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.
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."
But fleeing the country isn't an option for most. Indeed, Christians from other Middle Eastern countries have fled to Syria in recent years to escape persecution. An estimated 100,000 Iraqi Christians have taken refuge in Syria since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The Syrian Christian community has ancient roots and comprises between 6 percent and 10 percent of the country's population-a significant number in a country of about 20 million. Despite their minority status, Christians have enjoyed some measures of security under Assad's reign, with some working in government or police positions.
That security now makes them an open target. Opposition forces that protest Assad-a ruler who has undoubtedly exercised oppression and brutality during his reign-are targeting Syrians they deem sympathetic to his rule, including Christians.
The Christian advocacy group Open Doors USA reported in December that Syrian Christians are increasingly afraid to leave their homes. Like other groups caught in sectarian crossfire, Christians are worried about increasing violence and a growing criminality during the country's chaos. An Open Doors field worker in Syria told the group that radical Sunni Muslims had raided and robbed several churches.
The worker also reported that several Muslim taxi drivers vowed to harm all women customers who are unveiled: "These women, mostly less orthodox Muslims and Christians, are being kidnapped, raped, or even killed."
Virginia-based Jubilee Campaign also reports that Syrian protesters are targeting Christians: "The culmination of these protests end in raids on Christian communities to take women from their homes and families and rape them."
Greg Treat of the Jubilee Campaign elaborated, saying that sources say extremists appear on Syrian television encouraging Muslims to kill Christian women: "The tone of the [Muslim] discussion isn't whether we have the right to oppress these people, but whether we should allow them to live or not."
During the same week, the UK-based Barnabas Fund reported that a reliable source in Syria estimated that at least 100 Christians had been killed since protests began in the country last year. The source told Barnabas Fund about two incidents since Christmas. Rebels kidnapped two Christian men, ages 28 and 37, in separate attacks, according to the report: "The first was found hanged with numerous injuries, the second was cut into pieces and thrown in a river. Four more have been abducted, and their captors are threatening to kill them too."
The violence against minority groups leads some Christians to question America's unalloyed support for rebels during the chaos. Treat of the Jubilee Campaign said one Christian source was "very, very frustrated by the way that the West is unquestioningly backing the rebels-the legitimacy being given to them just appalled him."
Sookhdeo of the Barnabas Fund agrees that the United States should examine reports of opposition abuses against minority groups. He says the United States should also examine the consistency of its Middle Eastern policy. For example, while U.S. officials call for Assad's ouster in Syria based on humanitarian crimes, they have said far less about human-rights abuses and oppression in places like Saudi Arabia.
That's because Saudi Arabia is a key ally in the region, including an ally against the Iranian regime. Still, when watchdog group Freedom House rated the political and civil freedoms in countries around the world earlier this year, two nations earned the group's worst possible ratings: Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Sookhdeo fears the United States is being drawn into a regional conflict that pits Sunni Muslims in countries like Saudi Arabia against Shia regimes like Iran and Syria. Even if Sunnis win that conflict, Sookhdeo says the outcome would be grim: "They will be utterly iniquitous because they are not based on principles we accept. And this is something the U.S. is not addressing."
Elizabeth Kendal agrees. The religious freedom expert and author of the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin says that Western governments fail to understand that liberty alone won't reform governments. She says the belief that if populations simply achieve freedom they will choose good over evil isn't true: "The Bible explains this by telling us that mankind is fallen and drawn towards sin and selfishness. Liberty without God can be pure anarchy."
In Syria, Christians and other groups wait to see if anarchy will prevail in the worsening conditions in their country, and if they'll still have a place in a society that may reject them. Kurt Werthmuller of the Hudson Institute says that the prospect of Christians fleeing Syria and the Middle East is a "looming crisis" and a tragedy for the region: "They've been a part of Middle Eastern society for as long as they've been around, and to lose that is not just a sad thing, but part of a real breakdown of social order."
-with reporting by Mindy Belz