Secular Autocracy vs. Sectarian Democracy? The Christian Predicament in the Syrian Uprising

  • Comment
  • Tweet
  • Share
  • Email
  • Print

Salma Mousa*


Christians and Muslims at a meeting with Arab League monitors in Damascus, Jan. 17, 2012. Photo taken by VOA Middle East correspondent Elizabeth Arrott while traveling through Damascus with government escorts. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

“The demonstrators are nothing but terrorists,” said Archbishop Tabé of the Syrian Catholic Church, scarcely veiling his contempt. “In any political system, there are always 10% who have to be sacrificed.” Although hardcore Christian support is steadily waning, after a year of political crisis the majority of Christian leadership and laity alike failed to support the Sunni-led democratic movement in any collective, cohesive or concrete way. With the specter of post-Spring Islamist rule looming, Christians in Syria were forced to choose between secular autocracy and sectarian democracy, a decision informed by the perception – and lived reality – that the status quo under al-Assad, though democratically deficient, put a (temporary) lid on civil hostilities and afforded Christian minorities with extensive secular protections and, in many cases, prosperity.

While Christian acquiescence is driven largely by the perceived alternative of a Saudi-style theocracy, analyzing the polarization at the heart of the pluralistic Syrian society through an exclusively sectarian lens neglects the importance of socio-economic interests—which often cut across religious boundaries. The persistent passivity of religious minorities continues to hinder democratic reforms and the future security of Syria’s two million Christians remains uncertain amid the sectarian-charged civil strife. Understanding Christian inactivity is therefore crucial for untangling a crisis defined less and less by the simplistic ‘religious minorities vs. Sunni Arab majority’ dichotomy.

Despite Syria’s history of religious pluralism, Muslims and Christians are socio-economically segmented— with Christian inaction driven partly by a strong presence in the middle and upper classes. The uprising originated in the agrarian city of Dera’a, with the disenfranchised revolutionaries suffering the most from the strains of a population explosion that particularly afflicted the rural poor living in government-neglected peripheries, the urban poor disillusioned with crony capitalism and legions of unemployed youth. Inclination to protest is influenced more decisively by class background (and proximity to the political, economic and military elite) than religious affiliation, though the two often overlap. For instance, the mercantile Sunni Nahhas and Jood families of Latakia, which benefited from lucrative contracts with the government, are among the most ardent regime loyalists.

Syrian Christians (especially Greek Orthodox, the most populous Christian community) in Syria) have historically been more urbanized than Muslims and do not generally belong to the lower class.  Proportionately more Christians receive secondary education, join skilled-labor professions and attend Western-oriented, private and foreign language schools. Under Hafez al-Assad, the Sunni underclass with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood was categorically denied state protections, jobs and opportunities, while anti-Islamist, secular Christian Baathists established connections (wāsṭa) with state officials and rose to socio-economic prominence. Yet even less affluent Christians who suffer from the same protest-inducing factors as their Muslim compatriots—high unemployment, a devastating drought in the East, an inefficient public sector, the effects of international sanctions and the post-uprising collapse of the tourism industry—continued to back the regime due to the lingering effects of decades of propaganda.

Although they are better integrated with Muslims in big cities, many Christians (especially Armenians) tend to geographically self-segregate. As class is a function of locality, that districts and villages are so clearly delineated along sectarian lines (most notably the ‘Valley of Christians’ and the 75% Christian city of Qamishly) indicates that class is closely associated with religion in Syria, which also explains the potency of sectarianism. The class factor also explains why—in contrast to the Syrian case— Egyptian Copts, almost totally geographically integrated with Muslim neighbors and thus equally hit by rising fuel and energy prices, stagnant nominal wages and plummeting youth employment rates, were driven to Tahrir en masse.

The importance of preserving secularism—here defined as state neutrality vis-à-vis religious identities—was an even more salient source of Christian loyalty to the embattled regime at the outbreak of demonstrations. Syrian Christians enjoy not only legislative and constitutional freedom of worship, but practical treatment as “full” citizens in one of the few remaining Arab countries where, as one bishop put it, a Christian can “really feel the equal of a Muslim.”[1]  Syrian non-sectarianism paradoxically grants elites derived from minority communities a privileged societal position, leading Christians to view the al-Assad regime as a bastion of a secularism favorable to religious minorities and, as such, their only chance at maintaining prominence in state and society. Such guarantees pushed Syrian Christian liberals to trust the Baath Party and embrace the so-called Damascus Spring when Bashar succeeded his father in 2000. Although the Syrian state nominally privileges Sunni Islam (and thus the Alawite elite) in a constitutional sense, discrimination is reserved only for those who jeopardize regime authority. Most Christians therefore prefer the devil they know, four decades of secular autocracy, to an uncertain and potentially dangerous future under Islamists who will undoubtedly demand a stake in a post-Assad Syria. In short, as is the case with Christians and moderate Muslims across the region, Syrian Christians are terrified of an ‘Islamist winter.’


