- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2011

Syrian Christians and other minorities are scared of potential government influence by Islamic hard-liners if President Bashar Assad falls, U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford says.

“A lot of Christians here are very frightened of it, frankly,” said Mr. Ford, speaking by phone with The Washington Times from the Syrian capital, Damascus.

He also said that many in the minority Allawite Muslim sect, business owners and reformers who advocate a separation between religion and state are also concerned about a rise of political Islam in Syria.

However, he said, he thinks those fears are exaggerated.

“My own sense, just moving around, is that it is not nearly as strong here as it is, for example, in Iraq or in Algeria, for that matter,” he added.

“But the fears among some elements of Syrian society cannot be ignored.”

Click here to listen to the Ford interview

As many as 10 percent of Syria’s 21 million people are Christians and an additional 12 percent belong to Mr. Assad’s Allawite sect, a Shiite offshoot.

Mr. Ford said the opposition’s newly created National Council of Syria needs to assure both groups that they would not face persecution by the country’s Sunni majority in any new government.

“We have urged the Syrian opposition to develop a vision that they all agree on in terms of the state, how it would operate, and one of the issues … is how will it address the question of religion and religious minorities,” he said.

“They have to make, ultimately, the sales pitch that convinces the Christian community or the Allawi community that those communities’ interests are better served by change.”

It may be a hard sell for the Christians, many of whom are refugees from Iraq. An independent report, meanwhile, has revealed that nearly 93,000 Christians have fled Egypt since its February revolution.

Syria’s 6-month-old uprising has raised hopes that Mr. Assad might be replaced by a pro-American government.

However, Mr. Ford said a democratic government would not necessarily back Washington’s regional objectives, even though opposition activists remain grateful for U.S. support.

“I have to be honest and say that there is throughout Syria a sort of a deep-seated suspicion of the United States,” he said, citing anger at U.S. policies on Iraq and Israel.

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