Cetatea Alba

 Armenians in Syria

History of Armenian Colony


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The Armenians in Syria

     The recent relations between the Armenian Mountains And Syria traced the history thousands years. Both the Euphrates and Tigris rivers as a main vein have connected Armenia to the southern Countries. In the meanwhile, the territories of historical Syria have  bounded Armenia from the North-east. Whereas the Eastern old routes(roads) have passed by the Armenian Heights, those Heights were connecting Syria to the Black Sea. At Certain historical intervals, the Armenians have founded residence in Syria, on Eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, as well as Mesopotamia.

     The Armenian handwritten memorial manuscripts in Aleppo, Baghdad,(Ourfa) Yetesia and Antioch (Antakya) are considered the most important resources that give information about the Armenian Colonies in these countries, we can add Assyrian and Arabian resources in addition to the governmental documents and decrees.
     The Foreign and Armenian resources unanimously confirm that the Armenian Empire Dikran the Great
(64-86 B.C.) has expanded the southern boundaries till Palestine, and Antioch (Antakya) has been one of the Armenian Emperor's capitals. The entire peoples of that widespread Empire have had direct relations together ,at the same time, Dikranagerd as a cultural and business big and important place has established 77 B.C. It has bridged Armenia with Syria and Mesopotamia.
     Consequently , Armenia has succeeded to rule the general(universal) trade routes. Dikran the Great has encouraged the immigration of Armenians to the occupied countries, and vise-versa .The Emperor of emperors and the next one Asdavazt II have leaded thousands of immigrants to Armenia
(55-34 B.C.).

     Syria has been one of the Roman Emperor's cities from
64 B.C. to the 4-th century A.C. It has cultivated and made active business relations with Armenia. Afterwards, Syria has been part of the Byzantine Emperor till the 7-th century. During the first centuries of spreading Christianity Antioch(Antakya) and Yetesia (Ourfa) have been presented as important places for religion and culture where many Armenian Students have studied there.

     The first Armenian Immigration to Syria according to the reliable historical data took place in the days of the Persian King Khosrov I in the 6-th century
By ruling Khosrov I  Antioch and Yetesya in
539 he has taken (transformed) great numbers of Immigrants where the Armenians have been the majority in those countries .Syria has lived praising days during the Omayad's Caliphates (661-750)and they had remarkable relations with the Armenians.

     Amit's Metropolitan Mar Teonysios Yakoub Saliby's
(1173) writings are considered one of the important Historical reliable data for the Armenian's Second immigration to Syria between 717 and 728. Where he has mentioned in one of his writings that being Armenians in Syria they have ruled on their villages, churches, abbeys  ( monastery).consequently, the Third Patriarch Mar Atanas has asked from  the Armenian Catholicos Hovhannes Otsnetsy for some clergymen to pasture the Armenians in Syria. Whereas the Red abbey at Shougher area has been a spiritual and cultural main House. By escaping The Armenians from the Byzantine occupation as well as Seljuk-Turkish pursuits, they have emigrated to Syria and Mesopotamia, meantime the Armenian third emigration to Syria has realized between 973 and 992.The Armenians have spread over the Syrian western areas. It is believed that the Armenians at those days have been settled in Aramo, Ghnemiye, Yakoubiye, Latakia, kesab, Swedia.(Mousa Mountain)and  the surrounding villages.

     The Mongol and Tatar invasions have caused the increase and growth of Armenian emigration in the second half of the 13-th century between
1220 and 1468.The Armenians have emigrated to Syria with the ruling class of the fallen Pakradouniants Kingdom in 1071.They have settled absolutely in the Northern Syria, Antioch, Yetesia and in Mesopotamia till Palestine.

     On the other hand, the Caravan Business has had an extreme raise in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the Syrian Coastal Cities have usually lived economical unusual development. Although, Antioch has protected and preserved to be a famous place for there religious and cultural conditions, it has transformed to an important trade centre. The majority of the population according to J.Loran has been Armenians and Greeks, The Armenian Catholicos Khatchig Arshagouny who has established the Archbishopric Seat between
973 and 992 has continued his mission till the 13th Century. By Antioch's dishonorable historical position Aleppo has become a major Armenian Community Centre where organized and formed a prosperous colony.

     There is no accurate statistics about the number of Armenians who have spread on the Syrian lands, but some Armenian resources mention that  the Armenian population in Syria ( Aleppo city) and Lebanon are almost  estimated eighth-five thousand Armenians between
1870 and 1890.

     The Biggest Armenian emigrations to Syria has been realized as a result of Ottoman Emperor's pursuits in
1876,1895,1909,especially during the Armenian GENOCIDE in 1915 and the disaster of Armenian Cilicia in 1922 resulted in increasing the Armenian population on the Syrian land.

     The last Armenian immigration towards Syria was when by the France-Turkish Treaty, Alexandret Sanjak has been annexed to Turkey. Whereas forty thousands Armenian Syrians and Armenians living in Lebanon have immigrated to hometown the next two years in

     The major Armenian Colonies in the Historical Syria are: Aleppo, Damascus and Latakia. The historical settlements are Yakoubiye,Ghnemiye,Aramo and also kesab's  surrounding regions, where Syrian small colonies exist nowadays ,whereas the Syrian Gezire's colonies are Qamshly, Derik (Malkiye) , Hasaka, Ras Oul Ayn, Tel Abiad, Der-Zor and Rakka. The next days of the Armenian GENOCIDE the above mentioned cities have founded they exist and keep their Armenian characteristics up to date.



