For Syrian Christians, protests are cause for fear

April 23, 2011

In the days leading up to Easter Sunday, Syria’s Christian community should have been busy preparing. This year, however, signs of festivities were hardly visible.

Following anti-government protests that have been violently suppressed, leaving about 300 people dead, street parades and other forms of public celebration have been declared illegal by authorities.

Meanwhile, fear is mounting among the nation’s Christians that the uprising that has rocked this tightly controlled country over the past month will bring them only misery.

For decades, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has protected Christian interests by enforcing its strictly secular program and by curbing the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. In recent years, Assad has visited the town of Maaloula and other Christian communities to pray and pass on messages of goodwill. At Christmas, he addresses Syria’s Christians, carrying similar tidings. Assad is himself from the minority Alawite sect, a branch of Shia Islam, and many Christians feel they can relate to him.

Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population, have largely stayed out of the anti-government protests, fearing what change could bring. Many are wealthy and could have much to lose if the uprising succeeds. Christians also occupy a disproportionately high percentage of senior positions within the government and tend to work in the educated professions as doctors, dentists and engineers.

As protests have spread by demonstrators demanding Assad’s ouster and a chance for Syrians to choose their leader after decades of autocratic rule by Assad and his father, the government has claimed that it is being challenged by Islamic radicals. The demonstrators deny that, but many Christians appear to believe it.

Dozens of planned weddings in Christian villages across Damascus have been canceled for fear of attack by extremists. Christians are withdrawing funds from banks, keeping their children home from school and not venturing out to socialize.

According to a person from the Christian neighborhood of Qassaa, letters were sent to three local churches last week with the message “you’re next.” The person, who like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, reported that on Friday, pro- and anti-regime demonstrators clashed in the neighborhood and shots were fired near a church.

In the town of Qatana, 20 miles southwest of Damascus, helicopters circle overhead and army trucks drive the streets. Several men from the town said terrorists from Saudi Arabia and Iraq were caught trying to detonate a bomb at a local church two weeks ago, but that claim could not be verified.

Many Christians interviewed said their biggest fear was the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Syria. About half as many worshipers as usual attended Good Friday church services this year because people are afraid to leave their homes.

There are numerous Christian denominations in Syria, including Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Catholic and Greek Catholic. They share a history in these lands that dates back nearly 2,000 years.

In Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and home to a large Christian population, churchgoers are exercising caution this Easter.

Like Damascus, Aleppo has largely been bypassed by the anti-regime protests that have swept across Syria in recent weeks. But here, too, people are anxious. And online, in social networking forums such as Facebook and Twitter, they are becoming increasingly nationalistic.

“That sometimes reaches the level of attacking and insulting anyone who posts something that contains criticism of the state of affairs in Syria,” said one Armenian Christian man from the Villat area of Aleppo, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Despite the escalating violence — more people were killed Friday than any previous day during Syria’s uprising — few Christians are talking of leaving Syria should the security situation deteriorate.

“I came back from America after 14 years to build this house and to be with my parents again,” said a Christian woman from Aleppo. “I will not leave my house, no matter what happens.”

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