November 14, 2013
Fully rebel-controlled, the rebel-held northeastern province of Al-Hasakah has become the epicenter of clashes between extremist insurgent group Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (PYG) as both groups jostle to fill the power vacuum left by the Assad regime.
On Tuesday, Syria’s Kurds, part of an ethnic group whose 30 million people stretch through Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, announced an autonomous region in Al-Hasakah following a string of recent military gains.
The center of Syria’s Kurdish population is in the far northeastern province of Al-Hasakah is also home to Syria’s Assyrian community, a vulnerable slice of Syria’s 2,000,000 Christians. In 2011, Osama Edward founded the Assyrian Human Rights Network, which supports opposition activists among the minority Christian community.
Syria Direct’s Abdulrahman al-Masri spoke with Edward about the delicate balance for northern Syria’s pro-opposition Christians and why he believes Christians have a future in Syria.
Q: As a Christian from Qamishli, do you feel there has been a difference between the position of the Christians in northern Syria and those in the rest of the country?
A: Of course there is a difference. Most Christians from northeast Syria are Assyrians. That puts them under more pressure, not only because they are Christians, but because of their ethnicity: they are not Arabs.
People always ask us, ‘Why are you so enthusiastic about the revolution?’ The answer is simple: we have been more oppressed. The pressure on us is tripled; as Syrians, Assyrians and Christians. Also, Hasakah and Qamishli are poor, simple areas; the Christians in Damascus and Aleppo have a better standing in society.
Q: As someone deeply involved in Christian society, what is it that keeps Syrians from joining the opposition en masse?
A: First, the regime’s 50 year-old lie that it protects minorities and is the guardian of Christians, and that the only alternative to the regime is al-Qaeda. Of course, we know that is propaganda.
The regime’s brain-washing campaigns have left an effect on the Syrian people, especially on Christians, Alawites and even on Sunni secularists and liberals. These intellectual and national minorities are afraid of change, even more so because the regime claims the alternative is Islamic radicalism. The opposition was not able to present itself as a democratic alternative inclusive of all elements and sects in society.
The final substantive reason is in Christians themselves. Ethnic, linguistic and racial minorities always distance themselves from processes of change because they fear these large changes could lead to their annihilation.
Q: Does the Assyrian community fear they have no future in Syria?
A: To be totally honest, yes. There is fear. Even among us revolutionary activists, leaders of the revolutionary movement who call people to join us, there is a fear of the extremism we see in the revolution, its descent toward chaos and the disappearance of all peaceful civil activities, despite the regime’s responsibility for these developments.
But as a result, there is clear sectarianism in the military. It is so evident I cannot hide from it anymore. I cannot defend destroying churches and burning crosses in A-Raqqa.
The problem is, I don’t see a solution at the end of the tunnel. There is no intention for international intervention to end the struggle, which is creating a state of fear and depression.
Q: As a political activist in the Christian community, what sort of criticism have you been subject to?
A: We are subject to accusation that we are receiving money and that we are being support by foreign funding, which we are not. We are also criticized for defending terrorist organizations like ISIS.
Q: Are the disparate Christian communities – Assyrians and other Christians in Damascus – emigrating due to their fears for a future Syria?
A: Sadly, yes. As I said, violence has increased and there is no clear solutions. Of course, many Christians have remained in Syria, but many fear there is no hope.
Other [Christians] have been spoiled in bigger cities, and didn’t need a change toward a democratic community. For them, leaving the country was the simplest solution.
Q: What are Christian religious figures saying to Christians? Are they telling them to stay with the regime?
A: Sadly, as some Muslim religious figures, like the Mufti, are staying with the regime, there are also Christian religious figures supporting the regime. There are honest religious figures [who do not support the regime], but they are silent.
*Photo courtesy of Osama Edward.