The constructional realizations which can be considered the increasing continuation of the past occupy a unique place in the National Armenian Prelacy Diocese of Aleppo multibranched and multinature activities. The last two decades the constructional works have had unprecedented start. As close by the Armenian colonies  the young gathering determined  factors, the national authority consider especially the public houses as important means for nation  preservation. Saint Forty Martyrs Armenian Apostolic Church and the churchyard are situated at Salibe quarter in the 14th century, they are the first nation belonging lands and stay unchanged till today.

    The land committee has  organized in 1950 according to the national constitutional dispositions. It has had consultation Condition till 19 November 1952 then it has become a formal body.

    The major public oases of the national belonging lands in Aleppo are  "Keghart" inhabitable building (1949),"Yelmone Dikranian" the building and hall, nowadays the Armenian prelacy "Haigazian"  kindergarten(1959), "Kavoukjian" inhabitable building (1959) ,"Mardigian" the inhabitable building and hall (1959) ."Ararat” the office building (rebuilt in 1982,and rebuilt in the place of the building in 1923), "Sevan" the inhabitable building (1986), "Cilicia" the inhabitable Assemblage (1992),  "Oshagan" the inhabitable building (1992) ,  "Aghavny Kasabian" the inhabitable building (1992), "Artsakh" the inhabitable building (1994), "Nairy" the inhabitable building (1995), "Ani" (office center) rebuilt in 1998,instead of the building which was built between 1919 and 1920,where Catholicos Sahag II Khabayan has lived on the first floor.

    It is also mentionable Armenian General Benevolent Union (A.G.B.U.) "Andranik" the inhabitable building (1995) the first floor is in the service of (A.G.B.U.) and Armenian Young Assouiation (A.Y.A.) clubs. The newly built club of Kermanig Vasbouragan Cultural Association income producing part (1998), Dikranagerd  Compatriotic Association the inhabitable building (1999), Zeytoun compatriotic Association the inhabitable building (2002),rehabilitation plans of  Howard Karageozian Institution and Ginishian Institution.
    As for the regions ,the Nation belonging inhabitable lands are remarkable in Yakoubiye (1998).

Diocese of Aleppo Regions

    The greatest Armenian Colony in Syria is Aleppo City, at the same time it is one of most important  colonies in the Armenian Diaspora, in one word the major colony.
    The history of this  old colony has been firmly connected with the history of formation of Diocese. Consequently the Armenian have had notable presence in Aleppo from the ancient times where they have even occupied  honorable positions.

    When the Armenian Salesmen have started to come to Aleppo from all over Armenia between the 16th and 18th Centuries. The colony has lived praiseworthy days. At those days the Armenians living in Aleppo have had a respected well-known  class of princes . According to Alex Russell the Armenian population in Aleppo has estimated 6720 in 1745,whereas in the 19th Century beside to trade some Crafts has been the Armenian's monopoly .

    They have also notable achievements in the cultural  different fields. Indeed, the famous school-room in Aleppo has been considered a scientific and Artistic real school in the 16th and  the 17th centuries. Mourat Kritch, Priest Mgrditch, Priest Sarkis and others were graceful  artists of the Colony, The members of Mousanver family were well-known Painters. Rzk-Allah Asdvadzadour Hassounian was one of the distinguished  intellectuals in the 19th Century. "Frat" the first Armenian Syrian daily newspaper saw light  in 1868 ,in Aleppo.

    The days of the Armenian Genocide when Aleppo has become the biggest centre of gathering emigrant Armenians , the Armenian population has unrelatively  increased in Aleppo. The life of the  Armenian colony has started to form in 1920s-1930s . And the recent lively image of Armenian life is considered the authentical and increasing  continuation of the past.

   Highly rank Armenian Militants The General Aram Karamanougian and the colonel Joseph Bayramian  have  participated in the Syrian Army.
   Hratch Papazian, Movses Der Caloustian (1932,Alexandret),The Lawyer Bedros Mulletbashian, Hrant Sulahian, Nazaret Yakoubian, Movses Salatian ,the lawyer Fred Arslanian , the General Aram Karamanougian , Dikran  Tchrajian , Abdullah Fettel , The lawyer Krikor Eblighatian,

Levon Ghazal Roupen Dirarian, Engineer Simon Libarian,   nowadays the lawyer Sumbul Sumbulian. These above mentioned Armenians living in Aleppo, were members in The Syrian People's Council.(The lawyer Sumbul Sumbulian)

   The Armenian Republic General Consulate has established on 28th May in 1993,in Aleppo.
   Today the colony has high positions of employers, salesmen , Craftsmen , and a legion of University students . Altounian Mazloumian , Asadourian Hospitals work , in  Addition to the Armenian intellectual and public activist from  Aleppo the Clinic of the oculist  Dr. Rober Gebejian.

   Five churches patronize the Armenian life in Aleppo Saint Forty Martyrs Armenian Apostolic church , Saint Krikor (Gregory) the Illuminator , Saint Kevork , Saint Asdvadzadzin and Saint Hagop , four Sunday Schools , Seven Armenian prelacy Schools , Haigazian (1919-1920), Mesrobian (1923), Zavarian (1925) , Sahagian (1927)  Gulbenkian (1930) and Karen Yeppe Gemaran  (1947) , Three Association schools Cilician Gemaran (1921), Grtasirats school (1924) Lazar Najarian-Calouste Gulbenkian Central school , as  well as the sister community schools work up to date . There are also cultural associations like Grtasirats Cultural Association (1924), kermanig Vasbouragan Cultural Association (1928-1929), Hamzkayin (1930), Armenian Young Association (A.Y.A.1932) , "Tekeyan" Armenian Cultural Association (T.A.C.A.) (1955) ,  National Cultural Association (1955), Ourfa Veradznount (Renaissance) Cultural Association (1957) , Nor Serount  Cultural Association (1958), and Cilician Cultural Association (1964). There are also students Associations , Auditoriums , halls, libraries, Aram Manougian Public House (1989) , Zarehian Treasury (1991), Simon Vratsian Centre (2004), and  Monument Sculptures for the memory of the Armenian GENOCIDE .

