- (Photo: Reuters/SANA/Handout)
Christians in Syria have found themselves faced with a moral dilemma. On the one hand, many feel they have an obligation to oppose President Bashar al-Assad, despite calls from protesters for a toppling of his authoritarian regime. Others, however, are concerned with the possibility that if they do support the pro-democracy protests, believers could eventually find their lives threatened by Muslim extremists.
Although President Assad, who has been in power since 2000, is seen as a dictator, his regime is considered secular, according to experts. Syria has also been a safe haven for religious minorities in the Middle East.
While individual Christians may be unsure of where to place their support, church officials, on the other hand, have uniformly expressed support for the government, having called for an end to protests and a move toward reconciliation.
Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III, head of the Syriac Catholic Church, recently condemned the U.S. and European Union for supporting the protests, inspired by the Arab Spring movement. Joseph accused Western powers of sacrificing Christians of the Middle East for political gain.
"The Christians in Syria face a dilemma: They are morally obliged to support the protesters, but if Assad falls, sectarian strife could ravage the country and Islamic terrorists will target the Christians as they have in Iraq and Egypt," Ryan Mauro, a national security analyst and Adviser on Radical Islam at Christian Action Network, told The Christian Post. "If they support Assad and then he falls, they could be targets for revenge. That is why you see the Christian community in Syria largely silent, not knowing what to do."
"The Christians may ideally want democracy instead of Assad, but their community can't enjoy that freedom if they are being destroyed," Mauro added.
Gwendolen Cates, a filmmaker who produced a documentary on religious minorities in Iraq, told CP recently that Syria is the last remaining secular country in the Middle East and has been open to receiving religious refugees, despite being "a very oppressive regime."
Syria has the largest Christian minority of all the countries in the region. Sunni Muslims make up 74 percent of the population, while Christians constitute around 10 percent, according to data from the U.S. Department of State (a recent Pew report put that figure at 5 percent in 2010). The main reason for Syria's high number of Christians is due to Assad's long history of keeping his country secular and keeping sectarian violence and persecution of religious minorities in check, experts told CP. In fact, Syria is a safe haven for persecuted believers in the Middle East. Thousands of Christians driven from Iraq by rising Muslim extremism have found refuge in Syria.
When shooting her documentary about Iraqi religious minorities, Cates met with many Christians who had escaped to Syria. Their situation is far from good, she said – they are not legally allowed to work and live in poverty.
However, they do not fear for their lives simply because of their faith.
In Syria, "people live side by side, and Syrians are very proud of the state of religious tolerance" in the country, Cates said. There is a Muslim, Jewish, and a Christian quarter in Damascus, and no conflicts between these are evident. "You can be strolling through the city and hear church bells ringing, and that's near a mosque," the filmmaker told CP.
Christianity is an important element of Syria's history of religious diversity and coexistence. Damascus was one of the first regions to receive Christianity during the ministry of the apostle Paul. Many fear that status quo will change if Islamic parties come to power.
"While Syrian Christians want a secular state, many prefer reforms to be made under Assad rather than an elected government, which they fear will be Islamist-based and thus disrupt the delicate balance of equality that has made Syria a model state for religious freedom in the Middle East," Aidan Clay, a regional manager at International Christian Concern, a Christian advocacy group, said in a statement emailed to CP.
Western governments might not be fully aware that by supporting the protesters, they are actually exposing local Christians to future danger, experts insist.
David Wood, a Christian activist specializing in radical Islam, told CP that sectarian violence is held at bay because even the Muslim extremists are afraid to attract the regime's wrath.
"Syria is a prime example of a Muslim-majority country with a brutal secular regime," Wood told CP in an email.
"Even militant Muslims rarely attack Christians in Syria, largely because even militant Muslims are terrified of the government. Many people view the Syrian regime the same way they viewed Saddam Hussein's regime: 'Get rid of the evil tyrant, and all will be well,' " Wood explained.
"But here's the catch: Assad is brutal, but he's equally brutal towards everyone (Muslim and non-Muslim). If Islamists take over the country (and they most certainly will if the secular regime falls), they will be every bit as brutal as Assad. But they will not treat people equally. Christians will be in quite a bit of trouble (as will even minority sects of Muslims)."
When Hussein's regime was toppled in Iraq in 2003, the nation saw a rise in sectarian violence and, eventually, multiple attacks against religious minorities. According to a recent study by Minority Rights Group International, only 500,000 Christians currently remain in Iraq, as compared to between 800,000 and 1.4 million in 2003.
Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bi-partisan governmental agency fighting for religious freedom of peoples across the globe, expressed recently that Christianity is facing eradication in the Middle East altogether, due to the rise of radical Islamists persecuting religious minorities (of which Christians are the largest). There are about 15 million Christians currently living in the Middle East, according to USCIRF's 2011 annual report.
The recent history of Egypt also does not give Syrian Christians an encouraging example. After President Hosni Mubarak was ousted following protests, Coptic Christians started experiencing attacks from Muslim extremists in the country.
As Syrian Christians observe the mass exodus of Christians fleeing the Middle East, they realize that their way of life will also be threatened if an Islamist-based government rises to power, Clay of International Christian Concern told CP. In letters ICC received from Syrian Protestant church leaders, Christians have expressed fears and uncertainty over the future of their homeland.
"Look at what happened in Egypt and Iraq," a Syrian church leader who asked to remain anonymous reportedly told ICC recently. "Christians want to peacefully go out and ask for certain changes, but Islamist groups are sneaking in with their goal, which is not to make changes for the betterment of Syria, but to take over the country with their agenda. Christians will be the first to pay if this happens."
The tense situation calls most of all for the attention of Western powers, multiple sources told CP. The U.S. government has been vocal about supporting the pro-democracy movements sweeping through the Middle East under the banner of the Arab Spring, but observers say the Obama administration remains too passive on the issue of violence against Christians that often occur after the fall of a regime.