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. k kim

    "23. In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. 24. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. 25 The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance. ” Isaiah 19.

    I pray and urge all Christians in Syria to seek first the kingdom of heaven for "our citizenship is in heaven." Phil 3:20. Take heart and persevere for your Christian brothers and sisters everywhere are praying for you to shine the light of Christ amidst the darkness and for God to pour out his Spirit in Syria for the Muslims to receive the gospel of Christ and be saved.

    June 9, 2012 at 12:26 am | Reply
  2. Jeb

    what's this guy smoking? The Islamists will take over Syria if Assad falls like that have in every other country that has over thrown their governments in the region. Once that happens, then the Christians will become targets like they have in Egypt. Look at what happened to Christians in Iraq after Saddam. The Syrian Christians know what will happen if the Islamists take over. It is an indication of the corruption of the Islamist ideology that they feel so threatened by a small minority of Christians that they actively promote violence and discrimination against them.

    June 9, 2012 at 12:43 am | Reply
  3. Mike

    Yes Christians are treated equally, if you mean equally opressed.

    June 9, 2012 at 12:49 am | Reply
  4. Mahmood Sabri

    It is interesting to read anti-Islam comments. Obviously, those who make these comments have not studied Islam. Islam respects the God-given right of every individual to believe or not to believe in God or believe in any way he wants. Those who call themselves Muslims and deny anyone freedom of religion do not understand Islam either. There is serious need for education on both sides of the isle. May God guide us to the right path. Amen.

    June 9, 2012 at 1:31 am | Reply
    • assyrian

      mahmoud, stop generalizing, for the sake of your religion, stop acting like a marketing agent.
      islam with some of its shapes now, is backward and agressive.
      if you cant think of this critically, you will fail islam yourself.

      June 9, 2012 at 3:03 am | Reply
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    June 9, 2012 at 1:31 am | Reply
  6. Simon

    See for yourself, here is the future of Christians in the Middle East and around the world at the hands of Islam

    Muslims Slaughter Convert to Christianity in Tunisia
    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxGWlOQZyEs&w=640&h=360]

    June 9, 2012 at 1:34 am | Reply
    • pjayonloose

      Great .. some guys can put hoods on, sharpen up a knife and cut some other guy's head off. Brilliant. And we HAD to see that. Knives, it turns out, are primitive weapons. And the blood of the saints is seed.

      June 9, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  7. Total2199

    Just do not buy this crap!!!! If rebels win, they will finish off all minorities. Period!!!!!

    June 9, 2012 at 2:14 am | Reply
  8. assyrian

    the main signs that syria story will be different is not only the relatively large secular sunni population, but also their strong critisism to wahabi culture, and radical islam.
    in addition to islamic peaceful sofist tradition, and sheiks that promotes it. like jawdat saeed and mouaz el khatib. (which btw are nightmares to any dictatorship),

    one correction also. christian fear saudi-style future and not iranian-style. it is time for western thinkers to start pointing their justified islamo-phobia toward the oil-political ally. The mid ages monarchy called saudi arabia.
    that is what scares syrian christians.
    the west politics is too pragmatic to be able to practice what it preaches.

    June 9, 2012 at 2:59 am | Reply
  9. lastofall

    I would agree with the "many" Christians who do not think a governing change would accomplish much. So-called secular and religious tolerant governing lasts only for a while, not for ever, such as is in our country.

    June 9, 2012 at 3:36 am | Reply
  10. deepintobipolar

    If Al-Assaad regime stop shooting live ammo at people, in one day he will fall, because of millions that will go out to the streets.. and that's exactly why he's not doing that..
    and millions of syrian can't be wrong, and one dictatorship regime is right...

    June 9, 2012 at 3:59 am | Reply
    • Lee

      Interesting...I always laugh when reading comments like these. You're missing a critical point to your argument. Assad's "thugs" are made up of every religious denomination in Syria. They're 200,000+ strong. Do basic mathematics: 200,000 of 20,000,000? That is one percent of the population, but what about their families? What about other supporters? At best, you have a civil war. This slaughter is becoming too much to handle. I am disgusted when I see all these poor children perishing, and for what? So one dictatorship can be replaced by another? Give me a break.

      June 9, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Reply
      • deepintobipolar

        Lee,
        I am really sorry I can't promise you what will happen if Assad fall, I am really sorry that they never built a time machine for the "known evil is better than unknown good" followers... so you have to either read signals on the ground... in statistical way to see how much better the future will be... look at the slogans (in statistics) look at the continuous demonstrations even though the militant battle is going on...
        Since the beginning the signs clearly goes to the direction of civil society..

        The usual argument bu syrian regime supporters that logic things a bit, that this is not a "clean" revolution, they are hallucinating that in Syria there must a Ghandi or Assaad... no one else can take us to a better place... well.. we will see..

