More than 10,000 people have died at the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government since the dissident rebellion began last year. By all accounts, his political cover is rapidly shredding. Yet, there is one group in Syria that Assad has been able to count on for unquestioning support: the country's 2 million Christians.
The Assad regime wants stability, said the Rev. Philip LeMasters, an Orthodox priest and dean of the school of social sciences and religion at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. They haven't wanted religious wars. So the churches and Muslim communities that exist there have been able to do so in relative harmony.
When LeMasters visited Syria in October 2010, he met Christians who were joyful, apparently happy people who were able to practice their faith without fear, he recalled. Next to portraits of the patriarch of Antioch, the spiritual leader of the Syrian Church, hung pictures of Assad in all of the country's churches.
LeMasters saw evidence of Assad's outreach to the Christian community at numerous turns. For example, he traveled to a monastery that wanted to build a playground for children, but couldn't afford it: The president donated the materials to complete the project.
This isn't the first time that Christians in the Middle East have supported dictators in acts of self-preservation. Under Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and (Shah) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran, Christians enjoyed protection by the secular government and, hence, maintained support for these dying regimes well past their viability.
But the Christians' peaceful ride on the wrong side of history in Syria -- or at least the unpopular side of the country's Arab Spring -- may be short-lived. Like Syria itself, the government's opposition and the rebel groups fighting the regime are mostly Sunni Muslims; only about 10 percent of the country's population are Christians. If Assad were removed from power, the Sunni majority would likely gain control. The Christians -- as well as the minority Alawites, Assad's religious group, and other Shiite Muslims -- would almost certainly be marginalized and, worse yet, persecuted for their beliefs.
The chaos and sectarian violence in post-Assad Syria will be confessional [religious], and war in the name of God is far worse than a political struggle, Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Yonan warned last October, just seven months into the uprising. And this is what we fear.
The patriarch's sentiment has since been echoed by outside observers such as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who cited the possibility of a religious civil war as a reason not to arm rebel fighters last month. Moreover, his predictions have already begun to come true: Some in Syria claim the two sides are no longer pro-government against anti-government, but Alawite and Shiite Muslims versus Sunni Muslims, which not only leaves out the Christians but also potentially brings Syria's Shiite neighbors, such as Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah, into the nasty fray.
As recently as March, Christians were reportedly expelled from parts of Homs, a city in western Syria, by the Islamist militia Brigade Faruq, which is fighting against Assad, although it is closer to al Qaeda than it is to the opposition. These types of armed rebels, often Islamic extremists, are allegedly taking advantage of the chaos in Syria and putting the church at risk.
A similar situation has already unfolded in Iraq, where violence has caused more than one-half of the country's 1.5 million Christians to flee since the beginning of the American-led invasion in 2003. More than 70 churches have been bombed in Iraq during the past eight years, many by al Qaeda insurgents. One of the most serious incidents took place in October 2010, the so-called Black Sunday Massacre, when terrorists opened fire on a service in Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic Church, killing 53 Syriac Christians.
This type of sectarian fighting in Syria and the region is working in Assad's favor, at the moment. Assad has blamed these terrorist elements for all of the death and destruction in his country. In so doing, Assad is trying to portray himself as the protector of secularism and religious rights.
From day one, the government gave the impression that without it there would be no secular society anymore, said Syrian lawyer Hind Aboud Kabawat, a Christian. The regime wanted to create the idea of sectarian war. Sectarian war is the only thing that can protect this regime, because it can say to the Christians and Alawites, 'Look what happened without us.'
Many in Syria believe Assad's strategy for staying in power is so dependent on convincing people of the horrors of religious violence that he has ordered sectarian attacks himself to show how ghastly Syria's future could be without him.
During what is known as the Houla massacre on May 25, militiamen loyal to the government allegedly murdered 108 civilians, including about 50 children and 34 women, along a string of interconnected villages in Homs province. The killers, believed to be members of an Alawite paramilitary group, primarily executed Sunni Muslims. This was an attempt by the government to foment religious tension, perhaps even a Sunni retribution against a nearby Alawite community, according to Kabawat.
Some, like Lebanese blogger Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, think it's the other way around -- that the Houla massacre was Alawite retribution for killings committed by Sunni rebels. But, regardless of which version of the incident is true, in Syria religion is clearly being wielded as a weapon of war.
Still, despite the fear of a nonsecular Syria, the situation in the country is deteriorating so quickly that some Christians are now joining the anti-government movement. Christians hold seats in the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, and some Kurds -- who form Syria's largest ethnic minority, as well as one of the most discriminated against -- are Christians and fighting with the rebels.
Activist Hadeel Kouky, who was harassed, jailed, and allegedly beaten and tortured by the government because she spoke out against the regime, said that support for secularism by the government goes only so far. I am a Christian, a member of the minority that the regime proclaims is protected by it, Kouky said. The regime tortured me just like other prisoners, regardless of their age, gender, or sect.
Added Kabawat, After 15,000 dead, you have to have a moral responsibility toward your people.
If recent events are any indication, Christians worried about their role -- and their survival -- in post-Assad Syria are right to be concerned.
During the Egyptian revolution last year, Christian Copts formed a human chain around praying Muslims in Tahrir Square to protect them from Mubarak's secret police. Since the fall of the old regime, however, the Copts have been exposed to an escalated level of discrimination. As a result, about 10,000 Christians have left Egypt since Mubarak was deposed -- and many are wary of returning now that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups are likely to seize control of the country.
Recently, the Syrian National Council has tried to allay Christians' fears. The SNC's newly elected president, Abdel Basset Sayda -- who stated he wants to expand the basis of the group to be an umbrella under which all the opposition gathers -- said on Saturday that if the opposition movement succeeds, there will be no discrimination based on gender or sects. The new Syria will be a democratic state.
We would like to reassure all sects and groups, especially Alawites and Christians, that the future of Syria will be for the all of us, Sayda said.
Some Syrian Christians are willing to take Sayda at his word. We lived all those years together, Kabawat said. We are neighbors and friends. We speak the same language and go to the same schools. We have to fear a government that is killing us, not each other.