Christians are active participants in the Syrian revolution’ – Ayman Abdelnour
With his staunch refusal to play the political game, Ayman Abdelnour is one of the more credible voices in the Syrian opposition.
A close university friend of Bashar al-Assad, Ayman Abdelnour served as an adviser to al-Assad during the years he was being groomed for the Syrian presidency following the unexpected death of his brother in 1994. Al-Assad “really wanted to make reforms. We believed in that,” Abdelnour told Al Monitor last year.
Soon after Bashar al-Assad assumed the presidency in 2000 following the death of his father Hafez, Abdulnour saw the reforms to modernize Syria he had discussed with al-Assad sidelined, as policies were enacted to enrich the new president’s inlaws, cousins and cronies.
By 2004, Abdulnour had left presidential circle to found the digital news portal All4Syria. The site was eventually banned as overly critical of the government, and in 2007 Abdulnour fled Syria for Dubai.
Today, Abdulnour promotes his vision of a non-sectarian, democratic Syria from exile. Last year, Abdulnour founded Syrian Christians for Peace, a pro-opposition humanitarian organization that distributes aid inside Syria. The group’s work also counters the regime-led narrative that Christians support the regime. He denounces the regime’s manipulation of Syrian Christians’ fears of strict Muslim rule in Syria, and in this interview, candidly answersAbdulrahman al-Masri’s questions about whether Syrian Christians really support the regime and why the growing presence of extremist Islamist groups is pushing them to leave Syria for good.
Q: Why is the Christian Syrian community seemingly distant from the revolution? Is the regime giving them a lot?
A: The regime played the sectarian card from the first day [of the revolution]. Even before there were Islamic movements or Islamic slogans, Bashar al-Assad and Buthaina Shabaan toyed with Syrians’ emotions on Syrian television. That succeeded in scaring Christians inside and outside Syria through their relatives.
Other regime methods include attacks against them by the shabiha [pro-government militias], which are takfiri Islamist groups without a future if Bashar’s regime fails. Yet these attacks and propaganda succeeded in scaring a large number of people.
There are a lot of Christians living outside Syria without any relationship to political or economic issues inside. They just come to Syria for 15 days in the summer to visit their relatives and introduce their kids to their hometown.
They do not want problems, the issue means nothing to them. Truthfully, we are trying to communicate to make them understand that this is not correct. Syria is not a hotel they go to for a small period of time as if Syria is not their country. Syrians have freedom, demands and rights. They must demand them.
This regime is based on sowing division between ethnic groups in Syria. They hit all other important and respected figures within minorities and destroy them, and build up people connected to the regime.
Then a number of these regime-created minorities connect to the regime financially and get involved with corrupt members of the inner circle, such as Rami Makhlouf and others who provide benefits like cars, legal immunity and exempting priests from military service.
Q: Has the regime emphasized Christians’ minority status since before the revolution, or have Christians started feeling this way after the revolution?
A: The relationship between Christians and the regime has been constant. It is a trade that has been planted in the hearts of priests, who trade all their political and economic rights for religious rights and freedom to practice their religion.
They go to churches and celebrate their ceremonies but they can’t ask for anything political or economical. The regime chooses some figures to put in positions of power, like ministers or ambassadors, so that they explain that Christians are integrated and benefit from the regime, but the truth is different.
Q: As a Christian Syrian, have you been subject to objections or criticism about your political activity?
A: Of course, there is a segment of the Syrian community that feels that Christians are not truly contributing to the revolution, as much as they were expected to, in terms of numbers of sacrifices. On the other hand, there are others who say that Christians made more sacrifices because we make up a small percentage of the community.
Q: Are Christians in Syria leaving? What do they see in their future in Syria?
A: There is recognition growing day by day among Christians that the regime was not what they expected it to be. Some feel cheated. We see the portion of Christians participating in and supporting the revolution growing day by day.
We have an interest in finishing this struggle as soon as possible, so that it will not destroy the country. Christians have always called for peace. That is why they are asking that every criminal be held accountable, and for the seizure of weapons in Syria so that peace can spread.
Q: Do Christians in Syria see themselves as a part of the Syrian community after the extremist acts witnessed among the revolution’s ranks?
A: It is true. We face a huge problem now with displacement, with many Christians headed to the West. This is a problem because I think many of these people may not return to Syrian. It is a loss for Syria.
Q: For priests, we heard that people are receiving messages from priests to stay with the regime?
A: We have a problem, I recognize, that a number of priests are connected and have interests with the regime. We are asking the Christian community still in Syria to withstand this, to preserve their numbers because a group can’t have political weight in an emergency if it has left what it considers a hotel, not a nation to be defended.
Q: What is Christian Syrians for Peace? Where did it come from and what is its message?
A: The idea came from the necessity of Christians to have an active voice in the revolution and in supporting the revolution. We must prevent the regime from using the media to spread the idea that the regime protects minorities, and that without the regime’s protection Christians would not exist. [The regime perpetrates the idea that] Christians didn’t exist in Syria or the Middle East before the regime.
Therefore, we put the word “Christian” in the organization’s name as a direct response so that people know Christians are active participants in the Syrian revolution, and that the word of peace comes from Jesus’s message. Another goal is to collect the energy of Christian youth and priests involved in the revolution in order to support it to the best of our abilities.
Q: Do you work only for Christians outside Syria, or there are other activities inside Syria?
A: First, we do not work only for Christians. On the contrary, there is now a huge need in areas inside Syria, especially recently. We distributed aid to Homs, A-Raqqa and Deir e-Zor, which are not Christian areas, we don’t differentiate in this way at all.
The above image pictures Abdulnour in a 2011 interview with CNN.