        I am a Christian Orthodox, and we in addition to liberal Muslims, and all other minorities form a big part of the revolutionist... sorry we are busy to market ourself... if you want a proof, look at the records of the detained young people in Damascus and Aleppo... see the percentage of young girls, minorities, and liberals or even communists. in addition to secular religious Sunnis..
        I am sorry that you don't see us, and I am sorry that you want to apply all lessons of intellectual superiority of any one comparing Syrians...

        However is afraid of more radical islam in the ME, should ask himself does he know the most backword islamic barbaric regime yet to exist on a country international accepted scale? (hint: "OIL")
        What about rethinking the love relations with Saudi? If you care really about a better future to the whole ME.

        June 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  11. ytuque

    The author should ask how many churches have been destroyed or closed and how many Christians have been killed since the Arab Spring came to Tunisia, LIbya, and Egypt. The author seems to have her head firmly planted in her backside if she thinks a post-Assad regime would be democratic and protect minority rights.

    June 9, 2012 at 4:49 am | Reply
  12. Sid Airfoil

    The discussion about whether or not we should support the Syrian rebels misses a key point. It is generally presented as a "damned if we do, damned if we don't" choice between supporting a SECULAR dictator (Assad) or supporting a RELIGIOUS dictator (the Islamists whom we presume will take power if Assad is brought down). I suggest that we stop focussing on this false choice. Instead, we should focus on supporting the Syrian people to CHOOSE their own government free from coercion. It should NOT matter to us (yet) what kind of government they choose. If they choose a Jeffersonian Democracy with respect for individual rights, fantastic. And if they choose a brutal secular strongman or an Islamist theocracy, so be it. Our cultural values are based on the principle "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". Or in this context "I may not agree with what the government you choose, but I will defend to the death your right to choose it".

    HOW we choose to support this choice for the Syian people is a debatable point that I don't have room to discuss.

    Of course, once the Syrians make their choice we will have to deal with them in whatever way is appropriate. IF they choose a government friendly to us, fantastic. If they choose to be our enemies, so be it. But at least we will know that the government truly represents the views of the Syrian people, and we will not have to choose sides in an internal conflict. We've never been real successful at that.

    Sid

    June 9, 2012 at 5:58 am | Reply
  13. tman

    i want to know how many qurans are being desroyed and no muslim is saying a thing...watch the tape from simon ...thats islam the religion of peace..hah !

    June 9, 2012 at 7:46 am | Reply
  14. MuyGuapo

    Thanks to George W Bush along with Tony Blair, Christians in Iraq have been decimated. They were much better off under their old regime. Something to think about before the US decides it wants to impose "democracy" on another country.

    June 9, 2012 at 8:01 am | Reply
  15. Adam

    Wrong and biased report, you are full of fake reports. But I am not surprised that CNN is posting your toilette paper. When will CNN have the courage to post the truth on Syria? I dare you!

    June 9, 2012 at 8:23 am | Reply
  16. eupator

    Christians in Syria are supporting Assad's massacres just as Jews are, meaning after rebels kill assad they should kill every christian and jew and demolish and burn every satangogue and church before proceeding with utter slaughter and annihilation of israel. there should be a nuclear world war 3 if necessary to kill and butcher every jew and anyone who thinks jew pest will avail them. all muslims must rise up from now on and turn the world upside down for every jew and christian parasite from now on. let the last annihilations begin, unti lend of the world.

    June 9, 2012 at 8:39 am | Reply
    • Lee

      You have quite the imagination.

      June 9, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Reply
  17. desertfalcon

    Syrian Christians will wish they never existed for helping and abetting Assad. That's a promise. You will pay in blood and horror for everything.

    June 9, 2012 at 8:45 am | Reply
    • Kastoun

      To the desert rat
      Your words are returned to you, believe me, we and the whole world know how you should be dealt with you and alike,
      Your caves regardless how many there are of, will be all destroyed, God willing

      June 10, 2012 at 1:58 am | Reply
  18. cp

    So here is a PARTIAL SOLUTION to the Syrian problem: Find a way to get all the Christians to leave. Prophylactic political asylum?

    June 9, 2012 at 10:03 am | Reply
  19. Mark

    The western world including usa and uk have no clue whats happening, and to be honest with you they really do not care, all they care about is their interests oil money business...., whether they divide to conquer, and i would say the majority of people in the western world have false media to serve their interests and probably many of them are not chrisitans.

    Christians were in the middle east long time ago , but it started from the british when they stopped peter the great again for their selfish interests, then fighting the soviets by creating fundementalists in that region with their devilish plans lead by brezenski and people like him , with the intelligence, not caring what is coming next or how will they control what they created!!!!, and now by interfering with countries starting from iraq where christians are abused and deported or killed then palestein , lebanon egypt and soon syria...

