June 8th, 2012
10:06 AM ET

Syria’s Christian conundrum

By Hind Aboud Kabawat, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Hind Aboud Kabawat is a Syrian attorney. She is also a conflict resolution specialist and senior research analyst at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, which is based at George Mason University in Virginia. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Hind Aboud Kabawat.

One of the most perplexing aspects of the Syrian revolution is the deep ambivalence felt by so many of the country’s Christians when faced with the prospect of freedom after four decades of authoritarian dictatorship. Some Christians have enthusiastically embraced the prospect of democratic change and a more open civil society, but many have not.

As a Christian, this provokes a great deal of sadness in me and others who are committed to transforming Syria into an open, democratic, inclusive, secular and religiously tolerant society. But the problem is that many, if not most, Christians in Syria do not believe that this will be the outcome of changing the regime.

On the contrary, they believe the present regime — corrupt and repressive as it has been — is the only true guarantor of secularism in Syria and, with it, the acceptance of the Christians as equals to their Muslim neighbors. Further, many Christians firmly believe that what will replace the regime is a fundamentalist Muslim theocracy that will strip Christians and other minorities of their political and civil rights, including their right to practice their religion in peace.

I sincerely believe they are misguided in this belief, and one of the principal tasks of the Syrian revolution going forward is to convince the Christian community to forsake such fears in favor of building a new Syria, democratic and secular, with their Shia, Sunni, Alawite, Druze and Kurd brothers and sisters.

Of course, when Christians do “rebel,” the regime responds with particular outrage and violence: “How dare you Christians criticize us when we have protected you all these years?”

Take, for instance, the case of a young Damascene woman named Caroline, who said she was arrested earlier this year and imprisoned for 25 days in a two-square meter cell. Her crime? Giving children Easter eggs wrapped in paper containing verses from both the Koran and the Bible.

For this simple act of kindness and tolerance, Caroline was interrogated for hours by the secret police, she said. Why, they asked, did she include a verse from the Koran on an Easter egg? Why is she involved in this kind of work? Why is a Christian showing support for the Syrian revolution? Although they did not say it in so many words, their main message was: Don’t you know what would happen to Christian communities when you “lose” the protection of this present regime?

Christians do know what could happen. In the wake of Saddam Hussein’s downfall, the Christian community in Iraq has more or less been decimated; those who haven’t fled the country are confronted with systematic repression. After the civil war in Lebanon, which Christians are generally perceived to have lost, the Christian community remains on the defensive and is shrinking. And in post-Mubarak Egypt, the Coptic Christians – 10% of the population - remain vigilant about their rights and their security.

None of these events has been lost on the Christian community in Syria, which is why many of them have not enthusiastically embraced the revolution.

Many of those who are predisposed to support the revolution do not because of the weakness and division within the Syrian opposition. For a Christian community that is inherently skittish about confronting established political authority, a weak opposition movement does little to allay their fears about challenging an entrenched 40-year-old regime that has shown time and time again its willingness to use brutal violence to silence its critics.

More from GPS: The great Syria divide

There are, however, many Christian Syrians who are, in fact, playing a pivotal role in opposition to the regime. Some, like George Sabra and Michel Kilo, are politically out front and vocal. Others, including many women, prefer to work behind the scenes doing humanitarian work inside Syria’s besieged towns and cities.

Among the Christians performing this vital humanitarian work is Yara Chammas, a 21-year-old woman who is the daughter of a well-known human rights lawyer, Michel Chammas. When unrest erupted in Baba Amr, Yara organized the distribution of medicine, food, blankets and baby milk. Her courageous display of Christian compassion resulted in her being jailed for 60 days over the Easter holidays. Yet not one leader in the Christian community came to her aid. Why? Because many of them vilified her as a “traitor” to their community for deigning to help the “enemy,” i.e., the children of Baba Amr. So much for their sense of compassion and caring.

