BEIRUT: Pope Benedict XVI visits Lebanon this week at a time when Christian refugees from the war-torn city of Aleppo in neighboring Syria are fearful for their future.
Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, has for the past two months been the focal point of fighting in the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Christians are a relatively prosperous minority in Syria and they account for as much as 10 percent of the population of the northern city, with half of them being Armenians.
Sitting at a cafe in Beirut’s upscale and mainly Christian district of Ashrafieh, a graduate student spoke of the hopes and anxieties of the Christian community ahead of the pope’s visit.
“When the protests began in Egypt, I thought maybe there would be peaceful protests in Syria, but not war,” said the Syrian Catholic, who declined to be named. “Now it’s just the Free [Syrian] Army and the army. The people are the victims. They can’t do anything.”
The student said many Christian refugees, loathe to give up hope of returning to their homeland after the conflict, were looking for a message of encouragement from the pontiff.
“He should say that the Christians must have courage and not leave the region,” said the young man. “If they do, we will just be another page in the history books.”
An Orthodox Christian who asked to be identified only by the initial of her first name, J, said that before the Syrian revolt broke out in March 2011, life in Lebanon was good.
“Now it’s very different,” she said. “Some people ask you how things are because they really care about what’s going on in Syria. But others make fun of you and say: ‘Now it’s your turn.’”
For three decades, from the time of its own 1975-1990 Civil War, Lebanon lived under the domination of its larger neighbor.
At the same time, the Syrian conflict has stoked tensions and deadly clashes in Lebanon, whose political factions, including the Christian community, are divided between supporters and opponents of Assad.
In this atmosphere, the pope will need to walk a fine line as he seeks to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to the region.
Before July, Aleppo remained largely immune from the anti-regime uprising that erupted with peaceful protests but became an armed insurrection in the face of a brutal crackdown.
“You’re either pro- or anti-regime,” said J. “There is no middle ground.”
The biggest fear for Syrian Christians is the prospect of a post-Assad Syria which many fear will be dominated by hard-line Islamists.
“The problem in Aleppo is that the Christian community for a long time has been very tight-knit, very closed,” the Catholic student said. “I don’t know many Muslims.”
J said all religious groups mix at university and in the public sphere, but when it comes to her family’s social circle, they prefer to associate with fellow Christians.
Minorities are well represented in the ranks of opposition activists, but more broadly, Christians feel their fate is tied to the embattled regime, which has long presented itself as the guardian of minority rights.
“If Assad goes, the Muslim Brotherhood will come and I doubt the Christian community will have any future in such a regime,” J said.
Lebanon, home to the second-largest Christian community in the Middle East after Egypt, offers a temporary safe haven for Syrian refugees. But it is also not considered a stable option.
“For the future, Lebanon is not safer than Syria. It can explode in a minute,” J said.
She hopes the pope will encourage Christians to hold their ground in the face of an uncertain future. “I want him to tell Syrian Christians to keep the faith and not to leave, to keep strong and stay in your country.”