Syria's Christians Back Assad
This spring, many Syrian Christians rejected protestors' demands for embattled president Bashar al-Assad to resign. But Christians did broadly endorse democratic reforms that would bring an end to dictatorship.
"We do not support those who are calling for the fall of the regime, simply because we are [for] the process of reform and changes," said Yohanna Ibrahim, Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, at a religious summit in France.
In late May, International Christian Concern, an evangelical ministry to the persecuted church, released to Christianity Today an anonymous open letter from a "trusted Syrian source" that explains why many Syrian Christians support Assad's regime. The two-page letter calls for help from the larger Christian community. It says in part:
• "Christian service has flourished remarkably in Syria. We regard Syria as a model Arab country when it comes to freedom of worship."
• Radical Muslim groups are "responsible for the disturbance" in the country. "Christians are the first to be persecuted when we talk about governmental change."
• "We are seeking [Christians'] help to prevent what happened in Iraq and Egypt from happening in Syria. Christian service in Syria is in danger now."
An influential Syrian seminary educator who asked not to be named told CT that Syrian Christians are very aware of what happened to Christians in Iraq, including the estimated 500,000 Christian refugees who fled to Syria during the Iraq war.
"[Syrian Christians] are unwilling to see themselves becoming refugees in Lebanon," said the educator, who is currently in the United States to teach. He told CT that a majority of Syria's 1.4 million Christians want the Assad government to speed up reforms. "In a nutshell, Syrian Christians desire to have both—the regime and the reforms."
Syrian Christians see their nation as a Middle East oasis of religious freedom compared with Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Open Doors ranks Syria as 38th on its 2011 list of the world's worst persecutors of Christians. The secular government allows churches to preach, teach, evangelize, publish religious materials, and build sanctuaries. Christians have access to education and employment.
Topple the Regime
Yet Syria has also been long known for supporting international terrorism and brutally repressing internal political opposition. Many experts link Syria to the 2005 political assassination of the prime minister of Lebanon. Syria is a longtime supporter of Hezbollah, the Muslim terrorist group active in Lebanon.
In mid-March, public support for regime change was ignited when a group of schoolboys sprayed graffiti on walls in Dara'a, a dirt-poor town near Syria's southern border with Jordan. Their words in Arabic—"The people want to topple the regime"—echoed other uprisings in the Arab world.
In Tunisia and Egypt, ordinary people witnessed what they had thought was impossible—the toppling of established authoritarian leaders—signaling what has been dubbed the "Arab Spring" or "Arab Awakening."
Police arrested the schoolboys and beat them, triggering public outrage throughout Dara'a's dusty streets and in neighboring communities. President Assad responded by firing the area's governor and security chief, but that did nothing to stop the protests. Huge numbers have turned out in unprecedented street protests in the tightly controlled country. Demanding economic reforms, an end to corruption, and greater political freedom, Syrians expressed rage over the military and security forces' violent response to the actions of protestors. About 1,000 have died.