AMMAN, Jordan — Christians in Jordan and Syria, the latest Middle East countries to experience violent unrest, are in a quandary.
While they, like their fellow citizens, yearn for greater freedom and democracy, they fear — perhaps more than others — that any major power shift could lead to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and threats to their communities.
Compared to most other Arab countries in the Middle East, Jordan and Syria are relatively secular, and Christians generally feel safe there, as long as they toe the government line.
In a booklet on Middle East Christians, Habib Malik, a professor at Lebanese American University, says they have “lost all sense of what it meant to experience a life of true liberty.”
Summarizing the booklet in a recent Inside Catholic column, George Weigel says vulnerable Christian communities have developed a variety of survival strategies that, having been thoroughly internalized, now seem natural: kowtowing to authority and accepting benefactions from dictators like Saddam Hussein in Iraq or the Assad dynasty in Syria.
That’s especially true in Syria, Malik said, where President Bashar Al-Assad, like his father before him, rules with an iron fist. Though educated in Britain, he has refused to lift 50 years of emergency law that bans freedom of the press and allows the detention of anyone the regime considers to be a threat.
Syrian troops have reportedly killed more than 100 protesters during widespread grassroots protests around the country.
In Jordan, which has enjoyed political stability for many years and boasts a relatively open and modern society, protesters are demanding legal reforms rather than an overthrow of the popular royal family. Jordanians were shocked when, a few weeks ago, security forces opened fire on some protesters.
The sudden upheaval in these countries has presented Christians with a dilemma, according to Father Samir Khalil Samir, an Islamic scholar who is a Jesuit.
Writing in a recent edition of AsiaNews.it, Father Samir said Christians want both democracy and secularism, but realize that, due to the nature of the Middle East, they can’t have both — at least not in the short term.
Father Samir asserted that the Christian leadership in Syria does not want anything to change because the Assad regime ensures safety and secularism. Assad, who is a member of the ruling Alawites (an offshoot of Shiite Islam), has essentially outlawed radical Islam.
Secularism can only be imposed by force, Father Samir said, citing Assad, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the recently deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as examples.
Despite Assad’s oppression, Christians prefer to have an authoritarian regime, but one that guarantees them at least a minimum of religious freedom, Father Samir said.
Publicly at least, Christians living in the Middle East tend to highlight the positive aspects of their lives rather than the negative. Their outward optimism comes not only from the belief that it is unwise to criticize their rulers, but from their deep religious faith.
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal said that Christians in Syria, who comprise about 2% of the population of 19 million, enjoy all freedoms.
But even Patriarch Twal, who was raised in Jordan, acknowledged that everything is changing in the Middle East.”We are not sure that what comes afterward will be in our favor,” he said.
The patriarch said the Catholic Church in Jordan held a demonstration “to encourage King Abdullah and his regime to go on working, serving society.”
While officials at the Jerusalem Patriarchate, whose jurisdiction extends to Jordan, are hopeful, even confident that incremental reform in Jordan will be good for that country’s Christians, Syria is more volatile, they say.
“It’s clear that if [Assad’s] Ba’ath party goes, the best organized are the Muslim Brotherhood, and they could fill the void,” said Bishop William Shomaly, auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate. “What happened in Gaza could happen in Syria, because Hamas, which has imposed Islamic law in Gaza, and the Muslim Brotherhood have the same ideology.”
If the Muslim Brotherhood gains a strong foothold in Syria, Christians may suffer, Shomaly said.
‘We Do What We Can’
Speaking by phone from Amman, Raed Bahou, director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s office in Jordan, said Christians there are waiting to see what kinds of reforms the popular uprising will reap.
“We need to know what kind of political support we’re talking about. There are concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is gaining a foothold in Egypt, may try to gain control in Jordan, but we don’t yet have a clear picture,” he said.
Bahou said Jordanian Christians feel safe and very protected under the king, “who protects our projects and programs. If this sense of security is threatened, the way it has been undermined in Iraq, it could lead to the emigration of Christians from Jordan,” the administrator warned.
Instability and last year’s deadly bombing of a church have forced Iraq’s Christians to turn their backs on their homes.
Every month, Bahou said, many of the 25 Iraqi families that flee that country move to nearby Jordan.
“We give them direction as to where to live, where to find educational and other services, and, of course, food distribution,” he said. “We do what we can.”
Register Middle East correspondent Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.