Such fears are not unfounded. At the onset of protests, reports quickly surfaced of demonstrators chanting “Christians to Beirut and Alawites to the coffin,” scores of Christians were killed by anti-regime forces in the suburbs of Homs and Damascus in August 2012 alone, and Christians from the border town of Qusayr fled to Lebanon (joining an estimated 100,000 other Syrian Christian refugees) after rebels equated Christian neutrality with support for the regime and forced them out of the country. Soon after, Armenian Orthodox Christians picked up arms to defend their neighborhoods in Aleppo against attacks from the Free Syrian Army as well as the regime’s militia. In addition, the Islamist Faruq Brigade drove Christians from their homes in Homs and the al-Ansar Brigade, armed with Kalashknikovs, released a video message threatening to attack two Christian towns in Hama if they did not expel pro-regime fighters.  Such incidents shed light on the most extreme wings of the Syrian opposition and pushed some disconcerted minorities into rallying behind the government, even if they had been skeptical of al-Assad before the uprising.

The regime fomented Christian anxieties by continually stressing that the greatest fears of the Christian community—Shar’ia law, radical Islamists and the prospect of burning churches— would be promptly realized if the regime were to fall. State-sponsored propaganda, like Donia TV broadcasts of the funeral processions of Christian soldiers “assassinated by thugs” alongside hysterical relatives, affirms that the regime has invested much of its energies into intertwining the fate of Christians with its own to scare them into submission for the purpose of regime self-preservation, as authoritarian leaders did in Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq.

Soon after the uprising was underway, revolutionaries (both Muslim and Christian) identified the importance of secularism to loyalists by emphasizing a minority-friendly civil rights discourse, noting that only a shared democratic future could protect all Syrians. Activists overwhelmingly promoted egalitarian pluralism under a civil, secular state, dismissing the regime’s oft-repeated canard that only it can protect Christians from radical Islamists. The opposition’s commitment to a civil state is reflected in survey results that found that opposition members ranked the French political system highest (5.45/7), with a government styled on the Iranian model receiving the lowest marks (1.26/7), and a majority of respondents affirming the importance of protecting minorities, including Alawites (4.69/7).

The Muslim opposition cites the (admittedly small) presence of Christians in the opposition movement, Syria’s long history of religious cohabitation and the solidarity among the demonstrators  to support its claims of secular aspirations. A Friday protest on Easter weekend was dubbed ‘Azimeh Friday (Good Friday) in honor of Christians, protest organizers were quick to silence signs of sectarianism amongst demonstrators, and the Facebook groups “Syrian Revolution 2011” and “We are All Syria,” with over 800,000 members collectively, list a code of ethics against sectarianism.[2] Ali Sadr Al-Din Al-Bayanouni, former General Supervisor of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, announced that the party would adopt civil notions of citizenship if they came to power and avowed the importance of separating the crimes of minority elites from the lay members of these sects.[3] Sheikh al-Zouabi, the leader of the Syrian Salafists, stressed the importance of cooperation between protestors, the need for international intervention to protect Syrians of all faiths and the theological kinship of Muslims and Christians.[4] In the absence of a multi-party system in Syria, the treatment of minorities under Islamist parties remains an open question and claims of good will may mask different realities. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken special care never to describe their Syria as ‘secular,’ but only ‘civil.’ Nonetheless, such rhetoric clearly identifies the importance of secular guarantees to pro-regime factions—even if many Christians, like Greek Catholic leader Archbishop Jeanbart, continue to prefer the current situation to a “mere promise.”

Unwavering regime support emanating from Church hierarchies further entrenches Christians. In a statement dated December 15, 2011, the three Syrian Patriarchs declared their absolute rejection of foreign intervention or any other threat to Syrian sovereignty. Throughout 2011, the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch instructed churchgoers to obey the government, support the president, and keep a low profile.[5] In September 2011, Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Rai III expressed concern over the future security of religious minorities in Syria and the region, urging the international community not to rush into regime-changing resolutions that could topple al-Assad. This stance led George Sabra, a Christian and the spokesperson of the oppositional Syrian National Council, to attribute the mass absence of Christian protestors to the lack of Church-sponsored mobilization. The Russian Orthodox Church’s open support of the al-Assad regime may also be spurring similar attitudes among their Syrian counterparts. It is difficult, however, to determine to what degree the Church response reflects the attitude of its constituents or creates it.

It is similarly problematic to ascertain whether such institutional displays of support on the part of the Church are voluntary. Christians may well be coerced into obedience, with the Church leadership constrained by the watchful eye of a praetorian government brandishing a carte blanche arrest policy borne of the 1963 emergency law. Stories of attacks on Christian protestors—including the public assassination of Father Basillius of Homs and the beating and detention of 20 year-old student activist Hadeel Kouky and actor Jalal al-Tawil— serve as warnings to their community and demonstrate the systematic silencing of dissident Christian voices, however rare they may be.[6]  Christians therefore fear not only for their security tomorrow, but also today.

