Syria’s Christian Conundrum

by mgopin on June 8, 2012 · 6 comments

by Hind Kabawat, CRDC Senior Research Analyst and Expert on Conflict Resolution

This article was originally published by CNN here.

One of the most perplexing aspects of the Syrian revolution is the deep ambivalence felt by so many of the country’s Christians when faced with the prospect of freedom after four decades of authoritarian dictatorship. Some Christians have enthusiastically embraced the prospect of democratic change and a more open civil society, but many have not.

As a Christian, this provokes a great deal of sadness in me and others who are committed to transforming Syria into an open, democratic, inclusive, secular and religiously tolerant society. But the problem is that many, if not most, Christians in Syria do not believe that this will be the outcome of changing the regime.

On the contrary, they believe the present regime — corrupt and repressive as it has been — is the only true guarantor of secularism in Syria and, with it, the acceptance of the Christians as equals to their Muslim neighbors. Further, many Christians firmly believe that what will replace the regime is a fundamentalist Muslim theocracy that will strip Christians and other minorities of their political and civil rights, including their right to practice their religion in peace.

I sincerely believe they are misguided in this belief, and one of the principal tasks of the Syrian revolution going forward is to convince the Christian community to forsake such fears in favor of building a new Syria, democratic and secular, with their Shia, Sunni, Alawite, Druze and Kurd brothers and sisters.

Of course, when Christians do “rebel,” the regime responds with particular outrage and violence: “How dare you Christians criticize us when we have protected you all these years?”

Take, for instance, the case of a young Damascene woman named Caroline, who said she was arrested earlier this year and imprisoned for 25 days in a two-square meter cell. Her crime? Giving children Easter eggs wrapped in paper containing verses from both the Koran and the Bible.

For this simple act of kindness and tolerance, Caroline was interrogated for hours by the secret police, she said. Why, they asked, did she include a verse from the Koran on an Easter egg? Why is she involved in this kind of work? Why is a Christian showing support for the Syrian revolution? Although they did not say it in so many words, their main message was: Don’t you know what would happen to Christian communities when you “lose” the protection of this present regime?

Christians do know what could happen. In the wake of Saddam Hussein’s downfall, the Christian community in Iraq has more or less been decimated; those who haven’t fled the country are confronted with systematic repression. After the civil war in Lebanon, which Christians are generally perceived to have lost, the Christian community remains on the defensive and is shrinking. And in post-Mubarak Egypt, the Coptic Christians – 10% of the population – remain vigilant about their rights and their security.

None of these events has been lost on the Christian community in Syria, which is why many of them have not enthusiastically embraced the revolution.

Many of those who are predisposed to support the revolution do not because of the weakness and division within the Syrian opposition. For a Christian community that is inherently skittish about confronting established political authority, a weak opposition movement does little to allay their fears about challenging an entrenched 40-year-old regime that has shown time and time again its willingness to use brutal violence to silence its critics.

More from GPS: The great Syria divide

There are, however, many Christian Syrians who are, in fact, playing a pivotal role in opposition to the regime. Some, like George Sabra and Michel Kilo, are politically out front and vocal. Others, including many women, prefer to work behind the scenes doing humanitarian work inside Syria’s besieged towns and cities.

Among the Christians performing this vital humanitarian work is Yara Chammas, a 21-year-old woman who is the daughter of a well-known human rights lawyer, Michel Chammas. When unrest erupted in Baba Amr, Yara organized the distribution of medicine, food, blankets and baby milk. Her courageous display of Christian compassion resulted in her being jailed for 60 days over the Easter holidays. Yet not one leader in the Christian community came to her aid. Why? Because many of them vilified her as a “traitor” to their community for deigning to help the “enemy,” i.e., the children of Baba Amr. So much for their sense of compassion and caring.

Despite such hardships, the political engagement of Christians like Chammas hark back to a period in Syrian history when the Christian community was critically important to the political life of the country. Indeed, Christians founded both the Baath Party and the Syrian National Party. One of Syria’s greatest political leaders, Prime Minister Fares Khoury, was a Christian.

But since the advent of the Baath regime, Christians have played a much less visible role in the country’s politics. Minister is the highest position ever held by a Christian since the 1960s, and no Christian has ever held a serious leadership position. Even under the present proposed constitution, no Christian can be elected president.

Given their relative lack of status, why do Christian Syrians remain so loyal to this regime? It likely revolves around their fear of Islamic fundamentalism and their belief that the so-called secular state will be replaced by an Iran-style theocracy. There is also a fear that what will ensue from the collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s repressive police state will be Iraq-style chaos and sectarian civil war.

How can such fears be addressed and allayed? It is time for all Syrians, no matter what their faith, to begin thinking like citizens of a common state rather than just members of a sectarian religious community. Our focus should be on the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press, free markets, democratic elections and an accountable government. Those will be the bulwarks of a free, independent, secular and inclusive Syria.

I am a devout Christian, proud and respectful of the church’s teachings. But in the political realm, I am first and foremost a citizen, a citizen of the new free Syria. I believe that my fellow Christians will come to feel the same way. I also believe the same should be true for our Sunni, Alawite, Druze and Kurdish sisters and brothers.

Recently, a rather extraordinary scene unfolded at the funeral for young Bassel Chehadeh, the young Christian filmmaker gunned down by the regime in Homs.

As thousands from all religious faiths gathered at a church in the Christian Kassaa district of Damascus, security forces bolted the church doors shut and began beating and terrorizing the mourners. The parishioners responded by reciting Christian and Muslim prayers and chanting “Syrians are one people.” It was a beautiful sight.

We are one people, and citizens of one state. Not a Christian Syria or a Sunni Syria or an Alawite Syria. Just Syria, the homeland of all of us.

© Marc Gopin

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