Christian’s worshipers in parts of the Middle East, especially Syria are experiencing discrimination driven by a directive issued over 1300 years ago.
The minority Christian population are been told by extremist groups to convert to Islam, pay a tribute to the Muslim rulers, or leave the land that they have occupied for millennia. These stark choices stem from a 7th century directive offered to Syria’s Christians under the Islamic caliphate that was established after the land was seized from the Byzantium Empire.
This ancient directive has become a major point of discussion by the supporters of Sharia implementation. Currently the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has made it very clear to its supporters that they want to revive the most stringent clauses of the pact. Al-Nusra Front, a smaller extremist group has taken a more pragmatic approach and want to wait until total victory has been achieved.
On December 2, 2013, al-Nusra Front seized the town of Maaloula for a second time from the Syrian Army. Armed fighters from the group entered the most famous Christian town in Syria. This town has residents which still speak Aramaic, the language of the population of the Holy Land in the 1st Century.
One of their first actions entering the town was to kidnap nuns from the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Takla as a way of intimidating the remainder of the Christian population. They also targeted Christian places of worship which resulted in damage being inflicted on several churches.
In contrast, ISIS has adopted a stricter hard-line approach, calling for the immediate wholesale implementation of Sharia restrictions on Christians, including demolishing and destruction on Christian places of worship.
A man who identified himself as a leader in the National Defense Committee, told Heritage Daily, that as the Islamist fighters entered the town, they were heard to call out “God is Great,” and, “O Christians: Convert to Islam and you will be safe.” According to eye witness, Christians were then told that they had three very simple choices: convert to Islam, pay the jizya (which is a traditional tribute for non-Muslims) or leave the area.
This is a disturbing and stark echo form a dark period of the middle east. On inspection it is very clear that these extremists groups have not only taken the spirit of this 7th century directive but are also using nearly the exact words used by the 7th-century Muslim military leader, Abu Ubaida ibn al-Jarrah, to the people of Syria after the Battle of Ajnadayn: “Islam, tribute, or war.”
The Battle of Ajnadayn, fought on July 30, 634, in an unknown location close to Beit Guvrin in present day Israel; it was the first major pitched battle between the Byzantine (Roman) Empire and the army of the Arabic Rashidun Caliphate. The result of the battle was a decisive Muslim victory. The details of this battle are mostly known through Muslim sources, such as 9th century historian Al-Waqidi.
The militants’ seizure and subsequent actions at Maaloula caught the attention of Christians around the world, but it was not the only Christian town to be seized by armed Syrian opposition groups.
Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, slogans were seen in protests, such as “Alawis to the grave, and Christians to Beirut.” Before Maaloula, the extremists entered dozens of villages whose residents would flee before the militants arrived, This was the result of them hearing reports of sectarian killings and the targeting of churches. Non-Muslims who stayed behind were soon forced to pay tribute in return for protection as per the original directive.
In Aleppo, parts of which are under the effective control of various extremists groups, Christian business’s were required to pay 50% of their profits as a form of levy to be left alone. Churches and monasteries were not safe however and were attacked with explosives.
The term fiqh, which in English could be translated as a form of jurisprudence has been adapted by a few Muslim religious scholars to reconcile Sharia as it existed in the era of the Prophet Muhammad with modern life. However this pragmatic approach has been rejected by the most hard-line extremists groups.
The Sharia councils of the main extremist groups have begun to have a serious debate on how to deal with the “Nazarenes, their word for christians” and whether they can be considered dhimmis, or a non-Muslim citizen of an Islamic state.
The two groups’ “Sharia experts,” before the recent battles between them, had debated the matter at length, invoking the so-called Omar’s pact, which was given to the Christians of Syria in the 7th century. Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab pledged safety to the Christians of Syria in return for paying a tribute, which they accepted grudgingly.
Omar or Umar, was the founding ruler of the Caliphate and took over as leader of Islam after the prophet died. Under his rule it expanded at an unprecedented rate, ruling the whole Sasanian Empire and more than two thirds of the Byzantine Empire. His attacks against the Sassanid Persian Empire resulted in the conquest of Persia in fewer than two years. It was Umar, according to Jewish records, who set aside the Christian ban on Jews and allowed them into Jerusalem and to worship.
Until these extremists groups can come to some joint understanding, they are currently adopting different approaches to the Christian minority they encounter.
Our source said, “After the text of the pact was invoked, the dispute grew even sharper. ISIS reckoned that the document’s text should be implemented to the letter, while the Sharia experts of al-Nusra called for implementing a realistic interpretation, postponing the matter until after Bashar al-Assad is overthrown and victory is at hand.”
Historians are in disagreement over Omar’s pact, but the sources said that the al-Qaeda affiliated groups have decided to adopt the strictest version the translation we have printed below:
They shall not erect in their city or the suburbs any new monastery, church, cell, or hermitage; they shall not repair any of such buildings that may fall into ruins, or renew those that may be situated in the Muslim quarters of the town; they will not refuse the Muslims entry into their churches either by night or by day; they will receive any Muslim traveler into their houses and give them food and lodging for three nights; they will not harbor any spy in their churches or houses, or conceal any enemy of the Muslims.
They will not teach their children the Quran; they will not make a show of the Christian religion nor invite anyone to embrace it; that they will not prevent any of their kin from embracing Islam, if they so desire. That they will honor the Muslims and rise up in their assemblies when they wish to take their seats; that they will not imitate them in their dress, either in the cap, turban, sandals, or parting of the hair; they will not ride on saddles (cars in our time), or gird on swords; that they will not sell wine; that they will not shave the front of their heads; that they will keep to their own style of dress, wherever we may be; that they will wear girdles round their waists.
That they will not display the cross upon their churches or display their crosses or their sacred books in the streets of the Muslims; that they will not recite their services in a loud voice when a Muslim is present; that they will not take any slaves that have already been in the possession of Muslims […] and that if they violate any of the conditions of this agreement, then they forfeit their protection and the Muslims are at liberty to treat them as enemies and rebels.
It’s becoming a very disturbing development to see that the main extremists groups engaged in this bloody and vicious conflict is fuelling the division and hate, by using history to justify their actions.
Header Image : Mar Thecla Monastery in Ma’loula : WikiPedia
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