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. lah

    Boko Haram militants have attacked two churches during today’s Sunday services, triggering deadly reprisal attacks.
    In the central city of Jos, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a church, wounding at least 50 people.
    In a separate attack, gunmen opened fire during a service in Biu in northeastern Borno state, leaving at least one person dead.
    Six people were then killed in Jos in reprisals when angry demonstrators took to the streets in protest.
    Radical Islamist sect Boko Haram said it carried out the attacks. The group has carried out a number of attacks on churches in recent years, killing hundreds of people.
    One witness at the church in Biu, Hamidu Wakawa, said that "gunmen came to the premises of the church and started firing at people outside the church before going into the main building to carry on their killings", Reuters reported.
    Officials said one woman had been killed and at least three wounded.
    In a country already divided along religious lines these attacks have the potential to trigger further clashes between Muslims and Christians.
    The Islamist militant group Boko Haram has admitted carrying out past attacks on churches. They said these were in revenge for killings of Muslims in central Nigeria during previous bouts of violence.
    Boko Haram says it wants to impose Sharia law across Nigeria. A recent statement from the group rejected the idea of peace talks with the government and vowed to increase the attacks.
    In Jos, police said the attacker had driven as close to the church as he could before detonating himself.
    "The suicide bomber did not drive into the church before the explosion. He was in front of it," police spokesman Abuh Emmanuel told Reuters.
    "The church building collapsed entirely due to the intensity of the bombing."

    June 10, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Reply
  2. lah

    Read the rest of the story.

    June 10, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Reply
  3. Leila

    Just by writing this article, you are dividing Syria by religion – this has never been so in Syria. Do not attack the Christian population of the country because they support their president. Instead, see them as Syrians who understand that the West – Israel included mainly, and the pro-western regimes of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others, have set their plan in motion to attempt to destablized the only Arab country whose citizens regardless of their religion or denomination are considered CITIZENS of their country. Your comments reverberate the pre-WWI antics of Britain and France before dividing Greater Syria into the countries we know today. Unfortunately for you, the Christians in Syria know they are Arabs/Syrians first and that their longevity since the birth of Christianity has survived there in that nation. Shame on you for attempting to divide people by their religion. That is the plan of western powers and their dupes – why was this article not written about S.A.? Perhaps, support of the President is because the syrians see his attempts at reforms, etc that his nation needs – and that he does not bend to the hegomony of Israel and western nations. Maybe these Syrians support their nation's integrity, maybe these Syrians are Arabs first and know the history of their region.

    June 10, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Reply
  4. Fatih Atik

    Complete nonsense, thats all that can be said about this report, u can even sense how the reporter was stuttering cuz of lack of base for his argument.... Syria is, was and always will be mad out of Christians, Muslims and even Jews, we are all Syrians and brothers, there is not that extremism u find in other countries with a Muslim majority in Syria....
    No civil war will happen, the gov wants that so it can look like a hero or the good guy.
    Christians and Muslims in Syria live together peacefully, anyone who says otherwise is severely misinformed.
    Plus the revolt has no Religious base, its purely political

    June 10, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Reply
  5. krm1007

    It appears to me that Muslims are the fastest growing segment of world society today. As others are withering away the Muslims seem to be rising again with their contributions as was the case historically when they ruled India and Europe and left behind a legacy of science, art, architecture, culinary et al. One only needs to go to Spain and India to witness this. As immigrants, it is a good thing to be aware of your glorious heritage and be connected with it. The Italian immigrants do it as do the Germans, Polish, Jewish, Hispanic and many other cultures. What really pleasantly surprised me was what I witnessed in the Middle East. A tolerant society that has come so far in a few years. Most importantly providing job and economic opportunities to all, Hindus/Indians, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Europeans, Americans, Africans, South Americans, Chinese, and Russians etc. Never have I witnessed such openness and equal opportunities unless you go back to the times of Muslim rule in India and Spain. My conclusion is that the Muslims get it. They are striving to once again take their leadership role in the world order and take this civilization to its next level of excellence. The climb to success and progress is not a linear curve but a stochastic one. Let us join in wishing our Muslim brethren well and much success in their endeavors. If we can't help them let's not pull the rug from under them.

    June 10, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Reply
  6. sdabby

    My parents escaped from Iran at the time of the Islamic revolution. They were unprepared and left behind most of their money and important heirlooms. Many of the arguments advance by Ms. Babawat were supported by the minorities in Iran at the time.
    But the unthinkable happened - the primary focus of the Islamic Revolution became revenge and settling scores. The same path is unfolding in Egypt..
    In their heart, most Iranian minorities long for the days of the Shah - despite his serious shortcomings, corruption, and the limitation on personal freedom. Jews in Iran are now Zionists. Israel and the US are enemies. Women are second class citizens. The standard of living has been reduced to abject poverty for many. I see the same thing happening in Egypt.
    Perhaps it would be better if the US, Europe, and the Middle East considered providing safe passage and resettlement for those opposed to the Syrian regime. For that matter, they can begin by helping resettle the Christians in Egypt.
    Ms. Hind Aboud Kabawat is mistaken. When the chips are down and your life is at stake, freedom and corruption are a small price to pay.

    June 10, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Reply
  7. Troy

    All religions must fail for the betterment of humanity. Until that happens, people will always be at war with each other.

