Syrian Christians live in uneasy alliance with Bashar Assad

DAMASCUS, Syria — Hani Sarhan is a Christian who says none of his relatives works with Bashar Assad’s regime or … Continued

DAMASCUS, Syria — Hani Sarhan is a Christian who says none of his relatives works with Bashar Assad’s regime or has anything to do with it.

“But what we heard from (the protesters) at the beginning of this revolution saying,’Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the coffin,’ started us thinking about the real aim of this revolution,” he said. “So from this point of view, fearing for my life, I declared my support for President Assad.”

Muslims dominate this nation of 22 million people, but Christians can be found at all levels of Syrian government, business and military. The 2 million Christians here trace their roots to ancient communities and have survived under many rulers as Christian enclaves in other Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia, have withered.

The rebellion of hundreds of thousands of Muslims against Assad that began in March 2011 has not seen Christians abandon their support for the Alawites, the Muslim sect to which Assad belongs and that has controlled Syria for decades. Christians have largely remained quiet as Assad’s forces pummeled rebel cities and towns with artillery, killing close to 10,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Many of Syria’s Christians continue to stand by the regime not out of support for Assad but out of fear of civil war if rebels gain strength, or worse, if they win and install an Islamist government that’s hostile to religious minorities.

Qatana, a town 20 miles southwest of Damascus, is home to a Christian community of several hundred families. Protests here against the Assad regime have prompted military incursions and clashes between renegade soldiers and the regular army. At checkpoints surrounding the town, some Christians chat to Alawite security officers. Others offer water and whiskey.

Christians firmly believe that the Alawite regime will keep them safe. With the town’s two churches located in Sunni Muslim neighborhoods, for months many families were too fearful to attend service, Christians here said. But a teacher at a Christian school said life is better now than before.

“The crisis is almost over,” she said, asking her name be withheld because she feared retribution. “Our church was full on Easter Sunday; last year, it was practically empty. We were allowed to parade around the town, when last year we could only go in the street outside the church.”

Yet Christian communities elsewhere have seen trouble.

A church in Homs, Um al-Zunnar, was badly damaged during the military’s monthlong shelling of the city in February. Christians in Homs said the church was attacked by “foreign-backed armed gangs.” Syrian state TV aired interviews with civilians who said the rockets were fired from the mountains dividing Syria from Lebanon, where rebels have arms-smuggling routes.

The uprising has also hurt Christians’ standard of living.

Foreign visitors are nowhere to be seen in the Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma in central Damascus, a once-popular tourist attraction characterized by winding alleyways, traditional Arab-style hotels and ancient churches.

In 2010, tourists from the Persian Gulf, Europe and North America added $8 billion to the Syrian economy. Since the revolt began, Syria’s tourism sector has dropped off by 60 percent, according to the Tourism Ministry, and Christian businesses are among those suffering.

These days, many conversations in the close-knit communities turn to “the crisis,” as it is called. Families watch Arab television broadcasts by the extremist Salafist sheik Adnan Arour, who from exile in Saudi Arabia calls for jihad against the Assad regime and death to those who actively support it.

Pro-regime commentators on state-run Syrian TV pounce on figures such as Arour and say Assad is all that stands between extreme Islam and stability. Christians here talk of letters sent to churches saying they are the next to go after Assad, and a mortar that struck a monastery in the Christian town of Saidnaya, north of Damascus, was blamed on rebels.

There is little evidence that the rebels are responsible for such acts, and Christians here say Arour does not appear to have a lot of support. But recent suicide bombings in Syria have the look of al-Qaida, which seeks Islamic law over all.

Many Christians simply do not want to upset their way of living in a country where their fate will always be decided by Muslims, according to Syria experts.

Christian doctors, lawyers and dentists have established successful and stable careers. Others occupy leading positions in the Syrian army, though a new constitution mandates the head of state must be Muslim.

“They do support (Assad) and are feeling quite anxious,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a Syria expert. “Even so, there are plenty of Christians (in Syria) who believe that democracy in the long run is the best protection for Christians.”

(Stephen Starr and S. Akminas write for USA Today.)

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  • ishamid

    How sloppy can the WP be?

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    as Christian enclaves in other Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia, have withered.

    ==============

    There has not been any Christian enclave in Saudi Arabia to speak of since SA came into existence a century ago, let alone a “withering” one.

    OTOH, the Christians of Palestine have withered away under the brunt of Israeli apartheid policies — more than in any other Arab country of the region or in Iran –, yet that example is conveniently ignored by the WP of course….

    Furthermore, the support of Assad from the Christian community is labeled as “uneasy”. The fact of the matter is that the Christians of Syria, along with huge swathes of the Sunni Muslim and other communities, recognize what’s going on there for what it largely is: a cynical effort by the Gulf states — led by Saudi Arabia – to replace Assad with a puppet who will do their bidding; and who will stoop to every crime, from fanning the flames of civil war and using al-Qaedah to kill as many people as it takes to achieve their goals.

    The WP is becoming little more than a propagandistic rag …

  • bghost77

    Actually, the situation hasn’t been described correctly. Me and most of my family members are Christians and definitely support the revolution against the criminal dictator by many ways… yes we cannot fight with rebels, maybe, but we back them with anything helps! Arab Christians are fighting for freedom in society since long ago so how anyone can imagine them back the dictator?! and we do know the rebels, they are not extremists! the majority of them are muslims, ok.. but they are moderate muslims and demanding freedom and equality to everyone whatever about the religion! and we are pretty sure that we do NOT have al-Qaeda here! it’s only fabrications by the regime to seem like fighting the terrorism. we do not believe the regime’s lies simply.

    and what you said about protesters saying “’Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the coffin,” is not right. that was one of the syrian state run media lies, without any video showing the protesters saying it. I challenge anyone to prove that by any way or any video… rumors spread easily but the truth is what we really see.

  • Facts7

    Fact: in recent history, Asad is the most dictator who has killed Christians in the middle east “during Lebanon’s war”.

    A brutal dictator is not good for Christians or none Christians, what if this dictator, Bashar Al Asad, is supporting all terrorist Islamic groups such as Hizbollah &…

    Asad is trying to use Christians as sand bags to cover his brutality.

    Only a democratic state is good for Christians in Syria or anywhere else.