Syrian Christians attend Sunday mass in Damascus last year. Photograph: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images
Christians have no ambition to rule Syria but they can encourage the warring parties to negotiate a peace deal
What if the regime fell today? This is the question that occupies all Syrians, especially Syrians who are in one of the minorities.
In Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, western allies admitted that they had no postwar plan and many have paid the price for this – especially the Iraqi minorities; since Saddam fell, hundreds of thousands of Christians as well as Muslims have fled Iraq in the face of sectarian violence and terrorism. Now, people are calling for a regime change in Syria without a clear plan for what should happen next. Should the minorities pay the same price in Syria?
Syrians are a demographic mosaic that includes the Sunni majority plus Christians, Druze, Alawites and Kurds. Just like every other group in Syrian society, the Christians have a range of attitudes to what is happening: some support the regime, many have refused to be drawn into the conflict, and others are active members of the opposition.
I think that perhaps 95% of Syrians – especially the Christians – believe violence is not the way to bring change to Syria.
It is vital to remember, though, that no Christian religious leader, in Syria or outside, has the power to talk “in the name of Christians”. When we hear a bishop or a patriarch speaking, they do not represent Christians as a whole. It is very dangerous to build a picture of “Christians in Syria” through some religious figure, including me: I cannot speak in the name of all Christians in Syria any more than an English priest can be said to represent the views of every Christian in Britain.
Most Syrians fear what will happen after the regime has fallen. Religious fanaticism is growing across the Middle East and Syrians of every religion dread the establishment of a radical Muslim Syria.
Despite what you might read in much of the western media, Syria is an enlightened, secular society with a deeply spiritual core and the common belief is that Syria is for everybody. A fundamentalist state would destroy the traditions of co-existence and religious harmony that have existed here since the fall of the Ottoman Empire nearly 100 years ago. Syrian independence was won with the blood of all Syrians – Muslim, Christian, Druze, Alawite and Kurdish.
Although most Syrians fear radical Islam taking power, our greatest worry is that we have no alternative political system to replace the regime when it does fall. We know from our neighbours in Lebanon, Libya and Iraq that countries can descend into chaos and sectarianism when one government goes and there are no institutions to replace it.
Sadly, the whole infrastructure in Syria – political, economic and social – is rotten to the core and its institutions need to be renewed and replaced. For instance, we have two huge organisations dominating the life of children and youth but both are inextricably linked to the Ba’ath party. Civil society in Syria is totally suspended: everything has to go through the ruling party.
Because Christians are a minority, the general view is that they are sympathisers of the regime because they have been “protected” by it. In fact, under the present regime, Christians have never been given special treatment or protection in any way. Although Christians have not been persecuted in Syria, and we have been free to practise our faith and go to church, we have not been exempt from suffering under the corruption that engulfed the regime and infected much of Syrian society.
Christians were not persecuted even before the Assad family came to power – in the 1940s, Syria had a Christian prime minister. As a Syrian priest, I deeply believe that Christians do not need to hide behind any regime to be protected; we are protected by being Syrians, an original part of the fabric of our society – do not forget that Syria was one of the earliest centres of Christianity 600 years before the birth of Islam.
Violence breeds only violence and revenge. At the moment, both sides are determined to destroy the other; inevitably this will lead to the destruction of the entire country, as we have seen elsewhere. I believe more than ever that the only way to resolve this conflict is for Syrians to meet at the table of dialogue and negotiation, and for regional and international powers to facilitate and encourage this dialogue without actually taking part.
In Geneva, the international conference on Syria included all international powers, except the Syrians. What we need for peace is the exact opposite of the Geneva conference.
Christians have no ambition to rule Syria – the idea would be ridiculous. Because of this, we can be catalysts for peacemaking, and encourage all sides, for the sake of Syria, to come together and leave their big egos and their even bigger foreign allies behind them.
Peacemaking must be without preconditions; the time for negotiation is now, even in the midst of the conflict. To negotiate after tens of thousands have died is better than negotiating once hundreds of thousands have perished.