BEIRUT: Armenian Christians in Aleppo are being dragged in to the increasingly sectarian civil war in the country, straining the leadership’s policy of neutrality.
Government shelling and fighting between the forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and the opposition fighters has reached the predominantly Christian neighborhoods of Al-Midan, Suleimaniyah and Azizieh in the center of the city.
On Sept. 11, four Syrian Armenians were killed and 13 wounded when the bus they were traveling on from the airport came under fire.
Initial reports suggested rebels with the Free Syrian Army shot at the bus. Free Syrian Army leadership have denied responsibility and blame government forces for the attack. It remains unclear who was responsible, but the incident has served to highlight growing tensions in the community.
Persistent reports from Armenian Christian residents and media activists in Aleppo say some Christian groups are arming in the city. Several sources told The Daily Star the Armenian leadership turned down a government offer to arm the Armenian Christian community, but say some Armenians are accepting weapons from the regime to join pro-government militia groups known as the “popular committees.”
“They paid around 15,000 Syrian Pounds ($22) to every guy who wanted to join the popular committees,” explained activist George, who asked that his surname not be used, adding that around 400 men had taken up the offer.
“The regime tells them: These terrorists are backed by Turkey and this is your chance for revenge on Turkey.
“In this way they exploit the Christians’ loyalty, but I think it’s failed.”
The Armenian community in Aleppo, numbering some 80,000 and whose roots extend as far back as the first century B.C., has enjoyed broad cultural autonomy and benevolent ties with the Alawite regime – a relationship often cited as part of the government’s policy of courting the country’s ethnic and religious minorities to counter-balance the Sunni majority.
As they moved into central Aleppo, the majority Sunni Free Syrian Army issued repeated assurances that minorities will not be harmed and has called on Christians to join their fight against the government.
However, recent accounts from residents in the city say Islamist fighters are increasingly targeting Christians for their perceived support of the regime.
“They demanded the Armenian community give up those who were joining the shabbiha,” said one man, using a pseudonym of Firas.
On Sept. 14, the leaders of the three Armenian churches in Aleppo – Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, and Armenian Evangelical – issued a joint statement aimed at clarifying the position of the community:
“As the bloodshed continues unabated in our dear country ... what adds to our anguish are the unsuccessful attempts of presenting the Syrian Armenians as taking part in the armed battles of the current Syrian crisis or trying to actually drag them into such a conflict,” the statement said.
“We reiterate today, that the peaceful co-existence that the Syrian Armenians have cultivated throughout the decades continues ... and it will definitely stay against all kinds of violence and armed collisions.”
Speaking via telephone from Aleppo, spokesman for the Armenian Prelacy of Aleppo Jirayr Reyisian told The Daily Star churches as well as mosques, schools and residential buildings had been damaged by government shelling and in clashes between groups, insisting he did not believe Christians were being targeted.
He outlined the prelacy’s work in providing humanitarian aid and shelter to all victims of the fighting.
“Bombs don’t differentiate between sects,” he said.
On the question of arms in the community, he said “some armed groups are supporting the army and there are some Armenians among them. We have nothing to do with that.”
“We are not worried. We fear the situation for the whole country, for all the people in Syria. But we are not taking sides in this crisis.”
That sentiment was echoed by members of the Lebanese Armenian community, who adopted a policy of neutrality during the Lebanese Civil War.
Hagop Pakradounian, Tashnag party MP for the Metn, notes that as the conflict in Syria has escalated traditional positions of loyalty toward the Syrian state among the Armenian community have been compromised.
“Wherever Armenians have been they have supported the country, the state, but with the mutual killing in Syria now we have seen the abolition of the concept of the Syrian nation as it has descended into civil war,” says Pakradounian. “The idea of Syria has disappeared ... If someone attacks their [an Armenian] family, home or business then they are obliged to defend themselves, not for the government nor the opposition.”
Reverend Paul Haidostian, President of the Haigazian University in Beirut, estimates that approximately 25 percent of Syria’s Armenian population has been displaced by the conflict. While the majority has relocated to areas within Syria less affected by the conflict he says around 2,000 have fled to Armenia and a similar number to Lebanon. Since the majority stay with relatives in the Bourj Hammoud and Ashrafieh areas of Beirut and the town of Anjar in the Bekaa they do not register with the UNHCR or ICRC, making precise numbers difficult to verify.
However, Haidostian is quick to point out the official position of neutrality adopted by the Armenian community in Aleppo, but he fears that the continued escalation of conflict in Aleppo could result in the permanent displacement of the Armenian community:
“I don’t think that the Armenian community is any more vulnerable than other communities,” states Haidostian.
“What worries us in Aleppo, is what has worried us in Iraq and elsewhere, that some displacement trends may be irreversible if the conflict becomes more violent. Minorities often pay a higher price in terms of quantity and quality of existence.”
At the social club of the Armenian Tashnag party in Bourj Hammoud, Ogsen, 56, [an alias] struggled to contain his emotions. He fled to Beirut from Al-Midan just over a week ago, along with his mother and nephew. His brother, paralyzed from the waist down, remains in Syria’s second city.
“We couldn’t take him,” Ogsen says with a shake of his head, recalling his 14-hour journey to Beirut and his fear approaching checkpoints, unsure whether they were controlled by Assad forces or the opposition.
“When a checkpoint was controlled by the army, then I felt relaxed,” says Ogsen, “but if it was an opposition checkpoint I was terrified.”
“I love my country, I love my president but I had to leave,” Ogsen says almost apologetically. “Everyone was leaving. I saw a young girl die in front of my house, a soldier shot her through the head by a sniper. So many people ...,” he tails off, his dark curly hair drooping over his brow as he bows his head toward the floor.
“They call themselves the Army of Freedom but they are terrorists,” he says – the buzzword a constant in his referrals to the opposition to the Syrian president.
Amin, 26, from the Suleimaniyah district of Aleppo similarly uses the word “terrorist” when referring to the Syrian opposition.
Amin arrived in Beirut two months ago after the car factory in which he worked shut down and he was unable to find work.
“I left [Aleppo] because I wasn’t going to wait and die but now I am running out of money. I don’t know if I can stay but I don’t want to go back.”
“Maybe I would return to sell my house but then I would leave. I wouldn’t live there.”