A senior cleric from Syria's Christian minority said everyone loves President Bashar al-Assad and that he was still the best man to enact reforms, despite his military crackdown on pro-democracy unrest.
Yohana Ibrahim, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, told the Austrian newspaper Die Presse that most Christians supported both Assad and demands for democracy, but that killings by Assad supporters and opponents had to end.
If he is willing to lead these (democratic) reforms, then he is the best man for this because he has the experience and has led the country for more than 10 years, Ibrahim was quoted as saying in an interview published on Friday.
He is the president, everyone loves him. Not just Christians, the Muslims too. But that is not enough. We need good leadership for the future. Assad is one of the right people to attain the changes that are needed.
Ibrahim acknowledged, however, that others -- including opposition figures -- could also govern the country.
Yes. Why not? Syria is open, he said in the interview that was conducted during a trip to Vienna.
Syria's minority Christians have watched protests sweeping their country since March with trepidation, fearing their religious freedom could be threatened if Assad's autocratic, but secular rule is overthrown.
Sunni Muslims form a majority in Syria, but under four decades of rule by Assad and his father, who belong to the minority Alawite sect, varied religious groups have enjoyed the right to practice their faith.
For many Syrian Christians, the flight of the co-religionists from sectarian conflict in neighbouring Iraq and attacks on Christians in Egypt highlight the dangers they fear they could face if Assad succumbs to the wave of popular uprisings in the Arab world that broke out early this year.
According to the United Nations, more than 3,500 people have been killed in a violent attempt to quell unrest in Syria, which the authorities blame on Islamist militants and armed gangs.
Many of the demonstrators say they want democracy and an end to Assad family rule, but deny their revolt is sectarian, saying Assad plays on the fears of minorities to perpetuate his power.
(Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Alistair Lyon)