   In the charitable field work Armenian General Benevolent Union (A.G.B.U.) (1910), Armenian Syrian Red Cross Association (1919), National Orphanage (1920), Armenian House for the Old (1923) Howard Karagoezian Institution (1941) , Ginishan Institution (1966) , Diocese of Aleppo Social Service Consultation (1993), as well as the churches’ Charitable Bodies.

   The Sports Unions are Armenian Physical Sports Union (1921),Armenian General Physical Education Union (1925)  kermanig Vasbouragan Sports Union (1931) , and Armenian young Association (1932).

   Eleven Compatriotic Unions (Associations) work till today and " KANTSASAR" the official newspaper of  Armenian National Prelacy  saw light in Aleppo.
   The Armenians in Aleppo are esteemed around 50,000 people.



The Armenians are descendants of a people who have existed continuously in Transcaucasia since about the sixth century B.C. Although a small number of Armenians have been settled in the country for several generations, the bulk of those in Syria arrived in successive waves as refugees from Turkey between 1925 and 1945.

Like Armenians throughout the Middle East, Armenians in Syria are city or town dwellers. About 150,000 Armenians lived in Syria in the mid-1980s. Roughly 75 percent live in Aleppo, where they are a large and commercially important element, and fewer than 20 percent live in the Hayy al Arman (Quarter of the Armenians), a new section of Damascus. The remainder are scattered in cities and towns throughout the country, especially in the larger towns along the northern border of the Jazirah. Most Armenians belong to the Armenian Orthodox Church, but about 20,000 belong to the Armenian Catholic Church.

The Armenian language, which has its own alphabet, belongs to the Indo-European family at the same level as such other subfamilies as the Slavic and Italic languages. There is a classical form with an old, highly developed Christian literature, but modern Armenian differs essentially from the older form.

The Armenians work chiefly in trade, the professions, small industry, or crafts; a few are found in government service. In Aleppo, where some families have been traders for generations, their economic position is strong. Many of the technical and skilled workers of Damascus and Aleppo are Armenian; in the smaller towns they are generally small traders or craftsmen.

Armenians are the largest unassimilated group in Syria. They retain many of their own customs, maintain their own schools, and read newspapers in their own language. Some leaders adamantly oppose assimilation and stress the maintenance of Armenian identity. As Arab nationalism and socialism have become more important in Syrian political life, Armenians have found themselves under some pressure and have felt increasingly alienated. As a result, they were reported in the 1960s and early 1970s to have emigrated in large numbers.



In a few countries of the Arab Middle East, independence resulted in the creation of new states that were basically secular in their structure. Their choice of secularism expressed symbolically a wish to join the modern world and a rupture with their tribal and Ottoman past. Nevertheless the dream of excluding religion from the public arena has been difficult to achieve and has often degenerated into authoritarian and nationalistic types of government. This has been the case with both Syria and Iraq. These authoritarian, nationalistic regimes often embarked on routes that prompted Christians to begin a process of migration toward the West.

In reality, even the so-called secular states were rarely truly so. Many included mention of Islam or the Shari‘a (Islamic sacred law) in their constitutions. Most regimes that officially chose a secular nationalistic system also favored the supremacy of one ethnic or religious community over the others. In Syria, this was the ‘Alawis; in Iraq, it was the Arabic-speaking Sunnis.


Background. The Christians of Syria are estimated at just under a million, 6.5 percent out of the country's total population of 17 million.1 Together with the ‘Alawis, Druzes, and Isma‘ilis, they form a distinct component of the Syrian population; the majority is Sunni Muslim. As with all Christians of the Middle East, the tendency today is toward a reduction of their number either for demographic reasons or because of their emigration to the West.

The history of the Christians of Syria corresponds with the early history of Christianity itself. It was in the city of Antioch (now in Turkey) that the followers of Christ were called "Christians" for the first time, and it was on his way to Damascus that Saint Paul was converted to the Christian faith. Thus, the Christians of Syria, as all the Christians of the Middle East, are conscious that they are the heirs of a very ancient spiritual tradition; this is particularly the case with respect to the Greek Orthodox Church (503,000 members), the oldest and most continuously established in Syria, with a patriarchal see in Damascus and six dioceses2 (Damascus, Lataqiya, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, the Hauran). The Greek Catholic church (118,000 adherents) separated from the Orthodox church in the eighteenth century; it has five dioceses (Aleppo, Lataqiya, Homs-Hama-Yabrud, Bosra-Hauran, Damascus).

The other great Christian family of Syria is composed of different communities who escaped the massacres and deportations that took place in Turkey during the World War I. Among them are the Armenian Orthodox (112,000), and Armenian Catholics (25,000), the Syrian Orthodox (89,000) and Syrian Catholics (22,000) who were rescued in refugee camps in Aleppo and the Djezirah. Added to these in 1933, in the Djezirah province, were Assyrian Christians (17,000) and Chaldean Catholics (7,000) escaping from the violence perpetrated against them in the northern area of Mossul by the army of newly independent Iraq.

