BEIRUT: As an increasing number of Syrians take to the streets to demand sweeping government reforms, many Syrian Christians are still hesitant to do so – afraid of an uncertain future as a minority that has until now been safe under the current secular government.
“To be honest, everybody’s worried,” Yohana Ibrahim, archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo told The Daily Star on a recent visit to Beirut. While he supports the demands for reform being made by the protesters, he emphasizes that he would not want the instability that potentially could come with a change in government and he hopes a national dialogue can soon be reached.
He says: “We don’t want what happened in Iraq to happen in Syria. We don’t want the country to be divided. And we don’t want Christians to leave Syria.”
This is perhaps why many of Syria’s Christians have remained largely silent since the popular uprising began just over three months ago. Most of the protests have taken place after Friday prayers in rural areas, with only minimal turnout in Damascus and Aleppo, the two largest, majority Sunni cities, where also the majority of Syria’s Christians reside.
Syria’s Christians comprise about 10 percent of the country’s population of 20 million. Most are concentrated in the country's large cities, while there are also sizable communities on the coast and in the Hauran region, where the uprising began in March. So far, very few have been prominent in the uprising, which activists say has caused the deaths of more than 1,400 civilians as a result of a violent government crackdown.
Many people believe the community’s relative absence from protests is due to the stability they enjoy under the Alawite-run secular government, which has shown favoritism toward the country’s urban business elite – including secular Muslims and Christians – while taking a hard line against Islamist movements over the past 40 years.
“I’ve met Syrian Christians who’ve defended the regime because it’s not Islamic, but I think this could backfire on them,” says Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. “If they link themselves to a dictatorial regime that is largely disliked by the Syrian people, then some might think this will justify reprisals against them.”
Others are sympathetic to the idea that Syrian Christians are simply scared of chaos and persecution if the ongoing protests lead to Islamist overthrowing the secular Baath party government, similar to events in Iraq.
“It is the devil we know better than the devil we don't know, I don't blame them,” says Hind Aboud Kabawat, a Syrian Christian who divides her time between Toronto and Damascus, and who won the 2007 Women's Peace Initiative award.
“It is not pleasant to see the Iraqi Christian refugees leaving Iraq after thousands of years of living in Iraq, or seeing Iran after the toppling of the Shah to have the Mullah.”
Historically, in a region of unrest, Syria has been a place of stability and sanctuary for Christians. Tens of thousands fled there to safety following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. And Christian holidays are nationally recognized in Syria.
Still, Kabawat seems to see it as being in Syrian Christians’ long-term interest to support the protesters.
“Remember, if you are a real good Christian you have to side with the oppressed and not with the oppressors,” she says. “It is scary, but if we all fight for a real civil society and include everybody in the system and learn how to accept others things will be fine.”
In fact, Syrian Christians have a long history of political activism – from their opposition to the French mandate and their role in founding the Baath party in the 1940s to their military service alongside Muslims in the country’s wars against Israel.
Today, several prominent members of Syria’s opposition are Christian, including Michel Kilo, Akram Bunni and Fayez Sara.
However, observers say Syrian Christians have yet to be seen in large numbers in the ongoing protests, despite efforts from the beginning to engage Christians. For example, one of the country’s earliest Friday protests – which took place on Good Friday – was dedicated to the Christian community.
Ausama Monajed, a Syrian activist abroad says he isn’t too worried about the low turnout of Christian protesters in Syria, something he thinks will change with time once the protests increase in size, and as long as the opposition keeps to its secular message.
“Minorities are always scared. It’s normal for them to join toward the end [of the revolution],” he says.
Monajed also notes that the slogans used in the protests emphasize national unity, with people often chanting “one, one, one.”
Referring to repeated government statements which have warned that sectarian conflict may occur should protests continue, he says, “We want to give them assurances, and we’re asking them not to fall into the regime trap.”
As Christians in Syria watch their country’s security deteriorate, many are reminded of recent instability in neighboring countries – something their government doesn’t want them to forget.
"It is obvious Syria is the target of a project to sow sectarian strife to compromise Syria and the unique coexistence model that distinguishes it," Bouthaina Shaaban, the spokeswoman for President Bashar Assad, declared in a speech two weeks into the uprising.
But as the uprising enters its fourth month, some analysts inside Syria are beginning to openly question the government contention that the only two options in Syria are a police or an Islamic state.
“I personally think that the fear that some Christians are having is completely unjustified. Christians have lived with Muslims, side-by-side in Syria, for centuries. They were actually here before Islam came to Syria so they are as entitled to this land as anybody else – if not more,” says Syrian university professor and historian Sami Moubayed. “We cannot continue to use sectarian rhetoric as if we were in the seventh century. This is 2011.”
“We need to also remember that Syria was secular long before the Baath [party] came to power.”