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Syria's Christians want change, but not fall of regime

With the Assad regime affording Christians in Syria a sense of security, they fear the consequences should it fall

AFP , Wednesday 4 May 2011
Syria
Syrians carry pictures of El-Assad as they shout pro-government slogans (Photo:AP)
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Father Elias Debii raises his hands to heaven and prays for divine protection for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is facing unprecedented protests against his regime.

His prayer at the Dormition of Our Lady Greek Catholic cathedral in Old Damascus rings loud in the ears of many members of his congregation, who oppose an end to the regime of Assad even if they long for more freedoms.

"We ask God to protect our president, our government and our people from all ordeals and crises," Debii said on a recent Sunday to 250 worshippers gathered in church. Christians represent 7.5 per cent of Syria's multi-confessional population of 20 million Arabs and Kurds.

Sunni Muslims are the majority in Syrian while the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam and the community from which Assad hails, has privileged ties with the minority Christians.

Although Syria's Christians have no real political weight as a community, some of them are well established businessmen and others hold state jobs. There are three cabinet ministers among their number, and the chief of staff, Daud Raja, is a Christian.

Many Christians say they are staunchly opposed to the fall of Syria's autocratic, but secular, regime, but they look forward to more reform in the country.

"Nothing will happen to the regime, because even if the president is gone we will take to the streets. We feel safe with him around," said Carine Khoury, a boutique owner, who has a Christian father and a Muslim mother.

"Christians have a good life in Syria, namely the freedom to worship thanks to President Bashar al-Assad. We are not afraid, even now," says Samer Shamut, a 36-year-old civil servant.

Optician Imad Layyus, 53, says Syria's Christians "have no political ambitions."

"We don't want power; we just want to co-exist in peace with the Muslims."

Syria has been gripped by seven weeks of deadly security crackdowns on protesters who have been demonstrating across the country demanding major political and economic reform, as well as the fall of the regime.

The government has blamed "armed gangs" for the unrest, namely extremist Muslim Salafists who espouse an austere form of Sunni Islam that seeks a return to practices that were common in the early days of the faith.

"Of course the Christians as well want more freedoms, on that we agree with the protesters, but we are mostly concerned about our safety," a businessman who declined to be named said.

He was pointing to Salafists and what some Syrian Christian call the "Iraqi nightmare" -- a reference to the wave of sectarian violence that followed the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.

"Salafists frighten us. Look at Iraq: the Christians there lived in peace under Saddam, but now they have Al-Qaeda," said tour guide Michel Shaniss.

A wave of anti-Christian attacks after the US-led invasion forced a massive exodus of the community from Iraq.

Demonstrators in Syria had called for "Good Friday" protests across the country on April 22 -- two days before Easter -- as an apparent rebuttal to regime propaganda that has tried to portray the protesters as fanatics.

They urged Christians to join the nationwide protests, insisting in a slogan on the need to bolster "national unity."

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