No more than 100,000 Christians live in Aleppo – 3.3% of the city’s population, not the 12% commonly stated.
The exact number of religious minorities in Syria is difficult to ascertain. It is often reported that Christians make up somewhere between 9% and 12% of the population. Nearly two years ago, I happened to be visiting the city of Aleppo when a young Syrian Priest argued that the actual number of Syrian Christians is lower than the above consensus estimate. The initial purpose of the meeting at the time was to discuss the plight of Syrian youth.
This note will attempt to discuss the plight of the Christian population in Aleppo. The findings will point to the fact that this particular minority seems to have suffered from a precipitous drop in its numbers measured as a percentage of the population. Low fertility rate, abysmal economic growth, unfavorable laws, regional dynamics and frightening language from some extremists have combined to deal this minority a remarkable blow when it comes to their numbers at least within the ancient city of Aleppo.
My initial foray into this topic started over two years ago during one of my visits to the city. During one of my meetings, a noted Christian Priest remarked how Christian youth were leaving in larger numbers than ever before. He proceeded to argue how the lack of job opportunities, low wages and exuberant housing prices had combined to drive the youth in his congregation to move abroad. His attempts to convince his young men to stay in Syria fell on deaf ears. The result has been a migration of alarming proportions. And this has been going on for years. Pressed to back up his assertions with data, the priest promised to provide me with hard statistics about the size of the Aleppine Christian community on my next trip.
Prior to visiting Syria in January 2012, I decided to call another Church leader who seemed to also have a wide following in the Aleppo Christian community. My goal was simple. I wanted him to use the next two months to find out how many Christians live in the city of Aleppo.
As it turns out, Christian priests and bishops keep tally of their parishioners by keeping track of the number of families under their respective churches. The Assyrian Orthodox Church for example has 1300 families. Approximately every 300 families are assigned to each Priest. This gives the church a reasonable ability to calculate the number of people under its roof. This is made easier by the fact that Christian births and marriages are meticulously recorded by the Church; the registration process allows the community to keep close track of the number of its parishioners.
There are elven Christian denominations in the city of Aleppo. Listed below are the approximate number of families that belong to each of the eleven churches:
Roman (Melkite) Catholic 2,500
Roman (Antiochian) Orthodox 1,000
Armenian Catholic 1,300
Armenian Orthodox 10,000
Syriac Catholic 1,300
Syrian Orthodox 1,300
Arab Anglican 100
Armenian Anglican 300
The total number of Christian families in Aleppo is therefore 19,000. If one assumes that the average family size is 5 (a generous assumption), the number of Christians in Aleppo is below 100,000. It is of course difficult to accurately define the total number of Aleppo’s population. It is often argued that the number is around 3 million people if you exclude the reef (rural area) and as high as 5 million people when one includes areas like Hayyan, Hreitan, Albab and Mumbej.
If accurate, the 19,000 Christian families of Aleppo means that Christians make up only 3.5% of its 3 million residents.
When I shared the data with most Christians in the city of Aleppo, the response was mixed. Some nodded their heads in agreement. Some seemed surprised and demanded that they look at the numbers in more detail. Not one was able to refute them outright.
Many readers of this note are likely to be surprised by these findings. I urge them to correct my numbers if they are false. I would be grateful for anyone who can find holes in the above percentage.
Aleppo and Damascus are supposed to make up half of the population of Syria. However, Aleppo has hardly any Christians in its reef or countryside. This is not the case in other parts of the country like Wadi Al Nasara (The Valley of Christians) around Homs for example. The Priests I spoke with did not have Christian population statistics for the country as a whole, but insisted that the total number of Christians in Syria probably does not surpass one million. These means that they probably make up between 4% to 5% of the total population rather than the 9% to 12% that is usually cited.
Back to Aleppo:
Wikipedia still states that “Aleppo is home to many eastern Christian congregations and that “more than 250,000 Christians live in the city representing about 12% of the total population.”
