aramean. So the ancestors of Israel were from Aram, or Syria and it would prove that the country extended as far as Mesopotamia where Abraham came from in upper Mesopotamia on the bank of Euphrates-Tigris. Syria�s capital was Damascus according to 2 Samuel 8:5 and Isa. 7:8. It is said that David killed several thousand of Arameans when they tried to ally with Hadadezer king of Zobah (1 Chr. 18:5). Aram was under David for a while (2 Sam. 8:6). Elijah was asked by God to anoint a king for Aram (1 Kings 19:15). Naaman, captain of the army of the king of Aram was cured of leprosy by Elisha with the help of a captive girl serving queen of Aram (2 Kings 5). Damascus is mentioned, not Aram, in the New Testament only in Acts, 2 Corinthians and in Galatians and that itself in relation to Paul. Paul was converted in Damascus (Acts 9). He had a successful mission in Antioch. Several Roman emperors came from Syrian (half-Aramean Elagabalus [218-222] whose family held hereditary rights to the high priesthood of the sun god El-Gabal at Emesa, which is modern Homs); Alexander Severus [222 to 235] and Philip the Arab [Marcus Julius Philippus, 244 to 249].
In 634-640, Syria was conquered by the Muslim Arabs in the form of the Rashidun army led by Khalid ibn al-Walid, resulting in the region becoming part of the Islamic empire. The Islamic empire expanded rapidly and at its height stretched from Spain to India and parts of Central Asia. Because of this Syria, being the center of the empire, prospered economically. There was complete toleration of Christians (mostly ethnic Arameans and in the north east, Assyrians) in this era and several held governmental posts. In the mid-8th century, the Caliphate collapsed amid dynastic struggles, regional revolts and religious disputes. The Umayyad dynasty was overthrown by the Abbasid dynasty in 750, who moved the capital of empire to Baghdad. Arabic became the dominant language, replacing Greek and Aramaic in the Abbasid era. For periods, Syria was ruled from Egypt, under the Tulunids (887-905), and then, after a period of anarchy, the Ikhshidids (941-969) came in. Northern Syria came under the Hamdanids of Aleppo.
During the 12th-13th centuries, parts of Syria were held by Crusader states: the County of Edessa (1098-1149) and the Principality of Antioch (1098-1268). The area was also threatened by Shi'a extremists known as Assassins (Hassassin) and in 1260 the Mongols briefly swept through Syria. The withdrawal of the main Mongol army prompted the Mamluks of Egypt to invade and conquer Syria. In 1400, Timur Lenk, or Tamerlane, invaded Syria, defeated the Mamluk army at Aleppo and captured Damascus. Many of the city's inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand. At this time the Christian population of Syria suffered much persecution.
In 1516, the Ottoman Empire conquered Syria and was part of it from 1516 to 1918. During World War I, French and British secretly agreed on the post war division of the Ottoman Empire into respective zones of influence in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. In October 1918, Arab and British troops advanced into Syria and captured Damascus and Aleppo. In line with the Sykes-Picot agreement, Syria became a League of Nations mandate under French control in 1920. In 1920, a short-lived independent Kingdom of Syria was established under who later became the King of Iraq. In March 1920 Syrian National Congress proclaimed Emir Faisal I of the Hashemite family, as king of Syria "in its natural boundaries" from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey to the Sinai desert in Egypt but was short lived. French troops took control of Syria and forced Faisal to flee placing Syria-Lebanon under a French mandate, and Palestine under British control. Syria proclaimed its independence again in 1941, but it took some more time for it to become a reality.
Finally Syria became independent on April 17, 1946. Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s were marked by upheaval. Between 1946 and 1956, Syria had 20 different cabinets and drafted four separate constitutions. In 1948, Syria was involved in the Arab-Israeli War, aligning with the other local Arab states who were opposed to the establishment of the state of Israel. The Syrian army entered northern Palestine but, after bitter fighting, was gradually driven back to the Golan Heights by the Israelis.
The outcome of the war was one of factors behind the March 1949 Syrian coup d'état by Col. Husni al-Za'im, in what has been described as the first military overthrow of the Arab World since the Second World War. On 13 November 1970, Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assad seized power in a bloodless military overthrow ("The Corrective Movement"). He introduced extensive administrative reforms which on the one hand affirmed his rule and on the other set the country on a structured administrative system. In March 1973, a new Syrian constitution went into effect followed shortly thereafter by parliamentary elections for the People's Council, the first such elections since 1962. The 1973 Constitution defined Syria as a secular socialist state with Islam recognised as the majority religion.
The government was not without its critics, though open dissent was repressed. A serious challenge arose in the late 1970s, from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, who rejected the secular values of the Ba'ath program and objected to rule by the Shia Alawis. After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Muslim groups instigated uprisings and riots in Aleppo, Homs and Hama and attempted to assassinate Assad in 1980. Syria involved itself in conflicts with Israel and Lebanon on a regular basis.
Though Islam is declared as the majority religion in Syria minorities like Christians enjoyed considerable amount of freedom and are respected anywhere in the country. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Syria joined the US-led coalition against Iraq. This led to improved relations with the US and other Arab states. Syria participated in the multilateral Southwest Asia Peace Conference in Madrid in October 1991, and further engaged in direct negotiations with Israel but without much progress.
When Hafez al-Assad died on 10 June 2000, after 30 years in power his second son, Bashar al-Assad was chosen as his successor. Though he initiated reforms in the country and wanted establish better democratic system, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood was not satisfied. The events in Egypt and Bahrain gave new hopes to them and started violent opposition in Syria. America and the western countries provided support as Syria allies with Iran and Russia claiming that democracy has to be brought in Syria. Of course Syria is not a purely democratic state. But it is better in style than many of the other states in the region. US and the Western nations are not at all bothered about that, but supports the rulers of those countries. On the contrary helps the rebels to topple the government in Syria causing killing and exiling of hundreds of thousands of people. Christians are all the more persecuted.
I lived in Syria for about a year and traveled different parts of the country. I found the people peace loving hospitable and kind. Christians enjoyed a great deal of freedom. Aleppo, Homs, Kameshly, Damascus and Hasake are great Christian centers. They lived in harmony with fellow Muslims. They run schools and other charitable institutions for the better of the whole population without religious discrimination. Christians are generally pro government as it was easier for them to live peacefully under the Asad rule compared to other states in the region. They are afraid that if a political change occurs like that happened in Egypt, Christians will be the first casualties. This attitude of Christians probably made the fighters angry and that is one reason why they abducted two Christian bishops. The tragedy is that there is no united opposition. Using the situation local anti social elements also has taken things in to their hands. So now it is hard to bring any settlement to the issue including that of the abduction. The leader of the united opposition, George Sabra, is a Christian, but things are not completely under his control.
It is sad that such a great country and of an ancient culture with so much freedom to minorities is being mercilessly put to destruction and disintegration. Seeing what happened in Iraq and Egypt I am even more sad and disturbed.
(Courtesy of Historical date in part: Wikipedia).
Yuhanon Mor Meletius Metropolitan, Trisshur