(Photo: AP Images / Khalil Hamra)
Reports that Syrian Christians are throwing their support behind President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled the Western Asian country for 40 years, may at first sound daunting.
But considering the possibility of Islamic extremists replacing the regime and the small Christian population being left to fend for themselves, some understand that fears of uncertainty are compelling them toward backing al-Assad.
"They see what's happening in other countries, specifically what's happened in Egypt where we see a regime change but even more attacks against Christian churches, and they're afraid that's what's going to happen in Syria," Jerry Dykstra, spokesman for persecution watchdog Open Doors USA, told The Christian Post.
To put it into perspective, Dykstra noted that Christians in Syria – approximately 1.5 million (or eight to nine percent of the population) – currently have relative freedoms, including the freedom to worship. And Syria is ranked No. 38 out of 50 countries on Open Doors' list of the worst Christian persecutors in the world.
"That's pretty moderate persecution," he said.
While Syria is one of the most tolerant countries in the Middle East regarding religious freedom for Christians, its track record hasn't been perfect, he added. Last year, the government closed at least six buildings where Christians had gathered. Several Christians were also arrested and interrogated because of their Christian activities, according to Open Doors. And foreign Christians were forced to leave the country, with their visas no longer renewed.
But when they consider the alternative, such as the introduction of Sharia (Islamic) law, Christians are siding with the current government.
They see that their relative freedom to worship could erode under a regime change, Dykstra said. "If these fanatical groups get in control there'd be no protection for churches. Already, we heard that churches in other religious places have to provide their own protection."
Uprisings against al-Assad, who became president in 2000 after the death of his father, began in March, following the toppling of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
Protesters are demanding freedom and calling on the president to step down. The government has cracked down on demonstrators, killing hundreds, according to human rights groups.
President Obama imposed sanctions against al-Assad and his top officials on Wednesday over the brutal crackdown. In a speech Thursday, Obama said al-Assad has the choice of either leading the transition to the democracy that people are calling for, or getting out of the way.
Though Syrian Christians back the current regime, Dykstra made it clear that they do not condone the violence being perpetrated by the government against innocent people. Moreover, the Christian community does endorse reforms, he added.
Bob Roberts, an evangelical pastor from Texas who travels the world forming relationships with Muslims, doesn't view the protests as "anti-government" but rather as "freedom" protests.
While he said he can't speak to the specific situation in Syria and the church there, he does maintain that "a free society has a better chance long term of ensuring rights than a dictatorship."
"In the end, if you bless the dictator, you bow to Caesar," he told CP. "The Gospel will spread regardless of who is in office, but when Christianity gets too cozy with the government – regardless of the form of government – history shows it loses its power."
Generally, freedom of course is better than dictatorship, Dykstra agreed. But the question is, "is there truly going to be freedom of religion for Christians? Or is there going to be Sharia law?"
"We don't know," he responded. "So that's the quandary of Christians in Syria."
A Syrian pastor submitted a prayer request to Open Doors, asking that people pray for peace to come to the country, that extremists groups won't come to power, and that the church will be safe.