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.
"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.
The same is true in Habib Malik's Lebanon, where the street uprising of 2005, known as the Cedar Revolution, is credited with spawning populist protests throughout the region culminating in 2011. Yet steps toward greater democracy in Lebanon have faltered, particularly with the downfall in January of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's coalition government-leaving Hezbollah with greater control.
According to Malik, the shakeup has divided Lebanon's Christian community, which once held a large enough proportion of parliamentary seats to maintain a power-sharing arrangement between the presidency and prime minister's post. Now Christian leaders "are politically divided," said Malik. "Some are outspoken against Hezbollah and others want a political alliance" with the group because they see the militants as the new gatekeepers to power and influence.
Malik sees a silver lining in what looks like a downturn for Christians there. "If all Christians were one bloc it would be easy to revert to the Christian-Muslim divide we had up through the civil war," he said. "Instead we have the Sunni-Shiite divide more prominent." That's also reflective of the growing divide throughout the region, where Muslim faction fights Muslim faction-in some cases dependent upon which influence is greater, Shiite-led Iran or Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia.
Malik also believes the shakeups could pave the way for what he calls "a federalist model" to take root in the Middle East: "It was the West, primarily Britain and France, that gave the Middle East the idea of a unitary state. Now we have a chance to offer a different model of the state."
Muslim Sudan's referendum earlier this year, creating the new South Sudan that will be largely Christian, is one indicator of what's possible. Malik foresees the possibility of a Coptic state within greater-and hopefully democratic-Egypt. Iraqi leaders are taking another look at the possibility of creating a semi-autonomous zone for Assyrian Christians in the Nineveh Plains. And Yemen-where U.S. ally President Ali Abdullah Saleh has lost support from the White House and is likely to be forced out of office-could split along Sunni and Shia lines. If the current regime in Syria is forced out, it's likely Assad will leave office only on the condition that Alawites be apportioned a protected enclave, according to Malik.
"Federalism is elastic enough to tailor it to every country," said Malik, but he admits few changes to unitary states would be made without political-and perhaps violent-challenges. He is optimistic, though, that the outcome would create boundaries more supportive of minorities, including Christians.
When Gen. Muammar Qaddafi fired on unarmed civilian protesters, the atrocities launched a multinational campaign that led to UN and NATO air strikes and imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. President Bashar al-Assad's attacks on Syrian civilian demonstrators, while appearing less sustained and severe, are unlikely to lead to similar condemnation, though the country occupies a strategic spot bordering Israel and Iraq.
In April 2007 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria since the United States ended bilateral relations in 2003. Her visit defied not only Bush policy toward Syria but existing, comprehensive U.S. sanctions passed by Congress. Her delegation, which included five Democrats and one Republican, met with Assad. Afterward, Pelosi told reporters that Assad was ready to begin peace talks with Israel, something that both the Assad regime and Israel later denounced. Three weeks later Syria sentenced prominent human-rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni to five years in prison for the crime of speaking out against human-rights abuses: "The danger of offering 'friendship' and 'hope' to a ruler such as Mr. Assad is that it will be interpreted as acquiescence by the United States to the policies of dictatorship," read a Washington Post editorial in an unusual denouncement of the House speaker. "Ms. Pelosi's courting of Mr. Assad didn't cause Mr. al-Bunni's prison sentence this week-but it certainly did not discourage it."
Last year the Obama administration lifted travel restrictions for Americans going to Syria in place under the Bush administration. It also eased sanctions. That left Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a quandary when Assad began taking action against demonstrators. "Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer," she said of Assad on Mar. 27-only to backtrack a few days later as confrontations with protesters mounted. Then Clinton said she "was not speaking either for myself or for the administration."
- with reporting by Alisa Harris