Despite such hardships, the political engagement of Christians like Chammas hark back to a period in Syrian history when the Christian community was critically important to the political life of the country. Indeed, Christians founded both the Baath Party and the Syrian National Party. One of Syria’s greatest political leaders, Prime Minister Fares Khoury, was a Christian.

But since the advent of the Baath regime, Christians have played a much less visible role in the country’s politics. Minister is the highest position ever held by a Christian since the 1960s, and no Christian has ever held a serious leadership position. Even under the present proposed constitution, no Christian can be elected president.

Given their relative lack of status, why do Christian Syrians remain so loyal to this regime? It likely revolves around their fear of Islamic fundamentalism and their belief that the so-called secular state will be replaced by an Iran-style theocracy. There is also a fear that what will ensue from the collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s repressive police state will be Iraq-style chaos and sectarian civil war.

How can such fears be addressed and allayed? It is time for all Syrians, no matter what their faith, to begin thinking like citizens of a common state rather than just members of a sectarian religious community. Our focus should be on the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press, free markets, democratic elections and an accountable government. Those will be the bulwarks of a free, independent, secular and inclusive Syria.

I am a devout Christian, proud and respectful of the church’s teachings. But in the political realm, I am first and foremost a citizen, a citizen of the new free Syria. I believe that my fellow Christians will come to feel the same way. I also believe the same should be true for our Sunni, Alawite, Druze and Kurdish sisters and brothers.

Recently, a rather extraordinary scene unfolded at the funeral for young Bassel Chehadeh, the young Christian filmmaker gunned down by the regime in Homs.

As thousands from all religious faiths gathered at a church in the Christian Kassaa district of Damascus, security forces bolted the church doors shut and began beating and terrorizing the mourners. The parishioners responded by reciting Christian and Muslim prayers and chanting “Syrians are one people.” It was a beautiful sight.

We are one people, and citizens of one state. Not a Christian Syria or a Sunni Syria or an Alawite Syria. Just Syria, the homeland of all of us.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Hind Aboud Kabawat.

Topics: Religion • Revolution • Syria

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soundoff (273 Responses)
  1. Jay

    There's nothing at all in recent middle eastern history to suggest that a "democratic" revolution will be a positive for Syrian Christians. Maybe it's not worth supporting an evil dictator just to maintain the status quo, but the Christians better get their immigration paperwork in order just the same.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
    • JJ

      The majority of Christians have fled democratic Iraq. The majority of Christians have left democratic Lebanon. Coptic Christians have faced constant attacks and atrocities in newly democratic Egypt. Now the author wants Syrian Christians to believe good things are on the horizon for them? Please. Leave the delusional hope and change nonsense to the Obama administration. IMO, the Assad regime is done for, but there's nothing good for Syrian Christians to look forward to.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  2. Paul

    The author is writing about what he wants Syria to become, as opposed to what it will likely become when Assad is finished. The author's hopes are misguided. The article is heartfelt, but silly. When Assad goes, as brutal as Assad is, the Christians will be much worse off. Common sense augurs that outcome. With the exception of Turkey and a few Gulf states, Muslims simply lack the ability to live in a free democratic society with others. They are not tolerant and respective of others rights.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Reply
    • ziad

      Paul unfortunately you are right but that doesn't mean you should support wrong. Assad's time is up and too late to fix that. He didn't have the gut to do changes because he is surrounded by punch of crimanals. christian should stay aside or support the right cause which is unfortunately the sunni

      June 8, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Reply
  3. Badly-Bent

    Romney knows how to create jobs! (for foreigners)

    June 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  4. samonrusty

    U.S media is controlled by we all know who. Here's more proof, just for today. Not one word in the mainstream media that 34 of our brave men were killed in a deliberate attack on Jun 8, 1967 by ( I won't mention, cause it'll get censored ), on the USS Liberty. Listen to the survivors on alternate media on the internet.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  5. CRH

    It is pretty easy to see why they would be reluctant. Of course they want a free and open society ideally. But from a practical standpoint, they see what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. There is a real danger of Islamists taking over if Assad is forced out and then it will be open season on Christians.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply
    • Willywonka

      Just because your news anchor told you that doesnt mean thats true

      June 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
      • CRH

        Since I cannot afford to nor have the time to fly to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, yes I will have to listen to the multiple media outlets that are available and have people on the ground doing interviews.

