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“Our feeling is, if the regime falls, the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood will seize power and that is bad news for us,” Archbishop Cyril Aphrem Karim told Bloomberg.

5/13/2011 Syria (Bloomberg) – As the Arab Spring protests reach Damascus, Syrian Christians look warily at a future without a time-tested autocrat to protect them from religious intolerance.

In Iraq, where elections followed the U.S.-led invasion, Christians also have come under attack. Hundreds of thousands have fled to Syria, where minority Alawites, a Shiite Muslim sect, have ruled over the Sunni Muslim majority since President Bashar al-Assad’s father took power in 1970. They also found havens in Jordan and Lebanon.

“History has proven to us that Christians have always had more secure lives, better treatment by people who may be looked on as dictators, like Saddam Hussein,” said Archbishop Cyril Aphrem Karim, who leads a U.S. branch of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. In Syria, “our feeling is, if the regime falls, the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood will seize power and that is bad news for us.”

Under the Assad dynasty, Syrian Christians have swelled the ranks of a professional middle and upper class, enjoying secure lives while accounting for only one-tenth of the population.

Cyber Dissidents

As the two-month-long demonstrations against Assad’s 11- year rule have gained momentum, some Christians have taken leading roles while others have stayed quiet, according to Ahed Al Hendi, a Syrian Christian who founded the Syrian Youth for Justice movement and is a member of the human rights group cyberdissidents.org in Washington.

Many in the Christian community are worried, he said in an interview. “They saw the Iraqi example, but honestly not all of them, they want to live in a democratic country.”

Iraq’s Christian population was targeted by extremist groups after the 2003 war and has fallen to about 500,000 from about 1 million before the war, according to community group estimates. The last census was in 1987.

“Christians in Syria, similarly to those in Iraq under Saddam, face a depressing dilemma,” said Habib Malik, a professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. “Fears about open-ended chaos or a Sunni takeover do not mean they support the existing repressive Baath regimes.”

Syria doesn’t have a state religion. At the same time, the constitution says the president must be Muslim and the country’s family law states that a Christian man can’t marry a Muslim without converting.

“Christians want what others want: freedom, a say in shaping their communities and lives,” said Stephen Colecchi, director of the international justice and peace office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The question is: will genuine democracies that respect human rights take the place of oppressive governments? Not knowing the answer produces fear.”

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