Syria’s minority Christians are watching the protests sweeping their country with trepidation, fearing their religious freedom could be threatened if President Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic but secular rule is overthrown. Sunni Muslims form a majority in Syria, but under four decades of rule by Assad’s minority Alawites the country’s varied religious groups have enjoyed the right to practice their faith.
Calls for Muslim prayers ring out alongside church bells in Damascus, where the apostle Paul started his ministry and Christians have worshipped for two millennia. But for many Syrian Christians, the flight of their brethren from sectarian conflict in neighbouring Iraq and recent attacks on Christians in Egypt have highlighted the dangers they fear they will face if Assad succumbs to the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world.
“Definitely the Christians in Syria support Bashar al-Assad. They hope that this storm will not spread,” Yohana Ibrahim, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, told Reuters.
Protests erupted in Syria two months ago, triggered by anger and frustration at widespread corruption and lack of freedom in the country ruled with an iron fist by the Assad family for nearly half a century. Although some Christians may be participating in the protests, church institutions have not supported them. Christians contacted by Reuters said they backed calls for reform but not the demands for “regime change”, which they said could fragment Syria and give the upper hand possibly to Islamist groups that would deny them religious freedom.