(Photo: Reuters/Ali Jarekji)
Will Christians in Syria – which has thus far been a relatively safe haven for religious minorities amid recent turmoil in the Middle East – be persecuted by Muslim extremists and forced to migrate after the fall of President Bashar Assad, as was the case with Iraqi Christians after the fall of Saddam Hussein? Yes, according to experts, and that prospect has Syria's Christians already making plans to flee.
A senior Syrian bishop who spoke with a Christian advocacy group, Aide to the Church in Need (ACN), recently said that as a Christian leader, he fears the danger of a mass exodus of the faithful, similar to the one that happened in Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and the fall of Hussein.
Both countries traditionally had a significant population of Assyrian Christians. In addition, thousands of Iraqi Christians sought sanctuary in Syria, which today has an estimated 2.5 million faithful who have traditionally prospered in that country, which used to be one of the most liberal and tolerant countries in the Middle East, even if ruled by a despotic leader.
Christians in Syria have thus far been mostly in support of Assad's regime, fearing that the rule of a new, post-revolutionary government might bring persecution, as also Egyptian Copts experienced during Hosni Mubarak's ouster. Although a bloody dictator, Assad has been preventing religious groups, especially Muslim extremists, from targeting religious minorities, including Syrian Christians, who constitute the largest cluster of Christians in the Middle East.
The bishop, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said that the Christian community is fearful that the fall of Assad's regime will bring sectarian violence like it did in Iraq, where over 300,000 or more Christians were forced to leave the country after the U.S.-led invasion.
"We Christians want to stay in Syria and live peacefully and with everybody and continue our presence serving our country and our people," he told ACN. But the insecurity and violence encourages them to leave. Christians have also been known to be caught in the crossfire between the rebels and the government forces, like all Syrian citizens in areas where the fighting takes place.
The bishop also implied he is against foreign intervention in Syria, saying the country was capable of resolving its problems internally. "We do not accept foreign intervention," he told ACN. "Action of this kind is against every international law. We are able to organise ourselves and continue our life (sic)."
The bishop's comments follow several disquieting reports concerning religious minorities who have been flowing from that overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country. Assyrian Christians make up around five percent of the Syrian population, according to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), which reported this week that the religious group fears they will have to leave the country immediately in case the regime falls. The total Christian population in Syria is estimated to be around 10 percent.
"There is great concern and fear among the Assyrians," Rima Haro, a political scientist and Middle East expert, herself of Assyrian origin, told the agency. "Many think they will have to leave the country as soon as possible should the regime suddenly fall as a result of the uprising."
"To be perfectly honest, I dread the prospect of a regime collapse," Haro, who now lives in Sweden, said. "I have relatives and friends living there, and I fear for what will happen to them. It will be Iraq or Egypt all over again."
Haro emphasized that in no way does she support dictatorship, but the fact remains that the Assyrians, with a long history of religious persecution behind them, have had a relatively easy time under Assad, compared to many of their brethren in other countries in the region, AINA reports. Should fundamentalist forces from the majority Sunni population come to power in Syria, the risk of religious persecution seems obvious to the Assyrians, Haro is convinced.
The Assyrians are an ethnic group, traditionally spread out over Syria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey, but with a large diaspora in other parts of the world. As Christians in the Muslim-dominated Middle East, they have faced rounds of persecution throughout history, and just like the Kurds, they have not had a nation-state as a homeland.
A peaceful group, largely content with enjoying their religious freedom and not being persecuted, the Assyrians have never challenged the Ba'ath Party's authority. This is also a reason why they have enjoyed relative peace and quiet under the Assad regime, Haro said. Unlike the Kurds, who have carried on an armed struggle for decades, the Assyrians do not pursue dreams of a homeland.
The Assyrian International News Agency also warned against a pattern of "sacrificing" Christians in the Middle East for political goals, especially following the turmoil of the Arab Spring.