Minority Christians fear fall of Assad could usher in Sunni tyranny | Persecution

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Minority Christians fear fall of Assad could usher in Sunni tyranny

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“With the chaos growing, Christians visiting Saydnaya on a recent Sunday said they feared a change of power could usher in a tyranny of the Sunni Muslim majority, depriving them of the semblance of protection the Assad family has provided for four decades,” The Irish Times reports.

9/28/2011 Syria (Irish Times) – Abu Elias sat beneath the towering stairs leading from the convent of Our Lady of Saydnaya, a church high up in the mountains outside Damascus, where Christians have worshipped for 1,400 years.

“We are all scared of what will come next,” he said, turning to a man seated beside him, Robert, an Iraqi refugee who escaped the sectarian strife in his homeland.

“He fled Iraq and came here,” said Abu Elias, looking at his friend, who arrived just a year earlier. “Soon, we might find ourselves doing the same.”

Syria plunges deeper into unrest by the day. On Tuesday, government troops attacked the rebellious town of Rastan with tanks and machine guns, wounding at least 20 people. With the chaos growing, Christians visiting Saydnaya on a recent Sunday said they feared a change of power could usher in a tyranny of the Sunni Muslim majority, depriving them of the semblance of protection the Assad family has provided for four decades.

Syria’s Christian minority is sizable, estimated at about 10 per cent of the population, although some say the share is actually lower these days. Although their sentiments are by no means monolithic – Christians are represented in the opposition and loyalty to the government is often driven more by fear than fervour – the group’s fear helps explain how President Bashar al-Assad has held onto segments of his constituency, in spite of a brutal crackdown aimed at crushing a popular uprising.

The plight of Christians in Syria has resonated among religious minorities across the Middle East, many of whom see themselves as facing a shared destiny.

In Iraq, the number of Christians had dwindled to insignificance since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, driven away by bloodshed and chauvinism. Christians in Egypt worry about the ascent of Islamists. Christians in Lebanon, representing the largest minority by share in the Arab world, worry about their own future in a country where they emerged as the distinct losers of a 15-year civil war.

This month, Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic patriarch urged Maronites, the single largest community of Christians in the country, to offer Assad another chance and to give him enough time to implement a long list of reforms that he has promised but never enacted.

Those comments by Bishara Boutros al-Rai prompted a heated debate in Lebanon, which lived under Syrian hegemony for 29 years. A prominent Syrian (and Christian) opposition figure offered a rebuttal from Damascus but Rai, who described Assad as “a poor man who cannot work miracles”, defended his remarks, warning that the fall of the government in Syria threatened Christians across the Middle East.

“We endured the rule of the Syrian regime. I have not forgotten that,” Rai said. “We do not stand by the regime, but we fear the transition that could follow. We must defend the Christian community. We, too, must resist.”

It is a remarkable insight into the power and persuasion of fear that the status quo in Syria these days remains preferable to many.

The United Nations estimates that more than 2,600 people have died since the uprising erupted in mid-March in the poor southern town of Dara and, given the desperation of some, even activists warn that protesters may resort to arms. Estimates of arrests run into the tens of thousands.

“Fear is spreading among us and anyone who is different,” said Abu Elias, as he greeted worshippers walking the hundreds of stone steps worn smooth over the centuries. “Today, we are here. Tomorrow, who knows where we will be?”

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