The results of my own findings are vastly different from such numbers.
The last known census took place in 1944. During that time, Christians were known to number 112,110. This meant that they represented near 38% of the city’s population of just over 300,000. This statistic was confirmed when the political representatives for the city council were assigned. Of the 12 members to the council, 5 were Christians. This was an official confirmation that they made up nearly 40% of the city’s residents.
This number dropped significantly over the ensuing 20 years culminating with the arrival of Abdul Nassar. Following WW II, many Armenians decided to migrate to Armenia. Soon afterwards and during the early 1950′s, a significant percentage of Christians belonging to mostly lower income groups left for Venezuela and other parts of Latin America. Those in the upper income groups were dealt a severe economic blow upon the arrival of Abdul Nasser. The misguided nationalization drive of the period sent many wealthy families packing. Lebanon, Canada and other Western nations were the likely destination.
By the early 1960′s, the Christian population of Aleppo had dropped to as low as 20%. A Church official present at the meeting suggested that by the time Hafez Assad took over power in 1970, Christians in Aleppo were merely 10% of the city’s population.
Over the next four decades, this number has dropped to as low 3.5%. Wikipedia’s number of 12% is widely off the mark. It is expected that I will encounter significant challenges to the data I presented. I welcome the input of those who do.
While on topic, it is worth remembering that the Christian existence in this land predates Islam. Christianity was born in the Levant. It was the Roman Empire that transported Christianity from the Levant to the Western part of the Empire. Later on during the new roman empire (Byzantine empire), it was a Damascene Christian Monophysite bishop that informed Khalid Ibn al-Walid that it was possible to breach city walls by attacking a position only lightly defended at night by opposing Byzantine soldiers. The Byzantine-Sassanid wars of 602-628 had exhausted the local populace. The negative treatment of the western Byzantine Empire’s rulers turned the local largely Christian population against their rule. As the Arab conquests reached the gates of Damascus, Christian Syrians were hardly opposed to the new invaders.
Perhaps no single issue has done more harm to Syria than its economic performance over the recent decades. The failure of the country’s experiment with socialism has been painful. So has been the state’s allocation of its water resources under the banner of self-sufficiency. Another abject failure has come from the lack of supply of housing as attempts to regulate the process of “Tanzeem” have taken decades. An explosion in Illegal housing was the inevitable consequence as legal housing unit prices rose beyond the economic means of most Syrians. What started as a noble exercise to help the poor afford basic needs decades ago has morphed into one of the most debilitating liabilities for the treasury. Subsidies may have been affordable when Syria had 8 million people and double the oil output. But they have sucked the government’s coffers dry now that the population has tripled and that oil output has fallen by half. Last but not least is a debilitated public sector that is terribly inefficient and has monopolized vast sectors of the economy, stifling private initiative and weighing on Syria’s potential growth like a stone.
To be sure, the word “Socialism” was finally dropped from the country’s new constitution. However, Article 13 continues to insist that:
“The national economy shall be based on the development of the public and private economic activities”. The same article also states that “ The state shall guarantee the protection of producers and consumers”. Finally, the constitution now dictates that “Taxes are imposed on an equitable and progressive bases which achieve the principles of equality and social justice”.
The combination of the above set of economic principals is a clear indication that the country’s transformation away from socialism will be slow and uneven.
Many of the readers of this forum are aware that I have been warning about the damaging effects of Syria’s anemic economy for years. It was my interest in the subject that triggered the initial meeting when I wanted to understand the plight of the youth and their preference to leave the country seeking better economic opportunities abroad. According to those present, economic issues were by far the most important factor behind the accelerated immigration trends. In one month alone, 400 Christian families migrated from Aleppo to Lebanon following the disastrous Nationalization policies of Abdul Nasser in the 1960′s.