    June 10, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  8. amerikenny

    Thank goodness this is just an opinion article! This lady is dreaming...

    June 10, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Reply
  9. Keith

    Syria is headed to total destruction, brought about by the CIA and America's need to continue their war of Imperialism.

    June 10, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Reply
  10. Keith

    The whole Middle East is going to be a Shi t hol e of Muslim extremists and that is part of the plan.

    June 10, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Reply
  11. Mike

    Majority Sunni Muslims, Christians and other minorities in Syria support Assad. Syrian People know the massacre at Houla was committed by US backed terrorists. FACT The woman who wrote this article is clueless to say the least.

    June 10, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Reply
  12. Mike

    FYI.... you will not see negative coverage of the rebels in the US media. President Obama has declared it to be a matter of "national security". Therefore, no negative coverage of the rebels is allowed on US media. That is a FACT.

    The US has sided with the Islamist Saudis. They have the oil we need, they want Assad gone. Obama has made a deal with the devil/Saudi king. Christians can't worship openly in Saudi Arabia. Women can't drive in Saudi Arabia. Woman can't show their faces in Saudi Arabia. The US and Saudi king are allies. Not the Saudi People, the Saudi king. He rules with an iron fist. If he gets control of Syria, say goodbye to Christians.

    June 10, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Reply
  13. stateschool

    Handing out Easter eggs to Muslim children is not a "simple act of kindness and tolerance," but rather a calculated act of prosletyzation. A "simple act of kindness and tolerance" would be showing support for someone else's right to their own beliefs, not using candy to try to convert someone else's children to your own religion.

    June 11, 2012 at 9:25 am | Reply
    • jean

      You think it is a wonderful when muslims feed their children candy when Jews are killed.

      June 11, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Reply
  14. jknbt

    Dear Syrian Christian Friends and all Christians in the troubled Middle East–

    The Bible does not prophesy good things for Syria in the end times. Did you know that?

    1) Damascus will be wiped out by a nuclear detonation: Isa. 17:1 ; 17:14

    2) One of the antichrists or perhaps even the Antichrist will be a Syrian and will invade Israel: Micah 5:5b – 6

    3) More destruction of Syrian and Russia too in the end time judgements: Zephaniah 2:13

    4) Judgement on Syria and Egypt: Zechariah 10:11

    5) God calls on Christians to come out from among them and be separate: Rev. 18:4

    So this is to recommend that you leave Syria in order to avoid these judgements. The word of the Lord can't be broken. These judgements can't be turned. You can get yourself and your families out of the way before this happens. So beware and take appropriate action.

    June 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Reply
    • saywhaaa

      Knock Knock – reality calling, are you there?

      Hello? Anyone there?

      I guess not.

      June 12, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Reply
  15. Constantine

    Message from the minarets: 'Christians must leave Quasir' ... very tolerant indeed. The facts are what they are.

    June 11, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  16. abusinan

    Back, at the old time of democracy in Syria, the Islamist include Muslim Brotherhood never get more than 10% of any democratic election, we should get red of dictatorship regime and give chance for real democracy. If somebody after that want to cheat on us and get us back to dictatorship era, we should resume our revelation. (Doubt should not overcome facts). The fact is that we have corrupted dictator regime in Syria. The doubt is that we will have another version of dictator after the revelation. again doubt should not stop us from completing our revolution, but it will be a smart idea to be alert.

    June 12, 2012 at 3:06 am | Reply
  17. abusinan

    I am mohamad zohair khatib, Syrian Muslim brotherhood member, I would like to thank the writer Hind Kabawat for the nice article. I would like to assure that the Syria revolution will practice a real democracy and justice, no fear any more for Syrian people after the close victory. We all, Christian, Muslims, Aalawis and Drooz... all one hand for Syrian bright future.

    June 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Reply
    • Micah

      and to be somewhat believable, you should have mentioned Jews.
      You would have been one guy to rise about all the poop Islam puts out.
      Oh Well!

      June 12, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Reply
  18. Karekin

    Well, someone should investigate and report exactly who is arming and supplying the rebels. I have read that it is the US, acting thru the Saudis and others, who are doing this to dislodge the Assad regime. Yet, Hillary Clinton has the nerve to accuse Russia of helping Assad? This is largely a proxy war being fought between the US, Israel and Russia, over who will control Syria. None of them really care about the Syrian people, no matter what religious affiliation they might have. When the elephants fight, we know the grass always gets trampled. Such is the case in Syria today. Very sad, very sad indeed.

    June 12, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Reply
  19. Eliza Wood

    Are Christians in Syria wise to support any leader who remains in support of them?

    Just ask the Syrian Jews.


    There are no more Syrian Jews in Syria.

    They all were killed or kicked out.

    June 26, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Reply
  20. AK

    Methinks the author would have a different viewpoint if she was actually still living in Syria. Truth is, religious minorities are persecuted in ANY religious regime in present times.

    Just take a look at the Christians in Iraq... the author's viewpoint is baffling.

    August 16, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply
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  25. Mahmod

    Europe should not let any arabs to come what ever they are christians muslims , this arabs are worse then a pest.
    They are all liers cheaders and only taking advantege. Stop this people from coming and dont be stupid they will ruin our countries. The arab by nature is rebelion and do not respect any laws . It is very stupid to let them in and Sweden, Germany , France and Belgien will pay very high price for the stupidity of their politians.

    April 3, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Reply
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