        June 8, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  6. Total non Sense

    Remove the Islam (IE: Muslims) from syria = PROBLEM SOLVED!

    June 8, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Reply
    • Willywonka

      Your name says it all!

      June 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
    • yuri pelham

      Impossible

      June 8, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply
    • K House

      Typical ignorant response.
      How about getting the Religion out of the world?! That's the damn problem. Not one specific religion either, ALL OF THEM!

      June 9, 2012 at 11:31 am | Reply
  7. Willywonka

    Christians in the U.S hate Iran who supports Syria but the Christians dont want Assad out therefore supporting Iran because they are afraid of Sunni muslims who get support from the U.S sometimes(only if your Saudi). While the regime is killing Sunnies because they are standing up for democracy while the christians in Syria are afraid of The Sunnies who are standing up for all. Jordan is not ran by a shiite government and Christians are fine. I would rather fight for right than hide to live a little bit longer. Ignorance is when you have knowledge and dont do anything about it!

    June 8, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Reply
    • CRH

      If you think that Syria will magically, instantly become like Jordan (also not a democracy) when the government is removed, you are delusional. Looking at the other nations who are currently trying to rebuild their governments will give you a much more likely picture of what will occur. It will be difficult and it will be bloody. So you can understand their reluctance. It doesn't mean they don't want it. Since you know what is best, why don't you fly to Damascus and pick up a weapon?

      June 8, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
      • Willywonka

        Im just saying that Syria isnt like Iraq, Tunis or Egypt. If you were getting attacked you too would want to be helped. Christians in Syria are Syrians, muslims in Syria are also Syrians. They protest isnt a religious one, its for change. The people dont want suppression anymore. Who does? A regime killing children isnt worth standing behind no matter what the results are

        June 8, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  8. Cheetahe

    Using history as a guide and what is happening in Egypt and the rest of the countries who have gone through the Arab Spring transformation the lot of even the small Christian minorities have gone from bad to worse.
    The odds are very good that a Sunni theocracy will take over from Assad. Just check the supporters of the uprising, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey where there are practically no Christian minorities left and if there are any cannot practice it.
    Even the Kurdish minority does not want to support this uprising which is supported by questionable sources.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  9. krm1007 ©™

    New, More Dangerous Hindu Extremist Groups Emerge in India

    Christians concerned as rightwing factions splinter to form militant outfits.
    PUNE, India, October 29 (CDN) — After more than a decade of severe persecution, India’s Christian minority is growing increasingly concerned over the mushrooming of newer and deadlier Hindu extremist groups.

    Gone are the days when Christians had to watch out only for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, which are closely linked with the most influential Hindu extremist umbrella organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). With voter support faltering for the RSS’s political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), moderate and extremist sections within the Hindu nationalist movement are blaming each other, and militant splinter groups have emerged.

    Claiming to be breakaway factions of the RSS, new groups with even more extreme ideology are surfacing. The Abhinav Bharat (Pride of India), the Rashtriya Jagran Manch (National Revival Forum), the Sri Ram Sene (Army of god Rama), the Hindu Dharam Sena (Army for Hindu Religion) and the Sanatan Sanstha (Eternal Organization) have launched numerous violent attacks on Christian and Muslim minorities.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
  10. Simon

    Everyone is so quick to blame Christians for anything and everything which itself is a derivative of Islamic teachings that vilify Christians. I think the misguided Christian is the author herself who likes to speculate and perhaps should accept the speculation that she has internalized anti-Christian bigotry that is part and parcel of every muslim majority society without realizing it. You cannot be a devout Christian and involve yourselves in power struggles or violence, this is another invention of the author who wants to resolve impossible contradictions by stating that together without accepting that they invalidate each other.