The Syrian Personal Status Law:
Under Syrian law, a Christian can convert to Islam. It is illegal for a Muslim to convert to Christianity of course. Inter-religious marriages seem to have provided Church leaders and the Christian community in general with a major challenge.
Christian women who decide to marry a Muslim man have to make a critical decision due to the country’s inheritance and estate laws. If she stays Christian rather than convert, she will inherit zero from her husband following his death. The only way she can inherit is if she converts to Islam. Civil weddings do not exist in Syria.
This is why many Syrian Christian families find it extremely hard to accept inter-religious marriages. It is also why they seem to prefer to live in Christian-only buildings where the chances of young adults interacting with those from a different sect are lower. Christians feel that the civil laws are unfavorable to them.
For the record, many Christians were hopeful that article 3 was going to be dropped from the new constitution. Such expectations were not met when they found out that “The President has to be part of the Muslim faith.”
The plight of Iraq’s Christians:
Syrian Christians have been badly affected by the recent experience of Iraqi Christians. Aleppo has been home to many Iraqis who reside in the city as they await their immigration visas. Most attempt to leave the region for good. Stories of Christian persecution in Iraq have had a profound effect on Syria’s Christians. Many Syrian Christians are convinced that their future in the region may be no brighter than that of their Iraqi coreligionists.
The Religious Satellite Channels:
Nothing seems to send greater chills down the spine of most Syrian Christians than watching extremist religious figures rally their listeners and supporters on satellite television. Adnan Ar’ur may well speak for millions of Syrians. His steady appearances, however, seem to convince Syrian Christians to pack up and leave.
The percentage of Aleppo’s Christians has been in steady decline since the early 1900’s. That the number has dropped from over 40% as recently as the 1940′s to the current 3.5% of the population of this city is remarkable. This phenomenon is not new. Many have known about these trends and have written about them. The consensus however has been that Christians still make up 9%-12% of Syria’s population. This admittedly unscientific study challenges those assumptions. Instead, it argues that Syrian Christians may have dropped to as low as 4%-6% of the total population and as low as 3.5% in Aleppo. Readers can draw their own conclusions about what implications this has for the country going forward. It may suggest that authoritarian support for President Assad and for “secularism” is not as important as sometimes stated.
Syrian Christians in the Diaspora continue to have a profound and strong attachment to the land. The sentiment amongst the Christians inside the country is unmistakable. They seem resigned to the fact that their numbers are heading south. When I presented my 3.5% number to many of them, many simply nodded their heads. The vast majority of them may not know the exact number but many have indicated to me that it does “feel” to them like 3.5%. Aleppo’s overwhelmingly Sunni countryside has been suffering from a deep economic depression for decades. Many of Syria’s poorest towns are those surrounding Aleppo. During the day, men from these areas descend on the city, looking for work and better opportunity. The population of Aleppo has soared. Indeed, most Aleppines feel like they are living in a city of 5 million people. Seen from this perspective, the 19,000 families of this ancient land feel that they only make up 1.9% of its larger populace.
The Wide Spread Effects of Economics on All Syrians:
While this note listed a number of factors behind the drop in the percentage of Christians that make up the population of this land, it is the opinion of this writer that poor economic policy lies at the heart of this issue. The negative impact of economic mismanagement has hit all religious communities of Syria. Presented with the chance, most Syrian youth chose to migrate out of the country. The lack of economic upward mobility has meant that most young Syrians have found it difficult to carve out a reasonable economic future for themselves. Yes, Syria, like the rest of the Arab world, could do with less corruption and more democracy and freedom. None of this is likely to matter much in the long run unless the country can design a vibrant industrial policy, find sufficient energy and renewable water resources, improve its outmoded education and health care systems and make legal housing affordable for the vast majority of the populace. Let us remember that this region needs to create nearly 80 million jobs over the next twenty years. Syria alone needs to create close to 300,000 jobs a year. On current trends, this is nearly impossible to accomplish and it is the reason why we are at the beginning of our black tunnel.