When choosing allegiances, Syrian Christians also consider the experience of ill-fated Iraqi Christians, the ongoing post-revolutionary struggle of Egyptian Copts, and the sectarian conflict that emerged in Lebanon in the absence of strong leadership. Much like al-Assad, Saddam Hussein cultivated a close relationship with fellow minority Christian groups, who were perceived as collaborators and subsequently targeted when the regime was toppled in 2003.  Bloody sectarian attacks then forced the exodus of at least 330,000 Iraqi Christians to Syria, where refugees settled in Christian areas and came with stories of atrocities at the hands of the Muslim majority. The deeply discouraging effect of the Iraq experience is reflected in a December 2011 YouGov-Doha Debates poll, which found that of the 55% of Syrians polled who supported al-Assad, the most common reason (46%) was “we do not want to see Syria become another Iraq,” rooted in the fear of majority leadership giving free reign to Muslim fundamentalists. [7]

Alternatively, the military and political integration of Christians partly explains the Christian reluctance to join the protests. Christians demonstrated their indispensability to public administration and civic life through the founding of the country’s two most significant post-independence political ideologies and the subsequent parties they spawned. The Syrian National Social Party (SSNP) and the ruling Ba’ath Party, both founded by Greek Orthodox ideologues, created a secular framework to unite the Sunni majority with minorities under an inclusive banner of nationalist identity. Christians are counted among several Cabinet members including the recently assassinated Minister of Defense, the Minister of State, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Deputy Prime Minister, constitutional co-author, former parliamentary speaker and two-time Prime Minister Fares Khoury and head of the Syrian Central bank, Adib Mayaleh, demonstrating the disproportionate prominence of Christians in regime-controlled public posts relative to their demographic weight.

This unofficial, power-sharing minority coalition is underpinned by the Alawite desire to bolster legitimacy by garnering diverse allies and promoting a pluralistic national identity, the Christian desire to break away from the traditionally inferior status of minorities, and mutual concern of an Islamist takeover. Although the highly influential despotic bureaucracy, presidential guard and intelligence services are controlled in part by an outer governmental layer of religious minorities such as Christians and Druze, the informal but dominant inner circle composed of Alawite security elites (and the weak Christian parliamentary presence) suggests that the regime has been cautious about integrating Christians into its core of decision-makers.[8]

As the fragmentation at the core of Syrian society between loyalists and dissidents intensifies, the silent Christian community is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. As the stakes get higher, so does the eagerness for sectarian revenge—a recipe for a Lebanon-style civil war.  By failing to defect in a significant way to an increasingly violent opposition movement, Christians risk being sidelined in a post-Assad context, or worse, being viewed as cowards whose hesitancy undermined the democratic movement, which Sunni compatriots may not easily forget.  Betting on the losing horse—al-Assad—will only incite the animosity towards Christians that the community is trying so desperately to avoid, yet siding with the insurgents might incur the wrath of government troops and hasten the advent of a Sunni, sectarian democracy.

The post-Assad government must mollify the disturbing sectarian undertones characterizing a previously secular opposition movement, yet, worryingly, it may be precisely these ‘fringe’ elements—frequently overlooked by Western and Arab champions of the uprising—which will relegate the protection and inclusion of religious minorities to the bottom of the agenda in the new Syria. As the world tentatively toys with the notion of intervention, the current humanitarian crisis worsens by the day, with damages escalating on both sides and the future boding particularly ill for non-Sunni Arab minorities perceived (usually incorrectly) as die-hard al-Assad co-conspirators.

— Scott Ross was lead editor for this article.

*An Egyptian and a graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Salma Mousa conducted research for Gallup, Silatech and the Aljazeera Center for Studies before her current position at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar.


[1] William Dalrymple, “Ignore the hype: Syria shouldn’t be demonized,” The Spectator, October 27, 2007.

[2] Basmah Kodmani, “To Topple Assad, it takes a Minority,” New York Times, August 3, 2011.

[3] Sheikh Al-Baynouni, former Secretary-General of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Brookings Institute Lecture, September 19, 2011, Doha, Qatar.

[4] Nicholas Blanford, “Q&A with a Syrian Jihadist: Minorities have nothing to fear in post-Assad Syria,” Christian Science Monitor; September 29, 2011.

[5] Interview, Syrian-Armenian from Aleppo.

[6] “Actor Jalal al-Tawil Attacked After a Damascus Protest on 19/12/2011,” Syrian Christians for Democracy, December 20, 2011, accessed August 7, 2012,

Rania Massoud, “La menace des chabbiha : ‘Ton Beau Visage, Nous le Brûlerons avec l’Acide,’” L’Orient Le Jour, 25 February 2012, accessed April 13, 2012,,_nous_le_brulerons_avec_de_lacide%22.html.

Al-’ab Basiliūs Shaheed al-Kinīsa,” Syrian Christians for Democracy, 26 January 2011, الأب-باسيليوس-شهيد-الكنيس.

[7] Syria’s President Assad- Should he resign?” Doha Debates and YouGov Poll Report.

[8] Andrew Hinnebusch, “Modern Syrian Politics,” History Compass 6 (2008): 265.


  • Comment
  • Tweet
  • Share
  • Email
  • Print

One thought on “Secular Autocracy vs. Sectarian Democracy? The Christian Predicament in the Syrian Uprising

  1. Is Salma Mousa on Twitter, Facebook or does she have a website?


Leave a Reply to Neeraj Shrivastav Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


In association with the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs