Culture At Large

The uneasy alliances of Syrian Christians

Stephen Starr and S. Akminas

Hani Sarhan is a Christian in Syria who says none of his relatives works with Syrian president Bashar Assad's regime or have anything to do with it.

"But what we heard from (the protesters) at the beginning of this revolution saying, 'Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the coffin,' started us thinking about the real aim of this revolution," he said. "So from this point of view, fearing for my life, I declared my support for President Assad."

Muslims dominate this nation of 22 million people, but Christians can be found at all levels of Syrian government, business and military. The 2 million Christians here trace their roots to ancient communities and have survived under many rulers even as Christian enclaves in other Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia, have withered.

The rebellion of hundreds of thousands of Muslims against Assad that began in March 2011 has not seen Christians abandon their support for the Alawites, the Muslim sect to which Assad belongs and that has controlled Syria for decades. Christians have largely remained quiet as Assad's forces pummeled rebel cities and towns with artillery, killing close to 10,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Many of Syria's Christians continue to stand by the regime not out of support for Assad, but out of fear of a civil war resulting in an Islamist government that's hostile to religious minorities.

Many of Syria's Christians continue to stand by the regime not out of support for Assad, but out of fear of a civil war resulting in an Islamist government that's hostile to religious minorities.

Qatana, a town 20 miles southwest of Damascus, is home to a Christian community of several hundred families. Protests here against the Assad regime have prompted military incursions and clashes between renegade soldiers and the regular army. At checkpoints surrounding the town, some Christians chat to Alawite security officers. Others offer water and whiskey.

Christians firmly believe that the Alawite regime will keep them safe. With the town's two churches located in Sunni Muslim neighborhoods, for months many families were too fearful to attend service, Christians here said. But a teacher at a Christian school said life is better now than before.

"The crisis is almost over," she said, asking her name be withheld because she feared retribution. "Our church was full on Easter Sunday; last year, it was practically empty. We were allowed to parade around the town, when last year we could only go in the street outside the church."

Yet Christian communities elsewhere have seen trouble.

In March, a Middle East leader for Think Christian's parent ministry reported violence against Syrian Christians in Hama and Homs.

"A predominately Christian neighborhood of west Hama, named Mahrada, was overrun by Islamist armed men," he said. "They forced families to flee and occupied homes.Three men were shot dead before their families. In Homs a similar incident occurred on a larger scale in the predominately Christian neighborhood of Hamidiyah. There dozens of men were killed and 23 women were kidnapped and raped before being freed when the Syrian army regained control."

Many Christians simply do not want to upset their way of living in a country where their fate will always be decided by Muslims, according to Syria experts. Christian doctors, lawyers and dentists have established successful and stable careers. Others occupy leading positions in the Syrian army, though a new constitution mandates the head of state must be Muslim.

"They do support (Assad) and are feeling quite anxious," said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a Syria expert. "Even so, there are plenty of Christians (in Syria) who believe that democracy in the long run is the best protection for Christians."

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, World