Mideast church leaders worried about Christians if Syria has civil war

By Doreen Abi Raad
Catholic News Service
BEIRUT (CNS) –Pressure being put on the Syrian government could have very bad consequences, especially for Christians, warned the patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church.

Attempts to collapse the government “will very probably lead to chaos,” Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan told Catholic News Service.

“This chaos, surely — with no means to implement security — will lead to civil war,” said the patriarch, who stressed that a civil war in Syria would not merely be a struggle among political parties to control the power. “It will be confessional (religious), and war in the name of God is far worse than a political struggle. And this is what we fear.”

Patriarch Younan was one of several Christian leaders who spoke with Catholic News Service about the situation facing Syrian Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the nation’s population.

He told CNS that Syria needs is a lot of reforms, a multiparty system of government and freedom of speech. He said the church “is all for reforms” and does not support a particular regime.

“But those reforms have to be executed or accomplished through dialogue,” he said, expressing a need for a neutral third party “that could unite those who are in conflict,” the government and the opposition.

The patriarch said the West should push for true democratic reforms rather than just trying to change political systems, which they believe are dictatorial, “into an unknown system where the very, very respect of civil rights is absent.”

“By civil rights, we mean not only the freedom of speech … but civil rights to implement the religious freedom for all,” Patriarch Younan said. “That means to implement a civil society that respects the charter of human rights as already stipulated by the U.N. in 1948,” he added, referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The patriarch said a society that respects all is “absolutely vital,” and the civilized world should uphold this, not just take the position that the majority should rule the country. This is especially the case if the majority is of the conviction that there is no separation between religion and state, he added.

“This would surely result in discrimination against those who do not share their religion,” he said.

“The church has always defended, and it stands for, the civil rights of all human beings,” Patriarch Younan said.

While it would take time to make the needed reforms in the case of Syria, those seeking change for the good of their country “have to be kind of patient and find a way to make those needed reforms.”

“However, it doesn’t look feasible that these reforms will come out of violence,” he said.

Maronite Catholic leaders also have called for dialogue on the situation in Syria.

“We’re neither for nor against a regime,” said Archbishop Paul Sayah, vicar general of the Maronite Patriarchate in Beirut and former archbishop of Haifa. “We judge a regime on its merits and how it deals with the values of freedom, democracy and rights.

He explained that Syria’s small, minority-represented government, the Alawites who have been running the country for 40 years, are not going to let go easily because they know if the Sunnis take over, “it’s going to be very dangerous for them (Alawites), to put it very mildly.”

The bishop pointed to the slogans launched near the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March: “Christians to Beirut; Alawites to the coffin.” Those might be only slogans, he warned, “but they are significant.”

If change is not brought about peacefully, “there is a risk that it may go from an oppressive regime to a more brutal one, especially now that the atmosphere tends to be rather fundamentalist in the region,” Archbishop Sayah said. He also expressed concern about a potential civil war.

“Everyone knows what kind of disaster civil war is. Iraq is a very loud example,” he told CNS. “In Iraq the Christian minority paid a huge price. Two-thirds of Christians had to leave Iraq.”

“Since we know enough about the situation in Iraq,” said Patriarch Younan, “we fear that the kind of pressure put on requiring the fall of the government in Syria will have very bad consequences, even worse than in Iraq.”

The conflict in Syria is a “terrible dilemma” for the country’s Christians, said Habib Malik, professor of history at the Lebanese American University and author of the 2010 book “Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East.”

“Their values and beliefs can’t allow them to condone the brutality of the regime against people. On the other hand, they are genuinely scared of the alternative to the regime — the inevitable slippery slope toward Islamic extremism,” said Malik, whose late father, Charles Malik, was one of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Christians in Syria largely have not participated in the protests to overthrow the Syrian regime. Their silence, explained Malik, could be interpreted as overall support of the current regime. As a result, they could end up as a target of revenge attacks should the regime be overthrown.

“They are genuinely scared and feel in danger,” he said.