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Praying for stability

International | As more protest movements unfold, most recently in Syria, Christian minorities fear what will come next is worse than what they've already endured

Issue: "Clutching two, dropping four," April 23, 2011

Call it a backlash to change. As familiar protests against the government of a longstanding Middle East ruler began to unfold last month-this time in Syria-hundreds of thousands of Syrians actually turned out in Damascus to protest the protests. And the bloc supporting President Bashar al-Assad included Syrian Christians.

"The churches and Christians are praying for things to remain stabilized, and for the president to stay the same," one Syrian Christian, a physician and church leader who asked not to be named for security reasons, told me shortly after security forces on orders from Assad cracked down on street demonstrators in the southern town of Deraa, killing at least 30 and by later estimates as many as 150. Many Christians and Muslims, he said, "believe that the current president is the best option for them, with improvements in other areas, because what might come next will not necessarily be better. A huge possibility and probability is that it could be way worse."

Unlike in Egypt, where believers joined street protests, Christian leaders in Syria-where Christians have historically taken refuge from nearby purges in places like Turkey a century ago and Iraq in recent years-have remained notably silent in the face of growing unrest. Syria is the home to numerous historic churches, starting with the ancient Church of Antioch and including Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean, and later Baptists. But the ordained heads of those churches issued no statements, nor did they speak publicly for or against street agitators in recent weeks.

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"Native Christian communities are deeply affected" by uprisings across the Middle East, according to Habib Malik, professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University. Increasingly, they are divided, too, over whether to support democracy campaigns or the status quo.

"Christianity is most beleaguered in the land of its own birth," the scholar noted during a recent visit to Washington. What was true before uprisings began across the Middle East and north Africa is doubly true as the turmoil enters its fifth month: Both the established regimes that are under fire and the Islamist movements that are joining democratic activists to bring them down have had a negative impact on the growth of Christianity and the survival of ancient churches. While Christian minorities would seemingly benefit from new liberties brought by regime change, most believe that change will lead to the rise of Muslim radicalism (as it did in Iraq) and are wary.

The Syrian uprising began in March when students were arrested in Deraa near the Jordanian border for scribbling anti-government graffiti. Demonstrators took to the streets to demand their release, and soon thousands joined the demonstrations, demanding political reforms and the abolishment of emergency rule-which the Baathist regime had in place since 1963.

Assad complied with some of the demands (including abolishing emergency rule), but his security forces launched a violent crackdown on protesters, which spiraled into more protests and bloodshed. On March 29 the cabinet resigned, but at the same time that unrest was growing in the south, in Damascus and other major cities counter-demonstrations in support of the government also swelled. The Christian physician I spoke to accused outside countries with interest in destabilizing Syria of underreporting the pro-Assad demonstrations: "What we are watching at different satellite channels is shocking all of us here, because they are not presenting the facts or reality," he said. And despite violent clashes, he said Syrian Christians were not targeted and churches continued to hold regular services.

Assad has earned notoriety abroad, and especially in the United States, for providing political and material support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and sheltering other terrorist groups. The U.S. State Department's most recent terrorism report also condemns Assad for "ties with its strategic ally, and fellow state sponsor of terrorism, Iran."

But at home Assad's reputation is tempered. Though his Baath Party has ruled Syria for 48 years (Assad took over upon his father's death 11 years ago), he is a member of the Alawite sect-itself a minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam-and has shown tolerance for Christians, even employing a number in his close circle of advisors, something generally uncommon in the region.

Despite his support among Christian believers, in recent months Assad appears to be bending to pressure from Islamic groups. Starting in June 2010 the government closed 10 churches across four governorates and began to limit permission to hold retreats, conferences, and other Christian activities. (Some believed the pressure in those cases actually came from the historic church denominations, as restrictions were largely placed upon evangelical congregations, which sometime drain members from the older churches.) Then on April 6 the government lifted a ban on teachers wearing the niqab, or full-face veil favored by radical Islamists, and also ordered the closure of a casino. Both moves were seen as aimed at placating radicals in the midst of unrest. "The government is trying to keep holding the stick from the middle, balancing religious life in the country," said the Christian leader I spoke to.

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