A Harassment Case and Church Cover-Up Shake Aleppo’s Christian Community

Allegations prompt consternation in a Syrian city already beset by woes

A Harassment Case and Church Cover-Up Shake Aleppo’s Christian Community
The Aleppo skyline at dusk. (Holger Leue/Getty Images)

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A year and a half ago, Hala Mghamez, a 23-year-old Syrian woman, decided to travel from her new home in Canada back to her home town in Aleppo, Syria, to meet with her church’s local bishop at the time, Jean-Clement Jeanbart, and report incidents of alleged harassment by her former mathematics teacher, Marwan Sabaa, who was well-known in the Christian community. She provided details of his alleged harassment going back to when she was 17, along with screenshots of his conversations with her.

The bishop repeatedly asked her if she was sure of her claims, then implored her to keep the issue quiet. He also instructed her to pray and provided her with a prayer book, while promising that he would force the teacher to resign from the Al-Amal School, which was affiliated with the church and is considered one of the most important and best-known private schools in Aleppo.

The harassment allegations, which were followed by the testimonies of other young women who also alleged that the teacher had harassed them, and the church’s tepid response, have prompted consternation in Aleppo’s tight-knit Christian community. While the case highlights the pitfalls of seeking redress for sexual harassment in the country and the Middle East as a whole, it also highlighted the insecurities plaguing a community living within a Sunni-majority city that has felt under siege and wary of the future since the uprising in Syria began in 2011; feelings fueled by an exodus abroad that has furthered its demographic decline.

Nothing has happened since Hala’s complaint. The bishop, who resigned in the interim from his positions for unrelated reasons, did not fire the teacher. Hala’s concerns that the alleged harasser would target other women prompted her to share what had happened in two videos that she posted on her Facebook page. In them, she explained the circumstances surrounding the alleged harassment, the time it took her to process what had happened and her efforts to overcome the pain in its aftermath, as well as the help she sought from the bishop. 

This alleged harassment did not take place at school but rather during paid private lessons that Sabaa provided for countless school students in the city, who were usually under 18. What prompted Hala to resort to the church instead of the judiciary is the outsized role played by the former and its power and influence over the Christian community in Aleppo. In addition, there is a general lack of confidence in the efficiency and speed of the civil judicial process, both because of the likely interference of powerful third parties and the weakness of sexual harassment laws in Syria.

The bishop’s knowledge of the teacher’s behavior and his desire to resolve the issue discreetly placed the church in a position of direct responsibility to investigate the harassment allegations and, if they were proven true, to protect other students.

A few hours after Hala posted her recorded testimony, Maria Zarif, Jeanbart’s niece, who is currently residing in Canada, alleged in a Facebook post that she was harassed by Sabaa as well. A third young woman from Aleppo also shared her story, in which she claimed the teacher had a habit of kissing and touching his female students inappropriately. She also explained that he used psychological blackmail and manipulation when the girls refused his attempts, expressing his disapproval of their behavior to the point where they felt compelled to apologize to him. 

Following Hala’s videos, the church announced in a post on Facebook that it had suspended the teacher as a precaution and formed a committee with the Directorate of Education to follow up on the case. The director of education in Aleppo, Mustafa Abdel-Ghani, cast doubt on the allegations and stated that Hala was “trained and is using legal terminology; her testimony is rehearsed and not spontaneous.” He added that Sabaa was “suffering from bullying and severe pressure. … This is why we asked him to rest in his home to calm down.”

Last week, the bishop leading the committee announced in a statement that, while it sympathized with victims of acts of indecency, it had not received any testimony or evidence to support the allegations and urged the alleged victims to seek redress through the courts.

In a post on Facebook in response to the committee’s decision, Hala said she and her father had repeatedly reached out to the bishop for a whole week but had failed to speak with him, adding that three other young women had come forward to the committee with harassment allegations.

The case and its aftermath highlight the challenges of dealing with harassment allegations in the region. It also shows that, as in the West, powerful institutions (religious and otherwise) are just as likely to protect perpetrators.

The allegations triggered widespread debate on social media, especially in Aleppo. Two particular points were salient. The first is that many of Sabaa’s former students appeared unsurprised by the allegations and expressed their solidarity with the victims. The second is that the teacher’s supporters sought to besmirch the character of the victims, particularly Hala, by referring to a video of her dancing on TikTok.

A source close to Sabaa said that he described the incident as a fabrication by a woman of “bad character” with the aim of tarnishing Aleppo’s Christian community and damaging its schools and institutions, in an effort to attract sympathy and garner support.

The teacher’s defense highlights the insecurities facing the city’s Christian community, which constitutes a social space distinct from the dominant Islamic surroundings in a city with an overwhelming Sunni majority. Historically, this community’s development was associated with delegations of Western church missionaries in the city, who had a significant presence in the region. They increased openness to the West and its ideas and facilitated the access of children, first boys and then girls, in Aleppo’s Christian community to a superior education compared with what was available for others. They also paved ways to commercial relations with a diplomatic element through local European consulates. These circumstances created a kind of class distinction between the city’s Christian and Muslim communities, though many of these privileges were gradually lessened with the ascent of the Baath party to power and nationalization policies that affected foreign interests in the country. The loss of the privileges that the community had long enjoyed, along with the decline of civil society in Syria, including Aleppo, allowed the church to assume the role of patron and maintain its authority in its small community. This role was reinforced by the government’s tendency to deal with Christians as groups rather than individuals, and by the absence of appropriate mechanisms to produce local representative civil leaders.

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