Abu Elias sat beneath the towering stairs leading from the Convent of Our Lady of Saydnaya, a church high up in the mountains outside Damascus, where Christians have worshiped for 1,400 years. “We are all scared of what will come next,” he said, turning to a man seated beside him, Robert, an Iraqi refugee who escaped the sectarian strife in his homeland.
“He fled Iraq and came here,” said Abu Elias, looking at his friend, who arrived just a year earlier. “Soon, we might find ourselves doing the same.”
Syria plunges deeper into unrest by the day. On Tuesday, government troops attacked the rebellious town of Rastan with tanks and machine guns, wounding at least 20 people. With the chaos growing, Christians visiting Saydnaya on a recent Sunday said they feared that a change of power could usher in a tyranny of the Sunni Muslim majority, depriving them of the semblance of protection the Assad family has provided for four decades.
Syria’s Christian minority is sizable, about 10 percent of the population, though some here say the share is actually lower these days. Though their sentiments are by no means monolithic — Christians are represented in the opposition, and loyalty to the government is often driven more by fear than fervor — the group’s fear helps explain how President Bashar al-Assad has held on to segments of his constituency, in spite of a brutal crackdown aimed at crushing a popular uprising.
For many Syrian Christians, Mr. Assad remains predictable in a region where unpredictability has driven their brethren from war-racked places like Iraq and Lebanon, and where others have felt threatened in postrevolutionary Egypt.
They fear that in the event the president falls, they may be subjected to reprisals at the hands of a conservative Sunni leadership for what it sees as Christian support of the Assad family. They worry that the struggle to dislodge Mr. Assad could turn into a civil war, unleashing sectarian bloodshed in a country where minorities, ethnic and religious, have found a way to coexist for the most part.
The anxiety is so deep that many ignore the opposition’s counterpoint: The government has actually made those divisions worse as part of a strategy to ensure the rule of the Assad family, which itself springs from a Muslim minority, the Alawites.
“I am intrigued by your calls for freedom and for overthrowing the regime,” wrote a Syrian Christian woman on her Facebook page, addressing Christian female protesters. “What does freedom mean? Every one of you does what she wants and is free to say what she wants. Do you think if the regime falls (God forbid) you will gain freedom? Then, each one of you will be locked in her house, lamenting those days.”
The fate of minorities in a region more diverse than many recognize is among the most pressing questions facing an Arab world in turmoil. With its mosaic of Christians and Muslim sects, Syria has posed the question in its starkest terms: Does it take a strongman to protect the community from the more dangerous, more intolerant currents in society?
The plight of Christians in Syria has resonated among religious minorities across the Middle East, many of whom see themselves as facing a shared destiny. In Iraq, the number of Christians has dwindled to insignificance since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, driven away by bloodshed and chauvinism. Christians in Egypt worry about the ascent of Islamists. Christians in Lebanon, representing the largest minority by proportion in the Arab world, worry about their own future, in a country where they emerged as the distinct losers of a 15-year civil war.
This month, Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic patriarch urged Maronites, the largest community of Christians in the country, to offer Mr. Assad another chance and to give him enough time to carry out a long list of reforms that he has promised but never enacted.
The comments by the patriarch, Bishara Boutros al-Rai, prompted a heated debate in Lebanon, which lived under Syrian hegemony for 29 years. A prominent Syrian (and Christian) opposition figure offered a rebuttal from Damascus. But Patriarch Rai, who described Mr. Assad as “a poor man who cannot work miracles,” defended his remarks, warning that the fall of the government in Syria threatened Christians across the Middle East.
“We endured the rule of the Syrian regime. I have not forgotten that,” Patriarch Rai said. “We do not stand by the regime, but we fear the transition that could follow. We must defend the Christian community. We, too, must resist.”
It is a remarkable insight into the power and persuasion of fear that the status quo in Syria these days remains preferable to many. The United Nations estimates that more than 2,600 people have died since the uprising erupted in mid-March in the poor southern town of Dara’a, and, given the desperation of some, even activists warn that protesters may resort to arms. Estimates of arrests run into the tens of thousands.
Some Christians have joined the ranks of the uprisings, and Christian intellectuals like Michel Kilo and Fayez Sara populate the ranks of opposition figures.
An activist in Damascus recalled over coffee at the upscale Audi Lounge how a Christian friend found himself hiding in the house of a conservative Muslim family in a town on the outskirts of Damascus. His friend was marching in a demonstration, along with others. When security forces arrived at the scene, shooting randomly at people, they ran for cover, hiding in the nearest houses and buildings, he said.
When the tumult was over, his new host asked him what his name was. Scared, he thought for a moment about lying, but worried that he might be asked for his identification papers, he told the truth. To his surprise, the host and his family and all those hiding in the house began cheering for him. He had joined their ranks.
The formula often offered of the Syrian divide — religious minorities on Mr. Assad’s side, the Sunni Muslim majority aligned against him — never captured the nuance of a struggle that may define Syria for generations. Even some Alawites, the Muslim sect from which Mr. Assad draws most of his leadership, had joined protesters. When a few came to the central Syrian city of Hama to join huge demonstrations in the summer, they were saluted by Sunni Muslims with songs and poetry.
But while the promise of the Arab revolts is a new order, shorn of repression and inequality, worries linger that Islamists, the single most organized force in the region, will gain greater influence and that societies will become more conservative and perhaps intolerant.
“Fear is spreading among us and anyone who is different,” said Abu Elias, as he greeted worshipers walking the hundreds of stone steps worn smooth over the centuries. “Today, we are here. Tomorrow, who knows where we will be?”