    Let's look at the most moderate and educated example of Arab countries, Tunisia, in its post revolution, let's look at Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and what dismiss what happened? So she can dream all she wants about the ideal society inclusive of Christians that will never emerge from Islamic societies, while the realists who she criticizes for wanting to survive are the ones who will pay the price. How about this video of a Tunisian Christian being beheaded by his fellow muslim in a free Tunisia?

    http://www.aina.org/news/20120606104355.htm

    What advice do you have for Christians now? Why do Christians have to choose between the two choices and not a third rooted in their religion? Because Christians can never wield power in Islamic societies, period. Hind, you are dangerous for the wrong reasons. Stop bashing Christians for trying to survive between two enemies.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Reply
  11. Eric

    So minority Christians in Syria want a secular government, and many of the majority Christians in the U.S. want a less secular government.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  12. yuri pelham

    Christians living in peace under Islamic rule is inconceivable. Dimmi dimmi.

    June 8, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  13. natalie

    So is this author living in Syria or are they living abroad listening to the mainstream media garbage news and forming thier opinion? With my husbands Christian family all living in Damascus we fear not of the government but of the opposition. No way will Christians be safe if Al-assad falls – Syria is no different than Iraq, Libya or Egypt. What a damn mess, but what else is new?!?!?!

    June 8, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  14. John Rgood

    The heart of the matter is that Islam must go. It cannot tolerate or be tolerated. It is the scourge and evil that is driving all this madness. Islam must be defeated then we can figure out the rest.

    June 8, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Reply
  15. Save the babies in Syria

    The Houla massacre in Syria, committed by Assad as stated by the UN team. Please check the video!

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lXQ9lW_Pbc&w=640&h=360]

    June 8, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  16. KeninTexas

    It says "many Christians firmly believe that what will replace the regime is a fundamentalist Muslim theocracy that will strip Christians and other minorities of their political and civil rights," ,,, They have a good reason to fear this will be the outcome. Look at other places, such as Iraq and Egypt, where just this outcome became real and the Christians suffered because of it. The Muslim majority will decimate their neighboring Christians.

    June 8, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Reply
    • JLS639

      Nope, Iraq's Christians were displaced before any meaningful Iraqi autonomy by local, neighborhood strongmen, not an Islamic regime. It happened just before the surge and our troops sat by idle while 7% of Iraq's population became refugees over a 5 month period. The United States military then made agreements with those strongmen, violence against US troops decreased and they credited the surge. Look up ethnic cleansing in Iraq if you do not believe me.

      Egypt's Christians are doing well. There have been a few incidents of anti-Christian vandalism and violence, but not many.

      June 8, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Reply
  17. Michael

    As an Orthodox Christian, I've been perplexed as to why there have been no noticeable comments from the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch during these months of murder and bloodshed.

    June 8, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Reply
    • JLS639

      Back in December he said foreigners were instigating the uprising.

