BEIRUT — Syria’s Christians dread the upsurge of radical Islamic fundamentalism among rebels battling to oust President Bashar al-Assad, concerned that the Syrian civil war could spell the doom of Christianity in their country.
But some critics say Christian leaders made a fatal error in siding against the rebellion.
From the earliest days of Christianity, Christians have lived and worshipped in Syria. But the two-and-a-half year civil war has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, and Christians worry there will be an even greater exodus.
Their biggest concern is an eventual rebel victory. They point to what happened in neighboring Iraq where sectarian killings, persecution of Christians and an increasingly Islamist political culture, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, forced more than half of the Iraqi Christian population to flee.
Jihadists and hardline Islamists among the rebels have targeted Christians in rebel-held areas. Many of the Christian refugees arriving in Lebanon are traumatized, said Najla Chahda of the Catholic relief agency.
“A lot of them are sharing with us some really horrible stories that some fundamentalists approached them, forced them to pay some rent, or amount of money that they don’t have," Chahda said. "So they are just afraid and left.”
Stories have included forced conversion to Islam and churches being desecrated in this vicious sectarian conflict. Several clergy have been abducted, including two bishops, and in villages in Homs province Christians have been forced from their homes and farms.
The attacks and kidnappings have increased Christian dread of what would happen if the rebels win. This fear is helping the Assad regime, made up mostly of Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shia Islam, to retain the support of many Christians. Most of the rebels are Sunni Muslims.
Syrian Christians feel they have had no choice but to back President al-Assad, she said.
“These are the majority who are siding with the regime because they are just afraid from the others. They have no alternative,” she added.
More than 450,000 Syrian Christians have fled their homes already, some remain displaced inside Syria. An estimated 25,000 have sought refuge in Lebanon.
Before the civil war, Syria had an estimated Christian population of two-and-a-half million. The largest denomination is the Greek Orthodox Church, but there are also Catholics and Syriac Christians as well as Protestants and adherents of the Assyrian Church of the East.
The main political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, has sought to allay Christian fears, although increasingly to no avail.
But some believe Syria’s Christian leaders are partly responsible for what is befalling their followers.
Christians made a strategic mistake by siding with Assad, said Basem Shabb, a Lebanese lawmaker and the only Protestant in Lebanon’s Parliament.
“Unfortunately, the Christians have tied their fate not only to the regime but to Bashar al-Assad, and what I am afraid of is like what happened in Iraq," Shabb said. "The Christians in Iraq were persecuted in Iraq not because they were Christians but because they supported the regime.”
Shabb believes Christians should have made common cause with more moderate Islamic elements in the rebellion and says they could still do so.
“I do not think it is too late, but this current line that the three main Patriarchs are following I think is detrimental to the long-term presence of Christians in Syria," he said. "In particular, the Catholic Patriarch has been so much pro-regime, pro-Bashar.”
The support of Assad by the patriarchs of Eastern Christianity has caused tensions with church leaders of Western Christianity, who have urged a more critical stance.
Right now, the ultimate fate of Christians in Syria is, to many, uncertainty.