RICHARD BEESTON, IN DAMASCUS
WHEN Father Basilious Nasser got an urgent call to say that one of his parishioners had been shot and needed help, the priest went immediately. As he tried to rescue the man on a street in the city of Hama, the cleric was shot twice by a sniper and died.
It is still unclear whether he was killed by government forces or the opposition, but his death nine days ago has shocked the Christian community.
For centuries, the ancient eastern churches have thrived on their ability to avoid becoming embroiled in the region’s volatile politics. But increasingly, the 2.5 million Christians in Syria fear being dragged into the violence. There is no end in sight to the bloodshed, and hopes for a foreign-mediated solution dimmed yesterday as UN Security Council members failed to reach agreement yet again on a resolution to end the violence.
The fateful moment for Syria’s Christians can be traced back 10 months ago, when President Bashar al-Assad summoned leaders of the community to his palace and gave them an ultimatum: support me, or your people will suffer.
Perhaps mindful of the plight of the Christians in Iraq and Egypt, who have come under attack since the removal of secular dictatorships over the past decade, the leaders agreed. None is a bigger supporter of the President than Archbishop Gregorios III, the Patriarch of Antioch and head of the 350,000 Greek Catholic community in Syria. He is unashamed and even enthusiastic about backing the President.
“We need Bashar,” the Archbishop said. “He is a good man, an open man. He has started to make changes to this country. He has always protected religious freedoms … Don’t change the regime; help the regime change.”
He dismissed the uprising as the work of terrorists and bandits and even suggested that protesters were paid to take part in demonstrations. He insisted that it was the duty of his church to support the head of state.
Similar views have been expressed by other church leaders in Syria. The assumption is that the Christians, who make up 10 per cent of Syria’s population, will continue to enjoy privileged status in a secular state as long as the Ba’athist regime, dominated by the Alawite group representing 13 per cent of the country, stays in power. Should the Sunni Muslims, with more than 70 per cent of the population, seize power in the revolt, the smaller sects could lose out as Syria becomes an Islamic state.
However, some Christians have joined the opposition and taken part in demonstrations. Memorably, a group of Christian men were given Santa Claus hats by Muslims when they joined a march just before Christmas.
There are two prominent Christian opposition figures: Michel Kilo, now exiled in France, and Fayez Sara, who could play roles in a post-Assad arrangement for Syria. But equally, it was a Syrian Christian, Michel Aflak, who was responsible for creating the Ba’ath Party ideology, which still rules the country.
As the struggle drags on, Christians fear that they will find themselves caught in the middle of the struggle and forced to join the wave of Christian migration to the West that is taking place across the Middle East.