Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Syrian Christian Village Debates Taking up Arms

Caught between rebel and government forces, villagers fear attack from either.
By Mariam Abdullah

In July, around 50 frightened Christian villagers in a town in an area of western Syria known as the “Christian Valley” gathered in a hall next to the town’s Orthodox church.

The village priest stood before them, peering at the tired and anxious faces in the crowd as they looked to him for answers. The congregation wanted weapons to defend themselves.

“Who shall we arm ourselves against?” he asked his audience.

The question came up during a meeting of a local social welfare association held to address the threats of death or kidnapping that many parishioners had received. They accuse Alawite thugs from nearby towns of making these threats, as a punishment for not joining them in fighting against the opposition.

They also fear Sunni militiamen from nearby villages, although they have not attacked the Christians here. Fighting rages between opposition fighters and government soldiers only 20 kilometres away.

This group of Christians has yet to take up arms or organise themselves into one of the militias, called “popular protection committees,” common in Alawite, Druze and Christian areas of Homs governorate, as well as other government-controlled parts of Syria.

The priest, known for his wit and strength of character, has earned the trust of both the Free Syrian Army and the regime’s “popular committees”. So far, he has been able to resolve issues with minimal loss. Now he sees a need to put an end to the ongoing debate about whether the Christian villagers should arm themselves, and against whom exactly.

This village of 6,000 people is nestled beside to several Alawite, Shia and Murshidiya towns. They are as diverse as other Christians in Syria, who do not follow one single party or person, but hold a multiplicity of view. Some support the revolution, others the regime, and many others remain neutral, fearing that the situation will turn against them at any moment.

Some villagers joke that when they wanted to defend their village in 2012, when erupted battles inside and around Homs, they armed themselves with construction and agricultural implements and set up a checkpoint at the town’s edge. No kidnappings had taken place at that point, but people were worried about the general chaos.

They dismantled the checkpoint when the regime-supported popular committees sent by neighbouring Alawite villages and the army came to set up their own checkpoint nearby, in order to fend off attacks by Sunni opposition fighters.

The villagers first started discussing arming themselves when the Baath Party and the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party offered them weapons.

Although the late defence minister, General Daoud Rajha, was a Christian – he was assassinated in July 2012 – Christians have generally refrained from joining the military and other security forces since Syria became independent in 1946. This village is no exception. Apart from compulsory military service, the village has discouraged its sons from pursuing military careers.

“Christians know their limits very well, and promotions in the army are given out on a sectarian basis,” said a Christian army colonel from the village who left the military two years ago. “Since Christians don’t demand that right, either out of fear or out of the sense that they are second-class citizens, they won’t lift a finger right now.”

The ex-officer says he retired when he realised he would no longer be promoted.

“I had reached the limit of what was possible for me, and I knew one day I’d find an Alawite under my command suddenly rising past me in the ranks, giving me orders merely because he was Alawite,” he said.

Although the fighting in Syria has not directly affected the village, threats and rumours have left the Christians in a state of fear and anxiety, terrified at the prospect that radical Islamists will take control of the country after ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“If the regime falls, the Muslim Brotherhood will come in its stead, and they will strip us of the life we know,” says Osama, 45, a father of two. “They’ll interfere in the way we live, curtail our freedoms, and regard our women as spoils of war to which their faith has given them a right.”

At the same time, they fear the government, too.

“It’s a murderous regime, and they won’t hesitate to burn us all,” says Salma, a 33-year-old architect.

The Christians have tried to stay neutral, but this has not protected them from being kidnapped and held hostage for ransom. None of the villagers has been killed, but there have been kidnappings that ended in a ransom payment. Alawite “shabiha” [militias] have been accused of responsibility.

Some of the villagers categorically reject the idea of arming themselves. The village held an informal poll that showed more were in favour of arming acquiring arms than not.

Then the priest stumped them with the all-important question, “Who will we arm ourselves against? Will we arm ourselves against the nearby Sunnis? To get to us, they have to first pass through all the neighbouring Alawite villages, and if they do manage to pass through and get to us, we won’t be able to fight them with the limited weapons we’ll have.

“If we’re fighting the Alawite villages, that will mean we’re fighting the whole government, and no matter how strong our weapons are, we can’t stand up to it. And we have to ask ourselves another question – who among us will carry these weapons? Who will willingly give them to their sons?”

The priest’s intervention finally calmed the debate. It was clear that the threats to the village, perceived to stem from both opposition and pro-government fighters, would not be held at bay by any weapons. The priest reasoned that it was better for the village to face possible threats through a position of neutrality.

The situation this village is in is not representative of all Christian areas, but it is an example of the kind of debates about whether to take up arms – a decision that many Christian villages have taken.

Bassam, a 30-year-old resident of the village, believes that the nearby Christian town of Marmarita came under an attack in August because it had formed a local militia. Pro-government media reported that the al-Nusra Front killed around 15 militiamen during the assault.

“The real threat is from the the war profiteers who are trying to benefit from the situation and drag the whole Wadi al-Nassara area into the conflict,” said Bassam. “If they really wanted to protect us, they would send in the army, not ask people in the area to take up arms when they have no experience in anything of that sort.”

There are many questions and as many fears. For now, the village is safe, but not from anxiety, obsessions and apprehension.

Mariam Abdullah is the pseudonym of a journalist living inside Syria.

This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.