“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 that 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 — the group’s fear helps explain how President Bashar al-Assad has held on to 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 their brethren from war-racked places like Iraq and Lebanon, and where others have felt threatened in post revolutionary Egypt.They fear that in the event the president falls, they may be subjected to reprisals at the hands of a conservative Sunni leadership for what it sees 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 coexist for the most part.The anxiety is so deep that many ignore the opposition’s counterpoint: The government has actually made those divisions worse as part of a strategy to ensure the rule of the Assad family, which itself springs from a Muslim minority, the Alawites.
“I am intrigued by your calls for freedom and for overthrowing the regime,” wrote a Syrian Christian woman on her Facebook page, addressing Christian female protesters. “What does freedom mean? Every one of you does what she wants and is free to say what she wants. Do you think if the regime falls (God forbid) you will gain freedom? Then, each one of you will be locked in her house, lamenting those days.”The fate of minorities in a region more diverse than many recognize is among the most pressing questions facing an Arab world in turmoil. With its mosaic of Christians and Muslim sects, Syria has posed the question in its starkest terms: Does it take a strongman to protect the community from the more dangerous, more intolerant currents in society?
The plight of Christians in Syria has resonated among religious minorities across the Middle East, many of whom see themselves as facing a shared destiny. In Iraq, the number of Christians has dwindled to insignificance since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, driven away by bloodshed and chauvinism. Christians in Egypt worry about the ascent of Islamists. Christians in Lebanon, representing the largest minority by proportion in the Arab world, worry about their own future, in a country where they emerged as the distinct losers of a 15-year civil war.This month, Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic patriarch urged Maronites, the largest community of Christians in the country, to offer Mr. Assad another chance and to give him enough time to carry out a long list of reforms that he has promised but never enacted.The comments by the patriarch, Bishara Boutros al-Rai, prompted a heated debate in Lebanon, which lived under Syrian hegemony for 29 years. A prominent Syrian (and Christian) opposition figure offered a rebuttal from Damascus. But Patriarch Rai, who described Mr. Assad as “a poor man who cannot work miracles,” defended his remarks, warning that the fall of the government in Syria threatened Christians across the Middle East.