Syria Christians fear for religious freedom

Minority fears change in secular Syria, concerned over plight of Christians in Iraq, Egypt; community says it has Biblical roots.

ICC Note:

“Syria’s minority Christians are watching the protests sweeping their country with trepidation, fearing their religious freedom could be threatened if President Bashar Assad’s autocratic but secular rule is overthrown,” Reuters reports.

5/18/2011 Syria (Reuters) – Syria’s minority Christians are watching the protests sweeping their country with trepidation, fearing their religious freedom could be threatened if President Bashar 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 neighboring 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.

“The Christians in Syria — whether Orthodox, Armenians, Maronites, Anglicans, Assyrians or Catholics — consider themselves first (Syrian) citizens, the sons of the land,” said Habib Afram, president of the Syriac League.

“The general atmosphere from the churches’ positions and from Christian figures is fixed on stability and security because religious freedom is absolutely guaranteed in Syria,” he said.

Christians have equal rights — and the same restriction on political freedom — as Muslims, apart from a constitutional stipulation that the president must be a Muslim.

“Our ethnicity or language may not be recognized and we are not allowed to form a party, but this is the case of all Syrians,” a church source said, adding that the choice for minorities in the Middle East was “to be ruled by the military or the turban of a cleric.”

In a region where minorities face growing challenges, and where tensions between Sunni Muslims and Shi’ite Muslims are on the rise, Syria still feels like a refuge to many Christians.

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