- - Monday, October 1, 2012

BEIRUT — Christians in Syria say they are coming under increasing pressure to choose sides in the 18-month-old civil war that has engulfed their country, as Syria’s foreign minister, in a speech Monday, accused some members of the U.N. Security Council of supporting “terrorism.”

“[Both sides] want us in this war,” said Maronite Archbishop Samir Nassar, whose congregation in the Christian quarter of the capital, Damascus, said it can’t trust the government or the rebels.

“We can hear bombing and gunfire, but we don’t know who is shooting,” Archbishop Nassar said. “[The regime] thinks if all minorities get together, they can stop the majority. But some Christians think [the opposition is] the democratic way. We have to follow the majority.”

Christians constitute about 10 percent of Syria’s 22 million people, most of whom are Sunni Muslims.

However, Syria is controlled by President Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. So Christians share many of the same grievances as Sunni Muslims, who account for the bulk of the opposition.

Many Christians were outraged by the regime’s brutal response to what began last year as peaceful calls for reform. Yet they have been reluctant to speak out, acutely aware of their relative security under the authoritarian but secular Assad regime.

Now they fear being marginalized or even targeted as have Christian communities in Egypt in the wake of that country’s revolution last year.

The Assad regime’s consistent portrayal of the opposition as terrorists set on turning Syria into an Islamist state, where minority ethnic and religious groups would face persecution or exodus, encourages such fears.

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said the regime’s efforts to end the war will fail unless Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya and others stop arming and financing the opposition and instead “encourage dialogue and renounce violence,” the Associated Press reported.

Mr. al-Moallem said the Assad regime is confronting myriad conspiracies by internal and external forces determined to end its 40-year rule, and accused forces as diverse as the media and international aid groups of attempting to destabilize the country.

“This terrorism, which is externally supported, is accompanied by unprecedented media provocation based on igniting religious extremism sponsored by well-known states in the region,” he said, adding that those states “facilitate the flow of arms, money and fighters through the borders of some neighboring countries.”

These forces are “fabricating a refugee crisis,” he said, and “inciting armed groups to intimidate Syrian civilians in border areas and forcing them to flee” to neighboring countries, including Turkey, which says it is hosting nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees, the AP reported.

Seeking refuge

More than 40 Christian families, mostly from the town of Rableh in western Syria, have sought refuge from the conflict in the Lebanese village of Qaa, close to the Syrian border.

George Khouri, a father of four, fled Rableh with his 82-year-old mother, terrified by the sounds of nearby bombardments.

“They want Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the tomb,” he said, quoting a slogan he said everyone in Rableh knows, though he acknowledged that he had never heard it from rebels firsthand.

Such fears have led many of Syria’s Christians to support the regime — or at least keep silent about the issue.

Despite this, a significant number of Christians have aligned with the opposition, leading to a division in the community.

“Some of the most vocal and outspoken with the opposition [have been] Christians,” said George Stifo, a spokesman for the U.S.-based Syrian Christians for Democracy and a member of the opposition Syrian National Council. “We wanted to unify the voice of Syrian Christians supporting the revolution.

“We had a lot of people protesting, we had a lot in jail,” Mr. Stifo said.

Hadeel Kouki, 20, a Christian activist studying at the University of Aleppo, was imprisoned for more than 50 days and tortured after she was arrested once for distributing pro-democracy fliers and twice for joining demonstrations.

“This regime under no terms could be considered as a protector of minority rights or of Christians,” said Ms. Kouki, speaking this year at the Christian Lebanese Forces Disbanding Memorial in Lebanon.

Ms. Kouki said the regime deliberately stokes fears of a hard-line Islamic opposition to create sectarian divisions among Syrians and deter minorities from joining the revolution. She also accuses Christian leaders of failing to speak out.

“None of the Christian figures or leaders asked for us when we were being tortured or beaten in Assad’s prisons,” she said. “Why didn’t you stand by us?”

Still, Christian leaders in neighboring countries express fear for the survival of Christian minorities as the political landscape of the Middle East undergoes such dramatic change.

“We [would] like to have a renewal of the regime, more democracy, but the project of the revolution is not clear at all,” said the Rev. Paul Karam, head of the Pontifical Mission for the region in Lebanon. “What will be the result?”

Terms of reconciliation

Though some fear what may come after the fall of the Assad regime, they say uncertainty is why Christians need to play an active role in shaping the country’s future.

Others say Christians — caught in the middle — can play only a mediating role.

Mother Agnes Mariam, a Melkite nun in Homs, is a spokeswoman for the Mussalaha Reconciliation Initiative, which promotes a “third way” through peaceful dialogue. She said Christians can be “a credible voice for a peaceful resolution” in the conflict and a “bridge” between the opposing sides.

“In Syria, we are not heard, there is a selective media, they listen to one side,” she said, describing the Christian minority as “a silent voice.”

She said the escalating violence is a result of the opposition becoming armed and infiltrated by foreign extremists, and accuses the opposition of using the regime’s repression to justify their own atrocities.

More than 20,000 Syrians have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, according to the United Nations, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the figure at 30,000. The United Nations has acknowledged atrocities and war crimes committed by both sides.

The Syrian Christians for Democracy accuses Mother Mariam of disseminating pro-Assad propaganda and leading a campaign of misinformation through the Catholic Media Center to undermine the opposition.

Still, Mr. Stifo, the group’s spokesman, said the community has changed since the spring now that a post-Assad future seems more likely.

“Today, the majority of Christians are either against the regime or silent,” Mr. Stifo said. “Those with the regime are becoming more silent. They’ve noticed a change is coming.”

At the United Nations, Mr. al-Moallem, the foreign minister, called for a political solution and Syrian-led dialogue to agree on a road map to “a more pluralistic and democratic Syria.” He invited the opposition to “work together to stop the shedding of Syrian blood.”

Radwan Ziadeh, a U.S.-based spokesman for the chief opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said it was impossible to believe calls for political dialogue were genuine.

“He is calling for dialogue while his air force is attacking civilians in each city,” Mr. Ziadeh said. “He is a liar representing the propaganda of the Assad regime.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.