    And everyone knows that the west specially uk and usa with the gulf oil countries are supporting those strict religious fundemetalists and probably supported by them to hurt and distroy syria , just because of their selfish interests.

    Sometimes war is good business for the west , more comapnies , more jobs, better economy , pays some expenses, sucking resources....

    By the way what the west is doing and did , will harm them too, because i do not think anyone will want to visit any of those countries that used to be loaded with toursits cheap tourisim , from tunisia to egypt to ......, it is not safe , many fundementalis , rising of islamists that ban and destroy freedoms even spirits, no openes anymore... and the next target for them might be closing themselves from the west and i mean new rules business rules , because after they are done from all this, whats next, it is applying their strict close principles in a civilized world, which means taking that region backwards with them 100 years behind. But hey maybe this is also what the west wants as politics to play the game, support this side once then support the other side then..... After all fundementalists were created by the wetsern intelligence and revived by them with the help of the gulf.

    The west should look at countries like Saudi arabia were woman are still banned to drive or strict countries but again oil money , US debt and treasury bill....

    June 9, 2012 at 10:04 am | Reply
    • Lee

      There is little to no oil in Syria. Syria is important to the West because of its support of the Iranian regime, and Hezbollah. Their is no economic gain to Syria. The only country to make money off of Syria is Turkey; they have over twenty dams on the Euphrates. Even then, they're not really making money directly off of Syria.

      June 9, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Reply
  20. David

    Only moslems accuse Christians as a group because this is the tribal mentality of Islam that treats people as groups and that vilifies Christianity. Hind Kawabat's Christian heart is bleeding for the moslems who want her dead.

    Here are examples of Christians who are against the regime who were killed, tortured or put themselves in jeopardy:
    http://www.mecn.org/2012/06/syrian-christian-film-student-bassel-shehadeh-killed-in-violence/
    http://www.mecn.org/2012/05/syrian-christian-activist-hadeel-kouky-opposes-syrian-regime/
    http://syrian-christian.org/

    This Western journalist says that he was deliberately set up by the Syrian rebels to be killed in Syria:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/jun/08/alex-thompson-syrian-rebels

    Let's stop pretending there are two sides, one just and the other unjust. There are two sides, both evil, with innocent Syrians of all backgrounds, Sunni, Shia, Alawi, Druze, and Christian, secular or religious, all in harms way because both sides believe they can defeat the other militarily. The author should not single out Christians when far more muslims support the regime than there are even christians in syria.

    June 9, 2012 at 10:35 am | Reply
  21. Human

    If for one day people forget about their Gods including those who worship money and power and think of other people as human being and treat them the way they want to be treated themselves... Peace will spread in the world
    Religions were found to lead people to humanity but unfortunately we forgot
    about the lesson an started fighting about the teacher

    June 9, 2012 at 11:08 am | Reply
  22. CallingCrane

    Perfectly conceived, hard to achieve, but worth striving for: An independent, democratic and secular Syria to embrace all its individuals and groupings.

    June 9, 2012 at 11:12 am | Reply
  23. Matt

    The Christians in Syria have valid concerns. The Muslim Brotherhood is now in power in Egypt and Libya.

    June 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Reply
    • Lee

      Matt,

      Good point! However, they're not in power in Libya as of yet. Libya is more of a tribal than religious war. I think what deters a lot of Christians in the Levant is the financial support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Both countries are Wa'ahabi regimes, who support staunch, conservative Islam. Another major supporter of the SNC is Turkey. I think there are quite a few reasons for hesitancy. Lebanon, a once Maronite dominated state (okay, maybe in the 1930's), is now a minority sect in Lebanon. Lebanon has not had a census since the 1930's, and this is presumed to be because of the influx of Shi'ite immigrants. Food-for-thought.

      June 9, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Reply
      • Elie

        Shiite -immigrants in Lebanon?! The Shiites of Lebanon are Lebanese by ethnicity as much as the Maronite or Sunni Lebanese. Where people sometimes get their so-called facts from baffles me

        June 10, 2012 at 3:47 am |
  24. Checedu

    A man told his grandson: "A terrible fight is going on inside me - a fight between two wolves. One is evil, and represents hate, anger, arrogance, intolerance, and superiority . The other is good, and represents joy, peace, love, tolerance, understanding, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, and compassion. This same fight is going on inside you, inside every other person too."

    The grandson then asked: "Which wolf will win?" The old man replied simply: "The one you feed." – Anon.

    June 9, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Reply
    • kracker

      good one!

      June 10, 2012 at 12:39 am | Reply
  25. Dave

    This is an article about religion. Where are all of CNNs atheist trolls?

    June 9, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Reply
    • gary

      god=pretend

      June 9, 2012 at 10:11 pm | Reply
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