Syria’s Christians fear violent backlash from anti-Assad uprising

September 12, 2012

(An employee sits at the information desk of the Catholic Patriarchate in the Christian quarter of Damascus. In the background are pictures of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and Gregorius Lahham, the Greek Melkite Patriarch of Antioch. Picture taken September 6, 2012. REUTERS /Khaled al-Hariri)

In a walled churchyard in the old city of Damascus, a small group of Syrians debate whether the time has come to flee one of Christianity’s ancient heartlands.

Members of a Christian community which stretches back 2,000 years, they worry that Syria’s civil war can have no happy outcome and they face an upheaval that fellow believers have already suffered elsewhere in the Middle East.

“The future is full of fear,” said one man who gave only his first name, Rami. “We hope our fate will not be that of the Christians of Iraq, but nothing is guaranteed. Now we meet in church rather than cafes because we’re afraid of being bombed.”

Rami’s friends were gathered at the Evangelical Church in the ancient Bab Touma quarter of Damascus – the city where Saint Paul began his mission to spread Christianity – a few days before Pope Benedict is due to visit neighboring Lebanon.

As evening shadows lengthened after a Sunday service, the young men and women found temporary sanctuary in the churchyard from the civil war which has already displaced many of them.

Anticipation of Benedict’s Middle East trip has done little to lift the mood of despair which grips the estimated two million Christians in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is battling a 17-month-old uprising against his rule.

Few Christians have supported the revolt, fearful for their future if the country’s majority Sunni Muslims choose an Islamist leadership to replace decades of ruthless but secular Assad family rule.
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