      June 8, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Reply
    • Simon

      I doubt you are a true Orthodox Christian except in name, if that. If you are an Orthodox Christian, then please revert to scripture and I mean the eternal gospel of Jesus himself who said that "heaven and earth shall pass, but my words shall never pass." Christianity is against any form of sin, that includes violence, and its singuler mission is to unite us in prayer and teaching to preserve and spread our faith that involves first and foremost absolute non-violence, not even in self-defense. The church has no authority to speak on behalf of anyone else because each has his own relationship with God and cross to bear and Christians are not a tribe or nation with a government. So, your expectation that the church speaks is not a christian expectation but a secular demand.The church is not an authority to judge or convict people of sin or to concern itself with "the kings of the earth" as Christ taught. "We are not of this earth." STOP THINKING LIKE A MOSLEM WHO BELIEVES HE HAS THE POWER TO JUDGE AND EXECUTE YOU BASED UPON HIS RELIGION. IT IS ISLAM THAT IS A POLITICAL SYSTEM GUISED AS A RELIGION. So, if you are truly an Orthodox Christian, you have equal voice as anyone in the church to speak for yourself without speaking for others but if you represent yourself as a Christian then speak as a Christian would speak and invoke the Gospel of Christ and not your own human desires or choice to sin. If you follow that, you will be preaching Christianity, oh, but wait, if you preach that is prostelyzing, which is against the law in every muslim country. So, do not ask the church not to be Christian, and do not ask the Church to violate the law of the land and jeopardize Christians, and do not elect the Church the representative of Christians because they are not, that is the again the Islamic and Ottoman millet concept. So, instead please support and plead with the church to remain vigilant in its Christianity and not stray from the teachings of Christ.

      June 9, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  18. kendallpeak

    The trouble with democracy in countries dominated by Islam is that Islam itself is an evil murderous belief system. If majority rules, and majority believes in this hateful way of life, then Christians and everyone else who doesn't "submit" better be real scared.

    June 8, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Reply
  19. tman

    i might listen to these religious sucidicial morons when they build a cathoilc church in down town mecca...yeah that will happen..... i feel so sorry for the middle east...what a waste....

    June 8, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      You are just small ignorant liberal: you know nothing about the world outside and can not think for yourself so are easily manipulated. Nobody cares what you thing and what you feel: we all can read any of it on this site!

      June 8, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Reply
  20. JLS639

    The Syrians are not mistaken or deluded. They are intelligent and, unlike so many Americans, are not turning a blind eye to the lessons of Iraq. I have read other, better reporting. The Christians and Shi'a are say that any regime arising out of violence will be lead by its worst, most violent elements. I read about a march in a town in uprising where the marchers shouted death to the Shi'a and exile the Christians. These elements will attack the Christian, Kurdish and Shi'a minorities. Most Syrians want a peaceful transition and rule of law, not the rule of the gun. That is a reason to oppose the rebellion.

    They know the West will not protect them, for they would not when they had a major military presence in Iraq and watch as 7% of Iraq's population became refugees over a 5 month period and the US made allies with the perpetrators of this great crime against humanity. The Syrians now host many of those refugees. They see reality and know war is no proper way to change a government.

    June 8, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Reply
  21. Eli

    Wishful thinking from the author. While I admire such romantic sentiment, I should admit she sounded as if she has not been in Syria for many many years. Unfortunately, Syrian reality is exactly what the author is trying to deny, or ignore, or perhaps she is just unaware of it altogether.

    June 8, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Reply
  22. Enoch

    When there are no more Bees around, one can be certain that there is something wrong with the environment. Likewise, when original, natural inhabitants of a particular area are driven out of their motherlands, something terrible will happen to them. First the Jews, now Christians are forced to abandon their countries, Iraq, Saudi Arabia,Algeria,Libya,Tunisia, soon Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, Christians will either be exterminated, or driven out, of course, the US, Europe and the UN will remain silent, they all will let the genocide go on, but there is another invisible force that takes the responsibility to avenge the injustice. Ladies and Gentlemen, there is a very clear sign out there that shows us that the Middle East is going to be destroyed by some force soon.

    June 8, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Reply
  23. Asunja

    Neither Muslims nor Christians are the only religions left in this world, but they sure act that way. Why should any person sacrifice their live for another's religion? I would immediately take up arms if my country would be invaded or threatened. But to go to another part of the country and lay down my life for this? We no longer live in the age of the crusades. And before you sent me hate remarks – there is plenty of historic evidence of both massacres and wars committed by both Christians and Muslims – in the past and present! And evidence of oppression of other faiths by both!
    I am tired of either to expect governments to kill for them or pass laws to suppress others.

    June 9, 2012 at 12:12 am | Reply
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