Christians, Syria and the Arab Spring
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 20th December, 2011
I’m often asked: why hasn’t Syria gone the way of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Yemen, to which my short answer has been: because of the country’s religious diversity. There are many things one can legitimately criticise the al-Assad regime for over the past 40 years, not least the brutal crackdown on dissent since this April. But one thing the government in Damascus has done has been to protect the interests of minorities such as Christians and Druze, as well as the Alawites who form a significant part of the government and army apparatus. The greatest danger that the country faces as it teeters on the brink of civil war — which one could objectively argue has started already — is that srife could occur along sectarian lines. As Revd Nadim Nassar, a Syrian Anglican priest now based in London, confirmed at a meeting of the Liberal International British Group (LIBG) at the National Liberal Club last evening, this means that some Christians are petrified that any overthrow of the current regime could lead to an Islamic government which would not give them the rights they enjoy today. Over 70 per cent of Syria’s population is Sunni Muslim, though only a small proportion of those would identify with the Muslim Brotherhood (for decades the Assad’s main bugbear) let alone more extreme salafis or Islamic fundamentalists. Revd Nassar said that when he was a schoolboy, people really weren’t aware or particularly bothered who was Muslim or who was Christian in his class; as in his case, often one couldn’t even tell from somebody’s name. And at some Christian shrines in Syria you can also find Muslims praying. But Revd Nassar despairs that in the West — including Britain — most people make the simplistic equation Middle East = Muslim (and extremist, to boot), without recognising the significance of the Christian communities in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, notably. That is why he and colleagues set up the Awareness Foundation, to help Church congregations amongst others learn and understand about the realities in both the Middle East and Europe and make sense of their faith in today’s world. The organisation has eschewed the more theoretical or academic approach of bodies such as the Alliance of Civilizations (spearheaded by Turkey and Spain), calling instead for practical programmes which change minds and attitudes among ordinary people. This was all certainly a new take for many members of LIBG and of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, which co-hosted the NLC meeting. In a nutshell, the issues are far more complicated that simply democracy versus dictatorship.