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Syria

Syrian Christians caught between two sides

Reports suggest that Syrian Christians are increasingly being targeted for attack by radical Islamists. They're suspected of loyalty to the Assad regime - yet many are actively involved in the uprising.

As fighting between the Syrian regime and the forces of the opposition has intensified, so has the suffering of the civilian population. Hundreds of thousands of citizens of different political and religious backgrounds have been displaced. Some are still in the country, while others have fled to the border regions in neighboring countries. Among them are many Syrian Christians, who constitute around 10 percent of the population. They fear that, if the uprising against the dictator Bashar al-Assad is successful, they will find themselves on the losing side regardless of whom they support.

Christian refugees from the Syrian city of Kusair recently told a correspondent for Spiegel Online that many of their relatives had been murdered by radical Islamists who had joined the fight against the Assad regime. The refugees spoke of a concerted campaign against the Christian minority. "We are constantly accused of working for the regime," said a Christian woman whom the magazine spoke to in Lebanon. Initially, she said, they got along well with the rebels, but later on Islamists - most of whom come to Syria from other countries - incited the rebels to turn on the Christians.

Syrian refugees are seen crossing the Lebanese border post at Al Masnaa

Syrian refugees include Christians, accused of supporting the regime

Media censorship by the regime makes it almost impossible to corroborate such accounts, but reports of attacks and people being driven out of their homes are becoming increasingly common. A Christian official from Syria, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of arousing hostility, says that Christians are being accused of supporting the regime. "They were forced to flee certain areas a long time ago," he told DW's Arabic Service. "People are saying to them: you have to be either for or against us."

'People are very afraid'

The official explains that for many years Christians enjoyed a far better status, and above all greater security, under the Assad regime than their fellow believers did in other Arab countries. "Many of them are now very afraid that a form of political Islam will come to power that regards Christians as just a minority, as dhimmi [non-Muslim subjects] who do not enjoy the same rights and obligations as other citizens." There is also a growing fear of anti-Christian terror commandos like those that are active in Iraq.

The Syrian sociologist Ishaq Kanaou makes similar observations. "The Christians in Syria are very afraid that Islamic forces will come to power, and that they themselves will become second-class citizens as a result," Kanaou told DW. "This fear is based, of course, on the experiences of Christians in Egypt, and above all in Iraq, where they have been increasingly marginalized." Nonetheless, he says that "the majority of Syrian Christians are now on the side of the opposition," though he adds that they are acting very cautiously as they don't want to make themselves vulnerable to either side. "Just like other Syrian citizens, the Christians fear the brutality of the regime. But they're also afraid of radical and extremist groups."

Mosque and church side by side in Maalula

Mosques and churches may be side by side - but the social gap widens

It's a dilemma that George Stevo, the spokesman of the organization Christian Syrians for Democracy, also recognizes. He told DW that very few Christians are actually on the side of the regime. "Most of them belong to the silent majority," he says, "and there's even a strong Christian presence on the opposition Syrian National Council." Around 10 percent of the Council's representatives are Christians.

Christians as victims of the regime

The spokesman of the opposition Revolutionary Council in Aleppo, Mohammed Lukman Luleh, is a Muslim and an anti-Assad activist. He too believes it's wrong to suspect all Syrian Christians of sympathizing with the regime. "Many Christians have been killed as a result of their involvement in the revolution," he says. "In fact, regime snipers in Damascus have just killed another Christian activist." As with most reports coming out of Syria, state censorship made it impossible to verify this claim.

The Italian Jesuit priest Paolo dall'Oglio, who has dedicated 30 years of his life to encouraging dialog between Muslims and Christians in Syria and was recently forced to leave the country, is even more critical of Damascus. The German news agency dpa recently quoted him as saying that Syrian Christians were in serious danger.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is shown in an official portrait.

Under President Assad: a better situation for Christians?

He says that for years now the Assad regime has been trying to ensure that the Christians would remain loyal, and to this end it has been stirring up among them a fear of Islamists that is now increasingly becoming a reality. Yet the Jesuit priest asserts that in fact Assad's troops have been attacking Christian communities. Numerous churches have been destroyed, he says, and around 150,000 Christians driven out of their homes. Again, none of this can be independently verified. The truth will only come to light after the fall of the regime, if at all.

The Christian opposition activist George Stevo says, "We Christians have to understand that it's not a regime or a particular person who can protect us. The only thing that can do that is a democratic system and a Syrian civil society." At the moment, though, it's impossible to tell whether this is what Syria's future holds.

DW.DE