|Syrian Christians take communion during Sunday service at the Greek Catholic Church of Our Lady Al-Niyah in Damascus on May 01, 2011 (Photo Source: Islamization Watch)|
SYRIA, Inspire - As demonstrations against the Syrian government intensify, Christians are coming under increasing pressure to join the uprising - or leave, reports Barnabas Fund.
In one Christian village outside the southern city of Deraa, a home came under fire by a group of masked men on motorbikes, while Muslim residents in the village of Hala have issued an ultimatum to their Christian neighbours – to join the demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad's regime or to leave.
Their demands are making life difficult for the Christians, who have closed their shops and are considering what course of action to take. Churches have also received threatening letters.
Barnabas Fund is one of the very few Christian agencies working to assist the Christians in Syria, and has done so for many years. They are in particular need of humanitarian help now, with food prices rocketing as the country's economy is affected by the unrest.
Christians have largely stayed away from the protests, having generally been well treated by the secular Baathist government, which has allowed them a considerable amount of religious freedom. They are fearful of what may replace it as Islamists attempt to hijack the demonstrations, which were originally concerned with political and economic change.
Muslims have been rallied by prominent Islamists in the region in support of the demonstrations.
In a letter to Western leaders, a senior Syrian church leader appealed for them to "Ask the Heads of State of Arab countries to work for real development ... But don't encourage revolutions".
He said: “The situation has deteriorated into organised crime, robbery, fear, terror being spread, rumours of threats to churches ... Fundamentalist groups are threatening citizens and wanting to create ‘Islamic Emirates '... Christians especially are very fragile in the face of crises and bloody revolutions! Christians will be the first victims of these revolutions, especially in Syria. A new wave of emigration will follow immediately."
Some fear that for Christians a post-Assad Syria could deteriorate like post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Saddam, like Assad, restrained the influence of militant Islamists, but after his fall they were free to wreak havoc on the Christian community; hundreds of thousands of Christians were consequently forced to flee the violence. Many of them went to Syria, which has a long-standing history of welcoming Christian refugees, but the current unrest is driving some back to their dangerous homeland.
Christians comprise around 10% of the Syrian population. They are able to worship and practise their faith largely without interference, although evangelism among Muslims is strongly discouraged and conversion from Islam to Christianity is forbidden by law. It seems highly unlikely that regime change would benefit the Syrian Church.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund, said: “Syria has been a beacon of freedom and security for Christians in a largely hostile Arab world. If they are now forced to leave the country, where will they go?
"The entire region is rocked by instability, and as Islamist groups seek to capitalise on the political unrest to advance their own agenda, the future of Christianity in that part of the world looks increasingly uncertain.”