FaithWorld

Syria’s Christians fear for their religious freedom

(A Christian woman lights a candle during a mass to celebrate the Orthodox Christmas at Saint Serkis church in Damascus January 6, 2011/Khaled al-Hariri)

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.

Syria’s Assad retrenches into power base of his Alawite Shi’ite sect

(A supporter of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad holds aloft a photograph of the president at Hamidiya market in Damascus April 30, 2011/Khaled al-Hariri)

President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly relying on his Alawite power base to crush pro-democracy protests that have posed the boldest challenge to the Assad family’s 41 years of rule over Syria. Assad, an Alawite, sent army and secret police units dominated by officers from the same minority sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, into mainly Sunni urban centers to crush demonstrations calling for his removal for the last six weeks.

Their use of tanks to shell the city of Deraa last week, storming of mosques and attacks on unarmed civilians — as reported by residents and activists — have raised the stakes.  Reports say that Sunni conscripts, Syria’s majority sect, refused to fire at their co-religionists.

Syria lifts niqab ban, shuts casino, in nod to protesting Sunnis

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(A visitor browses through books at the 26th International Book Fair near Damascus July 31, 2010/Khaled al-Hariri)

Syria has lifted a ban on teachers wearing the full face veil and ordered the closure of a casino, moves aimed at placating conservative Muslims in the tightly-controlled country that has seen weeks of unrest. Last month pro-democracy protests erupted in the majority Sunni Muslim city of Deraa and later spread to other cities, including the religiously-mixed port city of Latakia, posing the greatest challenge to Assad’s 11-year rule.

Thousands of people protested in the Damascus suburb of Douma on Friday, dissatisfied by gestures President Bashar al-Assad has made towards reform.