Syria: President Bashir al-Assad has a staunch friend in the Church

President Bashar Assad meets with Ghassan Mustafa Abdul-Aal, the new governor of the central province of Homs, following the oath-taking ceremony in Damascus Photo: EPA

By Richard Spencer

Across Syria, President Bashir al-Assad is facing huge and angry protests against his rule, but he has a staunch friend in the Church.

“We are with the government and against these movements that oppose it,” said Bishop Philoxenos Mattias, a spokesman for the Syriac Orthodox Church.

“Here in Syria we do not have problems like Christians in other countries. We have no problem with the president.”

The experience of neighbouring Iraq is a salutary lesson for Christians across the Middle East. Many disliked the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime as much as his other subjects, but what has come since has been incomparably worse.

In the violence, much of it sectarian, that swept the country after the coalition invasion, both Christians and occupations traditionally carried out by Christians, such as selling alcohol, were targeted for the first time. More than 60 churches have been bombed, hundreds killed for their faith and the Catholic Archbishop of Mosul was two years ago abducted and murdered.

More than half the Christian population are estimated to have fled the country.

Even in countries which have a long tradition of Christians and Muslims living alongside each other, including in Lebanon where Christian Maronites used to be the dominant political force and are still guaranteed the presidency under the constitution, numbers are declining.

In some cases, this is ascribed to the economic opportunities offered by emigration to the Christian West. In others, it is a subtle mixture of opportunity mixed with the chance to leave behind low-level sectarian conflict and the threat of worse should the situation deteriorate.
A bomb attack against a Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria immediately before the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has been followed by lethal clashes in both Cairo and cities of the south with the majority Muslim population, often stirred up by radical groups.

Coptic Christians were, however, prominent in the street demonstrations against Mr Mubarak’s rule.

In other countries, minority groups have been promoted by regimes, partly because of higher education levels and partly because of their easier relations with the West. But this also makes them fearful about the consequences of those regimes being toppled.