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Youssef Badawi/EPA/Landov

Caught in the middle

Arab Spring | Increasing crimes against Christians in Syria reveal the difficult road to 'democracy' that lies ahead in the Middle East

Issue: "Medical care circus," Feb. 25, 2012

As Syria descends into full-scale civil war, the emerging picture for its Christian population-next to Egypt one of the largest in the Middle East-is grim.

More than 11 months since street demonstrations against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began, Syria is roiling in increasingly violent conflict: By early February, the Syrian military openly battled armed opposition forces and brutally attacked civilian targets in the rebel-held city of Homs, where shelling had killed a reported 200 people. Three days after a resolution condemning Assad's government failed to win passage by the UN Security Council, intensified fighting forced the United States to close its embassy and recall all diplomatic personnel.

Less reported, another form of violence is unfolding, according to Christian groups with reliable sources in Syria: Government protesters are targeting unarmed Christians deemed sympathetic to the regime.

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A Dec. 7 news release from Open Doors USA declared: "Inside embattled Syria, hostility increases towards Christians." A Jan. 23 alert from the Virginia-based Jubilee Campaign reported: "Christians targeted by 'peaceful' Syria protesters." And during the same week, another report came from the U.K.-based Barnabas Fund: "Christians in Syria targeted in series of kidnappings and killings; 100 dead."

It's a significant blow for a Christian population that has known security under Assad's regime. Assad-part of the small Muslim Shiite population in Syria-allowed notable freedoms for other minorities in the country, in part to secure their support, as his Alawite sect is a notable minority as well. (Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims.)

Syria among its neighboring Arab countries has been distinguished by public acceptance of Christianity: In northern Syria ancient Christian communities have worshipped openly in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. In Damascus and other cities, festive parades have marked Easter. Church spires and domes dominate the skyline in Aleppo, where church services and charity work have operated without restriction, and church bells have rung freely on special occasions-unlike in most other countries in the region.

Now those freedoms are backfiring as Sunni anger toward the Alawite government is devolving into targeted aggression toward minorities, including Christians. If opposition forces take control of Syria, that aggression could grow worse and threaten one of the last sizable populations of Christians in the Middle East.

That makes U.S. policy more complicated than simply supporting opposition forces against an oppressive regime, with an opposition that threatens to become oppressive itself. And while ousting Assad could be good for U.S. interests in the region since Assad is allied with Iran, what comes next could prove destructive for Christians.

It's a story that isn't widely reported because it's a dangerous story to tell, according to Patrick Sookhdeo of Barnabas Fund. "The real problem for [Syrian] Christians is that no one is going to believe them," he says. "They're not able to say much because they'll be targeted. And they now find themselves in a very vulnerable position."

It's a painful reality in a fierce struggle for Syria's future, but it's also one part of a growing reality for minority groups across the Middle East and North Africa: Last year's Arab Spring is this year's Arab anxiety.

Indeed, Egyptians wait to see if a newly elected parliament will help deliver stability to the tenuous nation, while Egyptian Christians wait to see whether the same parliament-dominated by Islamist politicians-will protect religious minorities or sharpen restrictions.

Libyans hope for economic improvements and Western investments, while Libyan Christians wonder if the already hostile environment for Christianity will grow even worse under officials committed to Islamic rule.

In Syria, citizens wait to see who will prevail, while the West calls for the regime to dismantle. President Barack Obama has called for Assad to "step aside," and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded a "democratic future for Syria."

But it isn't clear what a "democratic future" will mean. Syrian opposition forces are fractured, threatening another power struggle if Assad resigns. And increased freedoms for the majority may mean increased oppression for minorities out of sync with Islamic ideology.

Joshua Landis, director for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, moderates a respected blog called "Syria Comment" that underscores the anxiety of minority groups about their future in Syria.

A post on the blog by a Syrian-American banker visiting Syria in early January chronicled his conversation with a Christian soldier in the Syrian army: The 20-year-old soldier, asked what he would do when his military service ends, said: "Get out of here as fast as I can. I don't care where I go." His cousin sitting nearby agreed: "I will swim across to Cyprus soon."

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