The head of the Maronite Catholic Church has become the latest Church leader to offer support to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, who is violently cracking down on opposition groups within his country.

Speaking during a visit to France in early September, Patriarch Bechara Butros al-Rahi called for patience towards the Syrian president to enable him to implement his promised reforms.

The patriarch added that Christians have reason to be mistrustful of revolts that could lead to the rise of militant Islamic regimes. “In the past few months, the political geography of the Middle East has begun to change,” he said. “This has caused us embarrassment and concern.”

He said he feared events in Syria might lead to a civil war or “a drift towards extremism.” While acknowledging the legitimacy of local aspirations for change, the patriarch said no one could ignore the role played by foreign meddling in causing the unrest.

During his Angelus address Aug. 8, the Pope called for “peaceful coexistence to be restored as soon as possible” and for the government to respect the dignity of Syria’s citizens “for the benefit of regional stability.” The Holy Father didn’t venture into the detail of the conflict but said he was “following with great concern the dramatic and growing violence” in the country, and he invited “the Catholic faithful to pray that efforts for reconciliation prevail over division and hatred.”

A senior United Nations human-rights official told journalists Sept. 12 that the death toll from six months of unrest in Syria had reached at least 2,600.

The violence has drawn widespread international condemnation, with the Obama administration saying the Assad regime had lost its legitimacy. Over the summer, Arab governments, led by Saudi Arabia, recalled their ambassadors from Damascus.

But since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Church leaders have been voicing their concerns about the opposition. Some have blamed street gangs for provoking the government crackdown and stressed Assad is defending Syria from marauding Islamist mobs and genuinely trying to put the country on the path to reform.

Speaking in June to Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo warned that the protesters “speak about freedom and democracy for Syria, but this is not their goal.” Rather, he said, “they want to divide the Arab countries; control them; seize oil, and sell arms. They seek destabilization and Islamization.” He called on Syria to resist and expressed confidence that it will. “Eighty percent of the people are behind the government, as are all the Christians,” he said.

In comments in July to the Italian Catholic news agency SIR, Archbishop Gregoire Elias Tabé of Damas said: “Presently we are witnessing a major international game against Syria,” adding that the violence “is predominantly the result of terrorists who have infiltrated from abroad.” Like Patriarch al-Rai and Bishop Audo, Archbishop Tabé fears Syria could become another Iraq if Assad is overthrown, leading to sectarianism and a wave of persecution of Christians. “We believe that pluralism, whereby minorities come together harmoniously, is the best system to guarantee dignity and freedom, as well as our presence and prosperity in the Middle East,” said Patriarch al-Rahi in a Sept. 9 Asia News report.

The bishops have also blamed the international media for not providing a balanced picture. Bishop Audo called it a “war of [dis]information against Syria” and that the international reports are not objective. “We must defend the truth, both as Syrians and as Christians,” he said.

Videos circulated on the Internet in July, sent by a Syrian Christian and showing a gruesome beheading and the discarding of bodies in the Orontes River, purportedly of Syrian soldiers. The email read: “Street gangs are taking over in Hama, Lattakia and more every day ... and the international community wants to condemn Bashar al-Assad?!”

Yet Church’s leaders are naturally not condoning the government’s crackdown: They don’t believe the regime is corruption-free, nor that Assad has avoided making mistakes. In April, when the uprisings were first taking hold, Bishop Audo told the Register the security forces were right to respond after a month of violent provocation, but that fatally attacking civilians couldn’t be justified.

“I think the police have the right to defend themselves, but only to act in self-defense, not to attack and kill people,” he said. Truly representative government, he added, “needs time,” and every country “has his own way of democracy.”

Church leaders argue that Syria’s president is implementing reforms. In early August, Assad issued a decree authorizing a multi-party system in the country. However, observers say this is a risky move: Sunni Muslims form the majority in a country ruled by Alawite Shiite Muslims, who make up just 13% of the population. (Christians number 10%.) Democratic reforms could, therefore, open the door to radical Islam.

The Syrian government is trying to limit that possibility by insisting future parties must “preserve national unity,” according to Asia News. They cannot have either a religious, ethnic (hence no Kurdish or Armenian parties) or professional basis, nor have a military force.

Signs of hope emerged on Sept. 12, when the Arab League and President al-Assad reached an agreement in Cairo on how to defuse the Syrian crisis. However, both parties have yet to provide any specific information about the agreement. Meanwhile, a plea from the Arab League for an “immediate cessation” of violence while the Cairo negotiations were taking place went unheeded.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.

At press time, Pope Benedict XVI had not yet

concluded his Sept. 22-25 visit to Germany.

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