Regime-change calls stir Syrian Christians’ unease

“Promoting dialogue”: the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill I, at a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, in Damascus, last Sunday REUTERS

“Promoting dialogue”: the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill I, at a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, in Damascus, last Sunday REUTERS

Gerald Butt

THE minority Christian community in Syria is feeling increasingly uncomfortable and nervous as the country becomes squeezed more and more by Arab and international governments.

As the violent repression of anti-regime protests in Syria continues, and more civilian and military deaths are reported each day, King Abdullah of Jordan has become the first Arab leader to call for regime change. His remarks followed on the heels of a decision by the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership of the League.

Christian anxieties arise from uncertainty about the future. While the regime of President Bashar al-Assad — like that of his father Hafez before him — is dictatorial, Christians are free to worship, do business, and hold senior positions. How they might fare under a regime dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood — the main internal opposition force in Syria — is by no means certain.
As a result of this concern and, no doubt, the fear of being too outspoken about the current political government, Christian leaders have been equivocal in their statements about what they hope will happen in the days ahead. In an interview with the Austrian newspaper Die Presse, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, His Eminence Yohanna Ibrahim, said that if Mr Assad introduced the necessary reforms, then he was still the best leader for the country “because he has the experience and has led the country for more than ten years. He is the President, everyone loves him, not just Christians, the Muslims too.” But Archbishop Ibrahim said that others, including opposition figures, could also govern the country.

A similar ambivalence was noticeable in remarks made by the leader of the Greek Ortho­dox Church, Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim, to the official Chinese news agency. Chri­stians in Syria, he said, preferred Mr Assad’s rule to “an unknown future. . . We believe that President Assad will fulfil his prom­ises and he is the best man to achieve the reforms.”

Arab Christians who speak about their fears of the spreading of Islamic influence can find themselves in hot water. The Patriarch of the Maronite Church in Lebanon, Beshara Rai, during a visit to Paris in September, spoke of Lebanese Christians’ fears that “we might end up with a regime [in Syria] which is more extreme and more fanatical.” The Patriarch was strongly denounced by fellow Christians as well as Muslims on his return to Lebanon for having spoken publicly about such sensitive matters.

Last weekend, a senior churchman from outside the region sought to calm the atmosphere in Syria. The leader of the Russian Ortho­dox Church, Patriarch Kirill I, said during a visit to Damascus that he was praying for “prosperity and peace in Syria, and the preservation of good relations between Christians and Muslims”. He said that “promoting dialogue is the duty of all those who care for Syria.”

Russia, along with China, remains a supporter of the current government, but its position is weakened by the day as the number of dead increases. While stopping short of calling for regime change, Russian leaders are urging President Assad to introduce reforms without delay, and pressing opposition groups to open a dialogue with the authorities.

Some international bodies say, however, that Russia and China are not doing enough. Amnesty International has urged both countries to stop blocking effective international action against Syria, and recognise that they have become isolated because of their support for a regime that has been “committing crimes against humanity”.

But neither Amnesty International state­ments nor calls for reforms are likely to be uppermost in the mind of the Syrian leader as he continues to order a tough crackdown on domestic unrest and decides how to react to growing international isolation.

King Abdullah’s advice to the Syrian President, in a BBC interview, to step aside and allow someone else to make the political changes necessary to save the country is unlikely to alter the course of events on the ground. Nor is the Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria’s membership.
Indeed, the authorities in Damascus have responded sharply to both developments, and show no signs of backing down from their confrontational attitude.

So the coming days are likely to see more civilian deaths, in tandem with increasing inter­national measures to restrict the Syrian government’s action through tighter sanctions. Syria’s fate, meanwhile, is as uncertain as ever.