Of all these refugee communities, only the Syrian Orthodox church currently has its patriarchal see in Damascus (where it has been since 1959).3 It has four dioceses in Syria (Damascus, Homs-Hama, Aleppo, the Djezirah). The Syrian Catholic church also has the same dioceses in Syria, but its patriarch is in Lebanon. The Armenian Orthodox Church has three dioceses in Syria, two of them (Aleppo and the Djezirah) depend on the Catholicos of Sis-Antelias in Lebanon and the third one (Damascus) is attached to Etchmiadzin in Armenia. The Armenian Catholics also have three dioceses in Syria (Damascus, Aleppo, Kamishli) that depend on the Armenian Catholic Catholicos in Beirut. The Assyrians of the Khabur (Djezirah) have a bishop based in Hassakeh named in 2000 by the Assyrian patriarch of Chicago and one patriarchal vicar based in Kamishli named by the Assyrian patriarch of Baghdad. The Chaldeans of the Djezirah depend on a bishop established in Aleppo.

The other Christian communities in Syria, which are marginal, include: the Maronites (28,000) who are originally from Syria a millennium ago. They form a small community scattered around three dioceses (Aleppo, Lattaquieh-Tartus, Damascus); the Latins (11,000) are mostly in Aleppo and Damascus and depend on an apostolic vicar established in Aleppo. Latin and Protestant churches remain as vestiges of missionary activity that reached its peak in the nineteenth century. An apostolic nonce also resides in Damascus. As for the Protestants and the Anglicans of Syria (20,000), the former were united for the first time in the 1920s in an Evangelical National Synod of Syrian and Lebanon and have an important temple in Damascus, while the latter are mostly refugees who came from Israel in 1948 and are under the authority of an Anglican bishop of Palestinian origin.

All the Christians of Syria share some circumstances; in addition, some communities and groups have unique situations.

The first common aspect follows from several factors in Syria's modern history. The Ba‘th regime, which came to power in Syria in 1963, has an essentially secular orientation. Its ideological founder, Michel ‘Aflaq, was a Greek Orthodox and, in conformity with the party's secular ideology, it does not recognize Islam as the official religion of the state. Nevertheless, under pressure from Islamists, the religion of the Syrian head of the state since 1973 must be Islam.

However, there is no doubt that the Christians of Syria enjoy more rights in the framework of the secular system that currently exists than under the Islamic system of government espoused by the Islamist Sunnis of Syria, in particular the Muslim Brethren. The Brethren had pressured the state to bring the diverse institutions of the country more in conformity with Islam before the crisis of 1982, when the Syrian army struck a fatal blow to the movement in quelling their rebellion in Hama. However, the events of Hama and foreign policy imperatives drove Asad to change tactics towards Islam. To prevent a resurgence of religious militancy, he espoused popular Islam as a means to legitimize his regime in the eyes of the Sunni Muslim majority.4 But that did not negatively affect the status of Christians in Syria nor their attitudes toward the regime; indeed Christians in Syria perceive the actual regime as their protector. Accordingly, Christians find it easy to obtain authorization to repair or build new churches and to pray or have processions in public without harassment. They enjoy more religious freedom than they did under the Ottoman Empire before 1918. Their religion is not mentioned on identity cards. Legislation is entirely secular with the exception of personal status laws that are applied by specific tribunals and vary according to the differing communities. Friday is the official day off, but in consideration for the Christian population, work starts at 10 a.m. on Sunday. All the Christian holidays are official state holidays and members of the clergy are excused from military service. Christians are united behind the regime, particularly since the events in Hama, conscious that it is their protection against a possible Islamic drift.

The ‘Alawi community, to which belong President Hafiz al-Asad (1970-2000) and his son Bashshar, the current president, is too small to rule by itself and so has relied on the support of other minorities of the country, including the Christians, to govern the Sunni majority (who constitute 70 percent of the country's population). Yet, Christian participation in power and in the administration in Syria is very low, and Christians practically never appear in key posts such as the secret services, special police, or army units; although currently there are four Christians ministers in the government. As stated recently by one of their religious figures, "they prefer the private sector."5 However, one can find them as assistants or counselors because of their technical skills and their better knowledge of the West; these today include the speaker of the presidential palace, the auxiliary of the minister of oil, the director general of the ministry of finances, and the director general of the foreign trade ministry.

Reasons for emigration. The Christians suffered as a result of the process of nationalization of the Syrian economy undertaken by the government in the 1960s. The great wave of emigration that occurred at that time caused a lot of families of the bourgeoisie to leave Syria and settle in Lebanon.6 Some of them maintained a link with Syria, particularly Aleppo and Damascus, and the economic role played by the Christians in Syria remains important, enhanced by these ties to the outside world. Christians are also well represented in the liberal professions (lawyers, doctors) and the technical professions (engineers). In cities, Christian small traders and craftsmen are very dynamic. They wait for the smallest opportunity to enterprise and trade, for example with Lebanon. This dynamism remains in spite of the rigidity of the Syrian bureaucratic system that has been in place for more that thirty years. In contrast, serious economic problems affect the Christians who live in rural areas such as the Djezirah or the Hauran, particularly the Djezirah because of the drought of the last years.

Some of the problems Christians face in Syria they experience in common with other citizens, in particular the problems associated with living under a dictatorial system of government. The population finds itself under the constant surveillance of the secret services and the police forces; in that context, religious freedom is a very relative notion. Members of the clergy must always express their allegiance to the regime; they have to report on their activities outside the country when they come back from travel; all associations are carefully scrutinized; importation of foreign books is very difficult, and so on.

