|An anti-government protester, with his face painted in the colors of Yemen’s and Syria’s national flags, walks past pictures of people killed in anti-government clashes, during a rally. Reuters photo
The political landscape is changing at an unprecedented pace in the Middle East, leaving a large question mark over the future structure of society and of the continued presence of religious minorities, such as Christians, under new governments.
The ancient people of the Middle East have long suffered instability and war, but one of the most ancient groups is facing the virtual end of their presence there, to the detriment of prospects for peace for the whole region. The Christians native to the Middle East may have seniority in the region in terms of unbroken residence, but today they are an extreme minority because of war, emigration and comparatively lower birth rates. Only the Christians of Egypt, Lebanon and Syria retain any significant numbers, public visibility and political representation.
At this moment in their history, the political changes that are taking place throughout the region — known popularly as the Arab Spring — will dramatically alter their course, either toward more political inclusion and representation, or toward a devastating decline leading to virtual extinction.
The most significant country for Christians that is involved in the Arab Spring now is Syria, where armed protests against President Bashar Assad and his regime and military crackdowns are entering their eighth month. The violence has left nearly 3,000 dead as the government becomes less and less discriminate with its targets and the protesters respond in kind to the violence.
The outcome of the Syrian revolt will have dramatic consequences for the country’s Christian population, which is less than 10 percent. In the worst-case scenario, they will mirror their Iraqi counterparts, who were increasingly targeted by Muslim terrorists and fled to Syria for protection. Iraq’s regime change was brought about by external forces, however, so the fact that Syria’s revolt occurred internally and began nonviolently may produce a different outcome.
So what, exactly, is the position of Christian Syrians regarding the uprising against the Assad regime?
“Christians possess all the freedom to worship, and the president even visits us on religious holidays,” Father Faez Mahfoud, a Syrian priest in Rome, told Our Sunday Visitor. “If the regime falls, all of this will be lost.”
Father Mahfoud expressed a common fear that Syria, which has a Sunni Muslim majority, could dissolve into a situation worse than Iraq, and referred to recent street banners that proclaim “Alawite to the coffin, Christians to Beirut,” meaning a massacre or expulsion of religious minorities from Syria. Alawites are a minority Islamic sect to which the family of President Assad belongs.
Opinions on the regime may vary from individual to individual, but most of those who are speaking publicly fear that if the regime falls, the new government, most likely a Sunni-dominated one in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, will be less tolerant than Assad.
In an interview with the charity Aid to the Church in Need and published by Zenit News Agency, Maronite Archbishop Samir Nassar of Damascus observed, “When it’s time to make important decisions for our country, the Christian minorities amount to very little. It is a situation that forces us to avoid ‘annoying’ the government and does not allow us to do anything but suspiciously watch the protests going on, which will most probably lead to the establishment of an Islamist regime.”
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has a vendetta to pay to the four-decade-old Assad regime, and is a well-organized force in Syria. A previous bloody uprising against Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, resulted in the 1982 massacre of whole sections of the city of Hama, the Brotherhood’s stronghold.
It is an all-too-familiar scene being played out on a smaller scale in towns across Syria today.
Praying for crisis’ end
As for Christians, Father Michel Saghbiny, the director of academics at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome, told OSV that some are working on the intellectual or political level to find the best solution to exit the national crisis, calling this approach the consensus democracy. Others prefer to stay silent to avoid the bigger evil waiting around the door — the fall of the regime and the rise of chaos, which they fear would make Syria an exact image of Iraq and the Christians in Iraq.
“Other Christians spend their time praying,” he said, “so that this crisis will pass with the least amount of human and material loss. In the end there are also those Christians who cannot live in such conditions and have the opportunity to leave, so they abandon their country and homes and leave for a country where they can have a better, safe life.”
Syrian Christians support calls for freedom and freedom of expression, Father Saghbiny said, but are wary of what “democracy” might bring.
“We do not express more than ask for justice, peace and reconciliation,” he said, “and maybe that is what explains why there are not Christians on the street demonstrating, and one of the reasons why they do not vote for those slogans that call for democracy, the one imported from elsewhere, because they are aware of the fact that Western democracy is not good for the Syrian reality, because it will give power to the Sunni Muslims without taking into account the minorities to which the Baath governing party itself belongs.”
This is not because the Sunni do not respect the minorities, Father Saghbiny added, but rather because the fundamentalist groups are more ready and organized to take over the regime than pro-democracy parties to lead the country.
Path of peaceful change
Archbishop Nassar issued a challenge to Middle Eastern Christians in light of the situation in Syria: Overcome the fear of the creation of a fundamentalist government by engaging more with moderate Islam, still the majority of Syrians, who are nurtured by a Christian presence in their shared homeland. Further, seek common ground where it can be found in culture, art, sports and humanitarian initiatives. Finally, recognize that Mideast Christians are already living testimonies of their faith to their Muslim neighbors through, for example, the witness of equal relationships between men and women.
The Christians in Syria are in a difficult position but must resist the radicalization of their culture, the archbishop said, and this can only happen through shared witness: “Many non-Christian Syrians then follow the sermons and commentary programs on the Gospel of Tele Lumiere, the Catholic satellite channel that broadcasts 24 hours a day,” and “this helps them to look on the Quran anew, just as we, who observe their times of prayer, the month of Ramadan and charity to the poor, feel our duties as Christians more deeply.”
Christians also contribute to regional peace-building in their role as mediators between Muslim sects — the Shiite, the Sunni and the Alawite. A commitment to ecumenical dialogue between Christians living in the Middle East, particularly the Catholic and the Orthodox, is another opportunity to live out Christians’ mission of evangelization to their Muslim neighbors in mixed societies such as Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, the archbishop noted.
Promoting unity and reconciliation in these places is not just a political tool, but rather “this is an evangelical mission of peace that we can and must put into practice.”
Andrea Kirk Assaf writes from Rome.