As the Arab Spring protests reach Damascus, Syrian Christians look warily at a future without a time-tested autocrat to protect them from religious intolerance.
In Egypt, sectarian violence, an intermittent problem in the past, flared anew since the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak in February. Twelve people were killed, hundreds injured and a church was torched last week in clashes between Copts and Muslims in Cairo. Christians and secular-leaning Muslims placed blame on Salafis, who advocate a return to the practices of Islam’s earliest years.
In Iraq, where elections followed the U.S.-led invasion, Christians also have come under attack. Hundreds of thousands have fled to Syria, where minority Alawites, a Shiite Muslim sect, have ruled over the Sunni Muslim majority since President Bashar al-Assad’s father took power in 1970. They also found havens in Jordan and Lebanon.
“History has proven to us that Christians have always had more secure lives, better treatment by people who may be looked on as dictators, like Saddam Hussein,” said Archbishop Cyril Aphrem Karim, who leads a U.S. branch of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. In Syria, “our feeling is, if the regime falls, the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood will seize power and that is bad news for us.”
Under the Assad dynasty, Syrian Christians have swelled the ranks of a professional middle and upper class, enjoying secure lives while accounting for only one-tenth of the population.
As the two-month-long demonstrations against Assad’s 11- year rule have gained momentum, some Christians have taken leading roles while others have stayed quiet, according to Ahed Al Hendi, a Syrian Christian who founded the Syrian Youth for Justice movement and is a member of the human rights group cyberdissidents.org in Washington.
Many in the Christian community are worried, he said in an interview. “They saw the Iraqi example, but honestly not all of them, they want to live in a democratic country.”
Iraq’s Christian population was targeted by extremist groups after the 2003 war and has fallen to about 500,000 from about 1 million before the war, according to community group estimates. The last census was in 1987.
The Syrian regime has fed on the fears of a takeover by radical Islamists to justify a brutal crackdown against political opponents. Slogans were spotted during protests in Damascus that said “Christians to Beirut, Alawis to the grave,” according to Karim.
“Christians are getting frustrated” at how many people are getting killed as the army tries to restore order, Syrian blogger Camille Otrakji, based in Montreal, wrote in response to an e-mail. Still, it “is not something they want to say publicly as it is not proper to criticize the army.”
While Western governments have condemned Assad’s actions, they have stopped short of calling for a regime change. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said May 6 “that they have an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda.” Human rights group Insan said at least 632 people have been confirmed dead and 2,843 detained since Syria’s unrest began on March 15.
“Christians in Syria, similarly to those in Iraq under Saddam, face a depressing dilemma,” said Habib Malik, a professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. “Fears about open-ended chaos or a Sunni takeover do not mean they support the existing repressive Baath regimes.”
Syria doesn’t have a state religion. At the same time, the constitution says the president must be Muslim and the country’s family law states that a Christian man can’t marry a Muslim without converting.
“Christians want what others want: freedom, a say in shaping their communities and lives,” said Stephen Colecchi, director of the international justice and peace office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The question is: will genuine democracies that respect human rights take the place of oppressive governments? Not knowing the answer produces fear.”
Karim’s Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Egyptian Copts and Iraqi Chaldeans are among the myriad Christian communities that originated 2,000 years ago in the Middle East.
The bible recounts St. Paul’s conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus, whose Umayyad Mosque is said to contain the head of St. John the Baptist. Antioch, in modern-day Turkey, was the site of the first church founded by St. Peter. Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, was spoken by Jesus and his apostles.
Still, a history that predates Islam won’t guarantee the communities’ survival. Today, Lebanon is the only country left in the Middle East where Christians still hold political influence, accounting for 39 percent of the population compared with 3 percent in Iraq, according to the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report released last November.
As a young boy in Syria in the 1960s, Karim, now 46, recalls learning Aramaic at school in Qamishli when the northeastern Syrian city was made up mostly of Syriac Christians who had fled Armenia. Now, Muslims in his hometown outnumber Christians five to one.
That reversal, reflected elsewhere in the Middle East, has left Christian communities staring at extinction.
Karim, who frequently travels to Washington from his New Jersey home, has not much faith that the U.S. will help after repeated meetings with State Department officials and lawmakers such as Representatives Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, and Democrat Anna Eschoo, the only member of Congress of Assyrian descent.
“I don’t feel the U.S. is really concerned by Christians in the Middle East,” Karim said. “They listen, they show interest, but we don’t see, especially from the State Department, tangible signs they are worried and want to do something for them. There is just not much sympathy.”
-- With assistance from Caroline Alexander in London. Editors: Steven Komarow, Terry Atlas
To contact the reporters on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at email@example.com