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The Christians Of Syria: A Minority's Dilemma Amidst The Arab Spring

Torn between their hunger for freedom and fear of radical Islam, Syria’s ancient minority Christians do not know whether to support the protesters or Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Passion Sunday at the Chaldean Parish in Bab Tuma, Damascus

DAMASCUS - “What does the future hold for us, Christians,” Randa Khoury wonders aloud. For the last 6 months, she’s been glued to her television, flipping through channels trying to follow the news about a revolution she both supports, yet fears its eventual consequences. Randa, her husband Rami and their 3 children live in Qossour, a neighborhood facing the ancient grey walls of Bab Tuma, the Christian quarter of old Damascus.

Every night, boys and girls fill the streets, holding hands. Skirts are short and cafés crowded, including the locale belonging to the son of a former head of intelligence services. But all café owners make sure Al Jazeera, the Qatari channel vigorously opposed to al-Assad’s regime, is not turned on. In Qossour, like everywhere else in Damacsus, the ears of power are never far. “All the fruit and vegetable sellers you see along our street are secret police agents,” says Rami Khoury.

After six months of rebellion against President Assad and a crackdown that the UN says has caused more than 2,200 deaths, life in Qossour appears to be back to normal. “The first months, past 7 p.m., the streets were empty,” remembers Rami. “No one wanted to believe protests broke in Syria. It was just impossible.” Though the streets are filled again, he says “the country is still paralyzed.”

When the revolt started, the Khourys were undecided about whether to support it, figuring the ironclad regime would quickly tame the protesters. They now clearly support the opposition, differently than the majority of the two million Christians who strongly support Assads’ secular power that they see as a bulwark against Islamism and the potential for religious conflicts like those that followed Saddam Hussein’s fall in Iraq in 2003. What they fear the most, it seems, is the void that would be left by the fall of a regime that has held everything in place in Syria for the past 40 years.

Because the crisis continues, and so much blood has already been spilled, Rami Khoury is still worried. He fears the country will be divided in three: the Druze in the south, the Alawis – the minority which the Assads are from - in the North and Christians, who would remain a minority with the Sunnis. “Since there are Christians scattered everywhere, we would be isolated,” Khoury says. “Imagine my village in the south is under Druze authority, how will I get my lands back? The USSR and Iraq, have been carved up, why wouldn’t it also happen in Syria?”

The exodus of hundred thousands Iraqi Christians after Saddam Hussein’s fall and the religious war which tore their neighbours apart, haunt the Christians from Syria, whose origins there date back to the time of the apostles.

Despite the fact that one of the pillars of the revolution undermining the Assad clan is actually the refusal of religious divisions, the recent display of Islamist slogans worries many Christians. Najib, a teacher, says Salafists are not yet active elements of the revolt, “but some of them are clandestine.” The Muslim Brotherhood don’t currently have leaders in Syria, he explains, “but still have sympathizers.”

Sitting in his scented patio in Bab Tuma, Youssef declares that no one in the neighborhood fears Muslims. “I’m 84. Before the Ba’ath (the political movement mixing nationalists and socialists to call for a united Arab World that included the Assad family), Syria had Muslim prime ministers and relations were very good between Muslims and Christians.”

Still, the 8% of the Syrian population that is Christian has much to lose if Assad is overthrown. Fiercely secular – even though for 10 years his government has been flattering Muslims – Assad and his entourage loathe Christians, along with Islamist fundamentalists. Still Christians can freely practice their faith, and are well represented in the regime’s hierarchy (the new Defence Minister is one).

Today however, the community is split over the conspicuous support of the regime by some prominent Christian figures, like Georges Chaoui, a member of a well-established Damascus family of manufacturers, who proudly became head of a digital army in charge of intercepting messages from protesters on the Internet.

A loyalist bishop

The pro-Assad calls from the Greek Orthodox Church also bother more than one Christian. Monsignor Louqa al-Khoury, bishop of Marth Mariam Church, does not mind being seen as a regime henchman. He says protesters asking for freedom are “criminals who kill policemen.”

“Their protests are funded by people outside of Syria,” al-Khoury says. “Protesting just isn’t part of Syrian culture. Only a few Christians are actually taking to the streets. Ninety-nine percent of them are supporting Assad’s regime.”

Fearing the consequences of such provocations, Christian intellectuals wrote an open letter to call on the clergy not to speak publicly on behalf of the whole community. “You have to understand that our clergy are on good terms with the Mukhabarat (intelligence services) because it has a strong hold on them. The regime knows about the depravity of some of our prelates,” says one Christian analyst in Damascus, explaining that there is always a pro-Assad passage in the priest’s Sunday homily.

Like in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Christian hierarchy in Syria has seen the dictatorship as the only defense against Islamism. But an Alawi pro-democracy protester calls it regime propaganda, insisting that Islam in Syria is conservative but not extremist. ”I’m telling all my Christian friends not to be afraid of Syrian Islam…and don’t miss the revolution train!”

Randa Khoury also believes it’s time for a change, making herself a minority within her Christian minority. “Tomorrow’s Syria won’t be like today’s. People’s voices have been freed. The wall of fear has collapsed. Winning over our freedom is a risk worth taking.”

Read the original article in French

Photo - michael_swan

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