President Bashar al-Assad appears to have declared war on his own people through a brutal, year-old crackdown that has claimed the lives of at least 7,000 people. So it is perhaps surprising to learn that Syria has long been a diverse society in which minorities and women have enjoyed certain rights and freedoms unknown in most other Arab nations.
Aside from Sunni Muslims, the dominant community, Syria’s population also boasts communities of Christians, Kurds, Armenians, Druze and Greeks.
Assad is himself a minority belong to the Alawites, who are Shia Muslims.
International Business Times spoke to an expert on the Middle East to explore Syria’s demographic features, particularly its Christian population.
H.L. Murre-van den Berg is a professor at the Institute for Religious Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
IB TIMES: How large is Syria's Christian community?
MURRE-VAN DEN BERG: It is generally estimated at about 8 to 10 percent of the population --- usually these numbers given by government officials are on the high side.
On the other hand, the number of Christians in Syria recently went up because of substantial numbers of Iraqi Christian refugees – the UN up to 80,000 crossed into Syria from Iraq.
In addition, in contrast to Egypt, the Syrian Christian community is very diverse – including Armenians, Assyrians, and Syriac-Orthodox, among others -- with many of them arriving as migrants during the twentieth century.
IB TIMES: According to Syria's constitution, the President of the country must always be Muslim - despite this, is it true that Christians have enjoyed freedom and rights in Syria?
MURRE-VAN DEN BERG: Yes, in general this is true – hey have enjoyed some freedom and rights, although limited by
the general limitations to freedom of speech imposed on everyone in Syria (especially concerning political issues), and by the limits to conversion from Islam to Christianity.
But other than that, Christians in Syria, especially when compared to Iraq and even Turkey, have enjoyed considerable freedom, with respect to such things as building churches and monasteries in many places, establishing schools and other institutions, and in openly showing their Christian identities (through dress, etc.).
However, over the last decade the social pressure to conform to Muslim norms (again, mostly in dress) have increased, and in some workplaces this has caused some trouble for Christians.
In general, Christians have migrated from Syria not so much because of violence or governmental restrictions, but rather
to seek better opportunities for education and work elsewhere in
combination with these increasing social pressures.
Indeed, Syria has low-quality state education, very expensive private education, and a malfunctioning economy -- many reasons for the well-educated Christians to leave and thus contribute to the slowly declining relative (not absolute) numbers of Christians.
IB TIMES: Syrian Christians have appeared to support Bashar al-Assad during this ongoing crisis -- why do they support him?
MURRE-VAN DEN BERG: Because most Christians think Bashar is their best bet in securing relative peace and stability – i.e., anything else is frightening -- and because upheaval in itself that tends to harm minorities the most; but, of course, mostly because Christians fear a radical Islamist government will take over once al-Assad is gone. A radical government that will not only further restrict social possibilities for Christians but might even allow extremists to actually attack Christians.
To what extent these fears are based on reality is uncertain, but really very few people know what kind of government will take over – however, it is likely that the next government will be more Islamist than the Assad regime. Whether it will actually persecute Christians is rather unlikely.
And also note that in neighboring Turkey, the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AK) in some ways deals better with Turkey’s own Christian minorities than many of its secular predecessors.
IB TIMES: Assad and his regime are themselves minorities in Syria -- as Shia Alawites. Has he maintained control by allying himself with other minority groups in the country against the dominant Sunni Muslims?
MURRE-VAN DEN BERG: Yes - Christians certainly belong to the wider power base of Bashar, who especially worked to consolidate his support through the leaders of these churches.
IB TIMES: Despite the brutality of the current crackdown, is it true that minorities and women in Syria enjoyed a level of freedom unknown in most other Arab nations?
MURRE-VAN DEN BERG: Yes, that is true.
IB TIMES: If Assad's regime collapses, do you expect Syria's Christians to flee?
MURRE-VAN DEN BERG: Perhaps, though it is difficult to see where they would go. I suppose most would first wait and see what comes next.
IB TIMES: When Saddam fell in Iraq, did Iraqi Christians flee to Syria? If so, how many?
MURRE-VAN DEN BERG: No, they did not flee immediately, it was only after radicals started to target Christians by bombing churches (especially after August 2005) and kidnapping Christians, including clergy members.
Of course, a major difference so far is that Iraq was occupied by foreign forces which the Christians were seen (mostly incorrectly) as supporting.
To put it another way, targeting Christians in Iraq is/was a way to target the occupiers -- which was probably one of the reasons why the official state response was rather slow.
In addition, the American takeover had paralyzed many government structures by removing all those associated with
the earlier regime, making it very hard to adequately respond to the violence.
I think the conclusion should be that the west should be very careful when it considers ousting Bashar al-Assad -- a western occupation may harm rather than protect Christians and the other minorities in Syria.
IB TIMES: Did Assad and his government welcome the Syrian Christian refugees with open arms?
MURRE-VAN DEN BERG: No, Syria did not welcome them with open arms, but mostly allowed them to stay.
However, little to no financial support was provided to them, for example, their children were/are not allowed into state schools etc. In fact, many live in dire poverty, and depend on gifts from local Christians, the United Nations refugee agency and other non-government organizations.
A somewhat similar situation exists in Jordan, again with little state support for the refugees.
IB TIMES: Are there any Christians among the Syrian opposition? Or are they overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim?
MURRE-VAN DEN BERG: I'm not aware of the exact numbers or percentages, but clearly there are Christians involved in the opposition.
It’s very important to realize all the different sides of the opposition.
For example, the Kurdish population has long criticized the Assad regime and have joined the opposition, but in some ways they are critical of the opposition as well.
Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO), which represents the Assyrian people, has a long history of opposition to the Damascus government -- many of its members have served prison sentences, or have fled to the west.
Over the last few years, however, Assad allowed the organization to meet openly under very strict supervision and with strong limits on its political activities. The ADO group it represents sees itself as not only religiously, but also ethnically and culturally
different from the majority population.