Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fearing change, many Syrian Christians back Assad.

In the past, I've expressed some concerns about the effect that the 'Arab Spring' would have on Christians in the Middle East, and I've relayed at least one 'on the ground' perspective on the issue. Following up on this topic, here is a newly-published report on Christian responses to the protests in Syria from the New York Times:
Abu Elias sat beneath the towering stairs leading from the Convent of Our Lady of Saydnaya, a church high up in the mountains outside Damascus, where Christians have worshiped for 1,400 years. "We are all scared of what will come next," he said turning to a man seated beside him, Robert, an Iraqi refugee who escaped the sectarian strife in his homeland.

"He fled Iraq and came here," said Abu Elias, looking at his friend who arrived just a year earlier. "Soon, we might find ourselves doing the same."

Syria plunges deeper into unrest by the day. On Tuesday, government troops attacked the rebellious town of Rastan with tanks and machine guns, wounding at least 20 people. With the chaos growing, Christians visiting Saydnaya on a recent Sunday said they feared a change of power could usher in a tyranny of the Sunni Muslim majority, depriving them of the semblance of protection the Assad family has provided for four decades.

Syria’s Christian minority is sizable, about 10 percent of the population, though some here say the share is actually lower these days. Though their sentiments are by no means monolithic — Christians are represented in the opposition, and loyalty to the government is often driven more by fear than fervor — as a group they help explain how President Bashar al-Assad has held onto segments of his constituency, in spite of a brutal crackdown aimed at crushing a popular uprising. For many Syrian Christians, Mr. Assad remains predictable in a region where unpredictability has driven many of their brethren from war-wrecked places like Iraq and Lebanon, and where many have felt threatened in post-revolutionary Egypt.

They fear that in the event the president falls, they might be subjected to reprisals at the hands of a conservative Sunni leadership for what it saw as Christian support of the Assad family. They worry that the struggle to dislodge Mr. Assad could turn into a civil war, unleashing sectarian bloodshed in a country where minorities, ethnic and religious, have found a way to co-exist for the most part.
To read the rest of the NYT article, click here. Meanwhile over at AsiaNews, Iraq's Ambassador to the Holy See, Habib Mohammed Hadi al-Sadr, offers a commentary on the Christian reaction to the Arab Spring. As Ambassador al-Sadr observes, there are competing schools of thought on this issue, with some arguing that the Arab Spring may make things better for Christians in the Middle East by encouraging greater openness in civil society, while others note that historically outspoken and political active Christian minorities have become wary of any regime change that might threaten their already precarious position. In response, Ambassador al-Sadr has this to say:
The reality calls for a neutral and realistic analysis of the differing positions. So then we must first recognize an important fact: the Arab Christian component is a minority within the society in which they live. There is no denying the importance and weight of their role, through different historical periods, but the number counts, and the weight of the majority is completely different from that of the minority. This minority is alarmed. It fears that the political, social and economic turmoil which erupted unexpectedly, motivated by emotions rather than clear programs, and which does not take account of internal and international conditions, can have serious consequences on the lives of minorities, and open the way for an unknown and terrible future.

The first Arab revolts received the full support of the Arab world, but today this is no longer the case. For example, the societies in countries where there is a revolt - Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain – are divided on how the prospect of change and demands for democratic reforms. In some places there are calls for a peaceful solution, and protests against foreign interference, but elsewhere there are those who use violence and confrontation, and there are those who rely on armed protests and use foreign forces to overthrow the regime. The situation is made more difficult by the attitude of the international community and the UN Security Council. Each party is acting according to his own interests, analysis and strategies to operate in the present and future of the region. And this situation means that Arab Christians should wait before committing themselves, to avoid any errors in assessing all probabilities.

It is also only natural that Christians should mistrust these protests, fearing that they will be led by radical Islamic forces who want to seize power, based on the fact that they are more organized and have a greater, more effective ability to shuffle the cards. These are forces that have shed blood and desecrated Christian churches. As a result Arab Christians find themselves having to choose between accepting authoritarian systems, but with a certain amount of secularism, which guarantee freedom of religion, or a totally different type systems. They choose what seems to them the lesser of two evils.
To read the rest of Ambassador al-Sadr's commentary, click here. As always, I ask you to join me in praying for the Christians of the Middle East in a time of great struggle and uncertainty. AMDG.


At 10/01/2011 11:05 AM, Blogger Macrina Walker said...

Joe, I'm curious as to whether you know, or know of, the community of Deir Mar Musa in Syria, founded by an Italian Jesuit? I spent three months with them some years ago, and while I would not be comfortable with some of their positions (especially liturgically and ecumenically) I suspect that their views on the Syrian situation would be worth hearing.

At 10/01/2011 1:20 PM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...


I've heard of Deir Mar Musa, but that's about it - I really don't know enough about the community to have much of an opinion, but I agree that it would be interesting to hear what they might have to say about the current situation.

My experience with Jesuits from the Middle East (natives of the region, not foreign missionaries like the founder of Deir Mar Musa) is that they tend to be far more cautious in their thinking on ecumenical and interreligious matters than many in the West; I wish that Christians in the West would pay more attention to what they and other indigenous Middle Eastern Christians have to say.


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