But on both sides of Aleppo, there has been extensive damage to the city’s social fabric. As we were sitting in a busy westside restaurant, a representative of the Armenian patriarch in Aleppo told me that of the city’s pre-war Armenian population of 45,000, only a third—15,000—remained. “Those in Lebanon may return,” he said. “From Montreal, no.” The Armenians were Aleppo’s largest Christian community. Their decline portends the disappearance of the rest—and the waning of an essential part of the city’s cosmopolitan character. Protestant pastor Reverend Ibrahim Nseir said that his Presbyterian congregation was down to fifty families from five hundred before the war. His church continues to administer two schools, where, he says, “99.9 percent of our students are Muslim.” (I know many Muslim families in Syria, as well as in Lebanon, who send their children to Christian schools that they believe provide a more modern curriculum than either the state schools or the madrasas attached to mosques.)
Some of the Christians who lived through the fighting seem determined to remain, despite the declining size of their community. “Now I stay to support the Christian presence here,” one woman told me. “I stay to support my government here.” Relations between most Christians and their Muslim neighbors in Aleppo continue to be peaceful. However, the captivity of two archbishops, Syriac Orthodox Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Boulos Yazigi, who have been held hostage by antigovernment Islamists since April 2013, deters many Christians who left from coming home.
When I interviewed Mar Gregorios at Easter 2012, he thought that Aleppo, because its citizens remained quiet while other Syrian cities were rising up, could avoid being drawn into the war. He said he was not afraid. At the end of that year, I saw the bishop again and wrote that he had become “a profoundly shaken man with little hope for his country’s future.” He became the only prominent Christian prelate to call for President Assad to resign in order to end the war. But this outspoken stance did not save him from capture by jihadists whom he met a few months later in the vain hope of obtaining the liberty of hostages.