Saturday, 11 June 2011

Syria's religious pluralism at stake

Syria is in turmoil. Inspired by uprisings in other Arab countries, Syrian protestors have taken to the streets and denounced the autocratic rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Protests have spread to several cities, and it is estimated by the UN that at least 1,100 people have been killed by the security forces.

What is particularly sad about this is that Syria has for long been a beacon of religious pluralism and freedom in a largely intolerant region. Syria has many minorities. Arab Sunnis are the majority but other Muslim sects form a sizeable portion of the population. A further 8-10% of the people are Christian. In recent years many Iraqi Christian refugees have fled to Syria in the wake of bloody persecution in their homeland.

The government and security forces are dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. This is largely a legacy of French colonial rule. In order to keep Sunni nationalism in check the French co-opted the services of the Alawite community, promoting them to high positions in government and the military. The Alawites went from being a despised downtrodden minority to rulers of their country – a fact deeply despised by the Sunni majority.

Although the Assad regime is authoritarian it has been good for the Christians and other minorities. The regime has kept in check the influence of militant Islamists. Christians are able to worship and practice their faith without much interference, although evangelisation among Muslims is strongly discouraged. A return to Sunni majority rule could lead to their violent suppression and, in the worst case, a sectarian bloodbath similar to that in Iraq. This is why many Christians in Syria have largely stayed away from protests. They are afraid of what may replace the secular Baathist regime.

In a letter to Western leaders, the Syria-based head of the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church, Patriarch Gregorios III, appealed for them to "ask the heads of state of Arab countries to work for real development... But don't encourage revolutions". He said:
“The situation has deteriorated into organised crime, robbery, fear, terror being spread, rumours of threats to churches... Fundamentalist groups are threatening citizens and wanting to create ‘Islamic Emirates'... Christians especially are very fragile in the face of crises and bloody revolutions! Christians will be the first victims of these revolutions, especially in Syria. A new wave of emigration will follow immediately.”
Thus far external powers have not called for regime change like they have in Libya. This is because by and large the main players – Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and America – prefer to see Assad remain in power than face the more destabilising consequences of regime change in a highly sensitive area. It is true that Syria has provided some support for terrorist groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas but, as Reva Bhalla of STRATFOR says, regime change could potentially lead to greater support for such groups:
“It is not a coincidence that Israel, with which Syria shares a strong and mutual antipathy, has been largely silent over the Syrian unrest. Already unnerved by what may be in store for Egypt’s political future, Israel has a deep fear of the unknown regarding the Syrians. How, for example, would a conservative Sunni government in Damascus conduct its foreign policy? The real virtue of the Syrian regime lies in its predictability: The al Assad government, highly conscious of its military inferiority to Israel, is far more interested in maintaining its hegemony in Lebanon than in picking fights with Israel. While the al Assad government is a significant patron to Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, among other groups it manages within its Islamist militant supply chain, its support for such groups is also to some extent negotiable, as illustrated most recently by the fruits of Turkey’s negotiations with Damascus in containing Palestinian militant activity and in Syria’s ongoing, albeit strained, negotiations with Saudi Arabia over keeping Hezbollah in check. Israel’s view of Syria is a classic example of the benefits of dealing with the devil you do know rather than the devil you don’t.”
The Assad regime is certainly coming under increasing strain, but for the time being it is holding together. Considering that Alawites were once second-class citizens less than a century ago, there is a deep-seated fear of a reversal of Alawite power. For that reason the Alawites are sticking together.

Only time will tell of course what will happen in Syria. My wife’s best friend is a Christian lady from Syria. She never fails to impress us with her strong religious faith and good Christian values. She is understandably worried about the safety of her family members and the fate of her homeland. Syria is a beautiful country steeped in history where the ruins of Crusader castles and citadels still dot the landscape. It would be a tragedy if the religious pluralism that has existed there for many years descends into sectarian violence. Please pray that this doesn’t happen and that all communities in Syria continue to live peacefully together.

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