SECULAR Syria has long been one of the freest places in the Middle East to practice religion. But a recent crackdown on Christians, about a tenth of Syria’s people, is causing jitters.
Several buildings that hold Christian services have been closed for not being officially sanctioned as churches. Foreigners serving Protestant churches have been told their visas will not be renewed because of a decree banning them from working for injeeli, as Protestant churches are known. In the summer several church camps were canceled. The measures have been taken solely against the Protestant churches, which cater for refugees from Sudan and Iraq and expatriate workers, as well as for Syrians. Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled to Syria since attacks on them following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003; recent massacres have sent others packing.
Syrian officials say the measures have been taken because the offending churches have been proselytizing, often with the help of foreigners. The World Council of Churches acknowledges that since the invasion of Iraq an influx of refugees into Syria has encouraged foreign evangelists, mainly Americans and South Koreans, to spread the gospel. American outfits such Reach Global, the missionary arm of the Evangelical Free Church of America, admit to giving cash and theological support to Christians in Syria, to the extent that they are officially allowed to.
But independent local churches, all of them licensed by the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, have been hit, too. Father Nadim Nassar, a priest, says that tension in the region has made life harder for all Protestant groups. “Protestantism has long been viewed as an extension of the West and all Protestant groups have been affected by a backlash against them.”
But the main reason for the clampdown is that Orthodox and Catholic leaders, disgruntled by the success of these new churches, have complained to the government. Converting Muslims to Christianity is illegal, but the churches have also had an understanding that they should not woo each others’ members. Enthusiastic Protestants seem to have flouted that unwritten rule. “We have enough churches—but the Protestants are stealing our sheep,” says an Orthodox pastor, who asked not to be named.
The government does not discriminate against Christianity in particular. It wants to keep Syria secular and religiously harmonious. Moreover, it is conscious that the regime is headed by members of the minority Alawite Muslim sect, and is wary of challenges to its rule by any religious group, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. It is therefore quick to clamp down on zealous behavior. In the past two years Islamic schools have been more tightly regulated. Female university students have been forbidden to wear the niqab, covering the entire body.
Freedom of religion in Syria has its limits, sighs an Orthodox leader. “There is freedom to practice your religion but not yet to choose it. You are what you are born into.” Economist