In particular, the nationalization of all schools in Syria was a major blow to the Christians. The private Christian education systems, based on Western models and often provided by foreign missions, had a distinctly superior standard. Their suppression was strongly opposed, in particular by the Catholic hierarchy, and prompted the emigration of a great number of Christians for whom the education of their children is a priority. This remains a sensitive subject in Syria, for a whole generation of children since 1967 suffered from an ideological move that proved inefficient. It almost led to the extinction of knowledge of foreign languages. Christians in Syria remain eager to reinstitute private schools and higher standards of education.

Universal military service of two and a half years, obligatory for all young men, is another indirect reason for the Christians' emigration. Until the war with Israel, military service could be extended for several years (up to five years) in Syria (the slogan was: To Victory!) and all factions of the population attempted to avoid it. After military service became regularized, avoidance became rarer, though it still exists.7

Families who are now in the West (Sweden, Germany, Canada, etc.) encourage their relatives in Syria to join them and do whatever they can to help with this process. They employ legal means (marriages, employment opportunities, family groupings) or illegal ones. During the cold war years, one way was to get to Western Europe through the East European countries. Today, being illegally transported to the shores of a European Mediterranean country is another way: As one example among many, fifty-three illegal Kurdish and Iraqi immigrants were arrested in the Akkar, in north Lebanon. They were ready to embark for Spain or Italy.8 A young Lebanese man paid $2,000 to be taken to the shores of a European country.9 Greece, Italy, and Spain are confronted regularly with emigrants who often pay very high prices for their transfer in extremely precarious conditions.

Geographically, the Djezirah province has seen the highest rates of emigration of Christians, primarily Syrian Orthodox and Catholic along with some Assyrians and Chaldeans. There are several reasons for this trend: (1) The severe drought of recent years that has made it difficult for peasants of all religions to make a living. (2) The expansion of the Kurdish population in the Djezirah frightens the Christians who consider them uncouth and are afraid of some Kurds turning toward Islamism. (3) The massive emigration of the Christians of Turkey in the 1960s to 1970s accelerated in the 1980s, from the area of Mardin-Tur ‘Abdin on the other side of the frontier between Syria and Turkey, practically emptying it of its Christian population. (The Christians of the Djezirah have been in close contact with those coreligionists since the tragedy of World War I.)

The Armenians of Syria are leaving at a very high rate. The obstacles created by the government to any associations, publications, language teaching, in addition to the banning of the Armenian party (Tachnag and Hentchak) is proving particularly disillusioning to them. They feel isolated and place little faith in their future in Syria.

Among the Christian elites of Aleppo and Damascus, mainly Greek Orthodox and Catholic, students who travel abroad to study at Western universities often do not come back. Though gradual and subtle, this search for higher standards of living is depriving Christians of their future elite and will probably have severe long-term consequences.

The Syrian Christian emigration is heading mainly for northern Europe, especially Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, and Holland, but also Canada and Australia. Since 1976, the government of Sweden has opened its doors to Syrian Orthodox and Assyrian refugees. In 1997 Sweden hosted two Syrian Orthodox bishops and the country has about ten churches and thirty-two priests to take care of the more than 40,000 adherents coming from Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Iraq. In Belgium, most of the 800 Syrian Orthodox families live in Brussels, served by four priests. The community living in Germany consists of more than 35,000 people served by forty priests. New parishes have been established throughout the United States and Canada. In 1995, the North American archdiocese was divided into three patriarchal vicariates, one for the Eastern United States with thirteen parishes, one for the western United States with six parishes, and the third in Canada with six parishes. 10


Background. In the absence of official statistics since the coming to power of the Ba‘th party in 1960, reliable figures regarding the number of Christians in Iraq are hard to come by. However, best estimates place the number of Christians in Iraq today at over 600,000, representing 3 percent of the Iraqi population of 20 million.

Tradition attributes the evangelization of Mesopotamia to Saint Thomas and to an apostle called Addai as early as the first century C.E. Christianity spread early in Iraq from the major center of Edessa (today Urfa in south-east Turkey) in its Syriac linguistic and cultural form. The new church was established in the royal city of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (south of Baghdad on the Tigris River) under the Parthian Empire in the second century C.E.

Iraq's Christians are composed of twelve communities that can be divided into three main groups: the Catholics who are by far the majority (around 457,000), the non-Catholics (wrongly called Orthodox, approximately 152,000), and the Protestants and Anglicans (5,800). In practice, one church is by far the most influential: the Chaldean Catholics (390,300), inheritors of the local historical religious tradition. The Chaldean church has seven bishops in Iraq (Mossul, Al-Qosh, Irbil, Kirkuk, Zakho, Amadyah and Akra, and one patriarchal vicar in Baghdad). Its religious leader, the patriarch of Babylon, resides in Baghdad.

The Syrian Orthodox (37,200) and Syrian Catholics (55,500) traditionally lived in a few villages in the area of Mossul and 15,000 in Mossul itself, a city of 1 million inhabitants.11 But today the majority of the Syrian Orthodox and Catholics are in Baghdad. The Syrian Orthodox has three dioceses in Iraq (Mossul, Basra, Baghdad) and the Syrian Catholics, two dioceses (Mar Matta, near Mossul, and Baghdad). Other tiny churches include Armenian Orthodox (25,000), Armenian Catholic (5,500), Latin (5,200), Copt (1,800), Greek Orthodox (800), and Greek Catholic (700). The remaining Protestants and Anglicans (5,800) are the vestiges of Anglo-Saxon nineteenth century missions that existed until the end of the British mandate in the 1930s.

The Assyrian church (88,000), which was the main church of the country for centuries, has been weakened by several persecutions in the twentieth century due to its constant aspiration for independence. It is regarded with great suspicion even today in Iraq and in Syria. In August 1933, following the departure of the British troops from Iraq, the Iraqi army assisted by Kurdish elements in the province of Mossul massacred Assyrians (sixty-five villages of the areas of Dohouk and Sheikhan). Since these massacres, resulting in about 3,000 dead, the Assyrians have thought only of emigrating. Following the massacres, their religious leader, the Catholicos, settled in Chicago. In 1964, the Iraqi government favored the separation of a branch of that church due to problems over a linguistic interpretation with another Catholicos whose see is in Baghdad. 12

The other Christian communities of Iraq, especially the rural population, were traumatized by the events of 1933, but they adopted a different stand from the Assyrians in order to survive: they attempted to integrate completely into Iraqi society and give total adherence to the existing political regime. This is particularly the case for the Chaldeans.

With the establishment of the first Ba‘thist government in 1963 and the second in 1968 (the latter including Saddam Husayn), the Christians hoped that the secular and pan-Arabic ideology of the new party would give them more rights than was the case under more traditional Muslim rule. Ba‘thist Iraq is theoretically a secular republic where citizenship prevails over religious and communitarian allegiances. The 1970 constitution recognizes "the legitimate rights of all minorities in the frame of the Iraqi unity";13 this was followed by the recognition of the legal existence of the five main Christian communities with due legal rights. They are not granted any special political rights, but as long as they cooperate with the government, Christians benefit somewhat from the regime. They have no difficulty repairing or even building churches. Religious ceremonies can be performed without excessive discretion. There are seminaries for the training of the clergy, which is not the case in Turkey or, until very recently, in Syria.

At all levels of political life, the participation of Christians is very limited. The case of Tariq ‘Aziz, the long-serving top spokesman for Iraqi president Saddam Husayn, is an exception. The National Assembly of 1984 included just four Christians among 250 members of parliament; a proportionate number would have been eight. Symbolically this means a lot for the Christians. In the administration, one does not find Christians as governors, directors in the ministries, or ambassadors, but there are some Christians in posts as an assistant, where their education and knowledge of the outside world are valued. In the army, until the war with Iran in 1980-88, Christians were denied access to superior military training and were confined to secondary posts. During that war, the religious appeal of Iran to the Shi‘a of Iraq prompted the Ba‘th regime to incorporate more Shi‘a into the leadership structure. In the same vein, there was an effort to give to different Iraqi ethnic and religious groups a sense of belonging to one united entity, defining a new "Iraqi man."14 It is worthy noting that Christians had a high death toll proportionate to their numbers in the Iran-Iraq war: 4,000 men from the Assyrian community alone and 250 Syrian Catholics from the area of Mossul.

The political marginalization of the Christians in Iraq has a number of causes. In spite of its secular ideology, the Iraqi Ba‘th party recognizes Islam as an essential component of the Arabic culture; it does not grant the same favor to Christianity. The distribution of power is based on family ties where Sunni Muslims have a predominant role. Christians are also ambivalent regarding a greater political role and tend to choose a marginal role in that domain; they know they cannot express any opposition toward the regime, and they strongly fear the prospect of a successful Shi‘i opposition that might attempt to install an Islamic government.

Economically, the Christian community was generally prosperous before the economic difficulties precipitated by the international embargo implemented by the United Nations after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. The Christians suffered as a result of the nationalization of the industrial sector in the first years of the Ba‘thist regime during the 1960s, but later on the remarkable economic development of their country allowed them to prosper once again. Favored by their knowledge of the West, they were the natural intermediaries for a number of foreign societies established in Iraq before the Kuwait war. They were well represented in the tourist sector in hotels and restaurants, and in the liberal professions. Some 20 percent of the teachers at schools and universities were Christian. The Christians were also represented in specialized technical jobs and as artisans and traders. One should make a distinction, however, between the different communities, as the Assyrians were generally poor.

By recognizing the cultural rights of the Christian minorities, the constitution of 1970 appears to be liberal and does in fact constitute a step forward compared to the preceding governments. A decree, signed on April 16, 1972, grants the three Syriac-speaking churches of Iraq—the Assyrian, the Chaldean, and the Syrian—the right to teach their own language at school provided that 25 percent of the children in a class are Christian. This sounds good but is rarely the case. Still the Syriac dialect of Iraq, the Sureth, is transmitted within the family, in catechism classes on Fridays, and at the university level. Some good publications about Syriac Aramaic culture and history are still published in Iraq in spite of censorship: Al-Fikr al-Masihi (Christian Thought) and Bayn Nahrayn (Mesopotamia).

Emigration. The aspiration for non-discrimination is tempered by the social weight of Islam, the religion of fully 95 percent of Iraqis. In spite of the fact that it is a secular republic, Iraq recognizes Islam as the religion of the state in its constitution.15 On the practical level, Islamic law has a determining influence in the country and creates a situation of discrimination: a Christian woman can marry a Muslim in which case the children will be Muslims, but the reverse is not possible. The validity of an Islamic marriage is automatically recognized by the state, while a Christian marriage must be reported to the administration. A Muslim may inherit from a Christian but the opposite is not permitted, a problem frequently encountered in mixed marriages. Thus, despite the ostensible secularism of the Ba'th regime, Iraq's laws remain influenced by Islamic law.

Ultimately, the Christians of Iraq suffer in much the same way as do their Muslim co-nationals, under an extremely oppressive, totalitarian regime, one which does not tolerate any form of collective institution not under its direct control. In spite of the fact that religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution,16 religions are closely watched. All social and pastoral activities of the church require a previous authorization; religious publications are subject to censorship; and the importation and dissemination of foreign books is strictly under control. All the dignitaries of the church, bishops, or heads of churches must obtain a formal agreement from the authorities before starting their new function. The Western congregations not completely suppressed are under close surveillance.

In 1976, the government in effect nationalized Shi‘i organizations by suppressing their capacity to manage their religious properties and by transforming the imams into state employees who receive a salary from the state and are controlled by it. In 1981, the regime wanted to adopt similar measures toward the Christians, nationalizing their properties and turning their priests into state employees, thereby controlling through the ministry of the waqfs (religious property) all of the churches' functions. The government eventually backed down when faced with strong reactions from the bishops, but the threat is always present that these measures could be implemented.

In 1974, the Ba‘th regime decided to nationalize all schools in Iraq, including the Qur‘anic and Catholic schools, a major blow to the churches. Education is an essential part of their mission. Some of the former educators, priests, and nuns tried to pursue their task in the framework of the new nationalized system, but many of them were dissuaded by the oath of allegiance they had to swear to the regime.

The war between Iraq and Iran, followed by the Kuwait war and the difficult living conditions since 1990, contributed directly to the acceleration of Iraqi Christian emigration. Apart from the obviously desperate economic situation in Iraq, Christians are leaving for other reasons linked to deteriorating conditions in the country. As a minority, they fear the growing insecurity and lawlessness in the country without the traditional protection of the state. Christians fear particularly for their women and girls who they feel are most threatened by the climate of prevailing insecurity. In addition, due to a weakening of the state, the Christians are worried by what they perceive to be concessions made by the regime to the Islamists; for instance the prohibition of alcohol in public places and the extensive use of the state-controlled media for their religious propaganda. While the aborted visit of the pope to Iraq was not due to Islamist pressure, it may have resulted in part from the Iraqi government's unease about a papal visit to a predominantly Muslim country. In any case, Iraqi Christians were immensely disappointed.

Other factors also play a role in encouraging Christians in Iraq to emigrate. For instance, there is the uncertainty of the future should the Saddam regime be overthrown. Christians are acutely aware that the first move of the rebellion in Basra in 1991 was to attack the Christian quarters. There is also a more general pessimism regarding the future of Christians in the Middle East as a whole, as even the Christians of Lebanon, who were regarded as a model and a refuge, are perceived as having been defeated at the end of the Lebanese war.

In the last thirty years the Chaldeans have seen more than 50,000 of their population (about 12 percent of the community) emigrate to the United States, with a significant acceleration after 1990. The Assyrians now count more than 60 percent of their community in Europe, Australia, and the United States, with an important community in Chicago. The percentage of Christians leaving Iraq today constitutes 30 percent of all Iraqis leaving the country, while they form only 3 percent of the total population. According to United Nations statistics, Iraq came in second (after Yugoslavia) as a source of refugees arriving in Europe in the year 2000.17 There were 35,985 of them in 1998; 32,643 in 1999; and an annualized rate of over 37,000 for 2000.18 The United States is also a destination: for example, on September 22, 2000, a group of 125 Iraqis tried in vain to enter the United States illegally via its border with Mexico. Some thirty-one other Iraqis who succeeded in crossing the frontier have requested political asylum. Sixteen of the 125, arrested in Tijuana, were temporarily admitted onto United States territory.19 The Iraqi government tries to prevent Christians and indeed the rest of its citizens from leaving by imposing a tax of $200 on every Iraqi citizen who wishes to travel outside Iraq and by obliging every traveling woman who is less than forty-three years old to be accompanied by a male in her immediate family. Still the will to emigrate is stronger, and emigration is frequent, usually through Iran and Turkey.

Northern Iraq. Since the end of the Kuwait war, northern Iraq has remained beyond Saddam Husayn's control. Its population is overwhelmingly Kurd with a minority of 70,000 Christians, made up of Assyrians and Chaldeans.20 They have been relatively well treated, as symbolized by their having five members in the 1992 parliament of 105 deputies located in the city of Erbil; the governor of Erbil is a Christian, as are two ministers. Assyrians in particular, for the first time in their modern history, have the right to develop their cultural and linguistic life fully. Their schools in the enclave provide all instruction, including mathematics and history, in the Syriac language. They also have television and radio programs in Syriac. The Kurds having done the same with the Kurdish language, it is interesting to note that Arabic is now taught practically nowhere in the enclave.

Still, the Christians aspire to leave it, just like their coreligionists who remain under Baghdad's control. They have several reasons for wanting out: a feeling that they will not be able to cope in the long run with the tribal structure of the Kurdish society; a fear of Islamism among the Kurds; and an uncertainty about the future of the northern enclave.


It is vital that the Christians of the Middle East revitalize their own cultural role and offer the societies in which they live the cultural openness and knowledge of the outside world that has characterized their modern history. It is no exaggeration to say that Christians of the Middle East are indispensable to a democratic and pluralistic Arab world. Thus, their presence is as important to the outside world as to their own countrymen.

How to keep them home? The problems of the Christians are part of the general problem of lack of respect for participatory democracy and human rights in this part of the world. If the general population benefits from changes resulting from the ruling elites' realization that political reform is unavoidable, Christians stand to benefit as well. Therefore, promoting democracy and liberal economic measures in Syria and Iraq appear the best way to stop Christian (and also Muslim) emigration.

The economic factor is key; it explains the emigration of Arab Christians, and it will be key to stemming the exodus. Iraq was the second largest oil producer of the area after Saudi Arabia and had a flourishing economy before the invasion of Kuwait. Its actual misery is essentially a political problem. The Syrian authorities have announced their intention to liberalize and modernize the country's economy several times. In the framework of the new world economy and globalization, international financial grosups and non-governmental organizations could offer their expertise and support to plan development projects at the community level to help the diverse Christian communities of the Middle East create new employment opportunities.

One should also pay more attention to the educational institutions, humanitarian as well as social, run by the churches in the Middle East. These institutions often offer their services to Muslims as well as Christians and provide the opportunity for a real dialogue and religious exchange between the two communities. 21

Finally, it would also be useful to create centers dedicated to the study of the problems of the Christian Arabic communities, to follow their evolution, and provide accurate information on a regular basis concerning their situation.

While Islamism may have exacerbated the travails of Christians in some Arab countries, such as in Egypt, this trend does not seem to impinge on the lot of Syrian and Iraqi Christians, at least in the context of the two countries' contemporary politics. The same goes for authoritarianism. Arab authoritarian regimes have not articulated specifically anti-Christian policies. It was the social, political, and economic repercussions of their policies on their populations that accelerated Christian emigration, due to their prominence in the professions. Christians in Syria and Iraq do not aspire to be singled out as persecuted minority groups. Instead, they prefer to be viewed as an integral part of society who seek to flourish with their Muslim compatriots.

Ray J. Mouawad is a Lebanese historian who focuses on Syriac-speaking Christians.

Bibliography and sources: A lot of facts and suggestions of that article may be found in the two following books and one article: - PACINI Andrea, Les communautés chrétiennes dans le monde musulman arabe, Proche-Orient Chrétien Ste Anne- ISSR, 1997.

VALOGNES Jean-Pierre, Vie et mort des chrétiens d'Orient, Fayard, 1994.

HABBÉ Yussif, Qira'at muta`ammiqa fi mustaqbal masihiyyat al-Iraq (A deep lecture of the future of the Christians of Iraq), Bayn al-Nahrayn (Baghdad), No.91/92, 1995, pp.242-262.

1 All the demographic estimates are based on Philippe Fargues, "Les chrétiens arabes d'Orient: une perspective démographique," Les communautés chrétiennes dans le monde musulman arabe, ed. Andréa Pacini (Beirut: Proche-Orient Chrétien Ste. Anne- ISSR, 1997), pp. 59-78.

2 Jean-Pierre Valognes, Vie et mort des chrétiens d'Orient (Paris: Fayard, 1994), pp. 719-726, 752-756.

3 After a period of uncertainty after the World War I, it was first transferred from Turkey to Homs in 1933 then to Damascus.

4 For Asad's leaning towards Islam, see Eyal Zisser, "Hafiz al-Asad Discovers Islam," Middle East Quarterly, Mar. 1999, pp. 49-56.

5 Monsignor Hazim, Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Christians, quoted in L'Orient-le Jour (Beirut), June 13, 2000.

6 Hafiz al-Asad tried to encourage their return by giving them back a part of the belongings that were nationalized in the 1960s but to no avail. "Hafez el-Assad was reassuring the Christian community in Syria, article published in L'Orient-le Jour, June 13, 2000.

7 I have no official reference for that apart an interview with Mgr. Edelby, Le Monde, Nov. 25-26, 1984.

8 L'Orient-le Jour, Nov. 2, 2000.

9 Marie Thérèse Zahr, Al-Hijra min Lubnan wa-Suriya wa'l-Urdunn wa-Filastin wa'l-‘Iraq (Beirut: Middle East Council of Churches, fasc. Nov. 2000), pp.15-16.

10 Christine Chaillot, The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and All the East (Geneva: Inter-Orthodox Dialogue, 1998), pp. 73-74.

11 Interview with a parish priest, Mossul, 1998.

12 The division was caused by the opposition of one faction of the Assyrians to the use in the liturgy of another Syriac idiom that would be more comprehensible to the people than the old, traditional one. That faction, favorable to tradition, elected its own patriarch whose see is in Baghdad.

13 Iraqi constitution, Article 3, Nabil ad-Dhawahira as-Sa'igh, Al-ahkam ad-Dusturiya li'l-Bilad al-‘Arabiya (Beirut: Dar al-Jami‘a, n. d.), pp. 158-167.

14 Phebe Marr, The Modern History of Iraq (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1985), p. 283.

15 Iraqi constitution, Article 4.

16 Iraqi constitution, Article 25.

17 Registration and Statistics, Unit Program Coordination Section (Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Sept. 15, 2000) at http://www.unhcr.ch/. (see: Statistics/ Asylum applications in Europe, January-July 2000.

18 UNHCR, 2000 (Geneva), quoted in Zahr, Al-Hijra min Lubnan wa-Suriya wa'l-Urdunn wa-Filastin wa'l-‘Iraq, pp. 14-15.

19 L'Orient-le Jour, Sept. 22, 25, 2000.

20 Interview with a representative of the Assyrian Democratic Movement in Syria, Damascus, Aug. 2000.

21 The last two suggestions were formulated by Bernard Sabella, "L'émigration des chrétiens arabes: dimensions et causes," in Pacini, Les communautés chrétiennes dans le monde musulman arabe, p. 168.











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