JERUSALEM — The visit of Pope John Paul II to Syria, scheduled for May 5-8, is expected to give a much-needed boost to Middle East Christians.

The visit, a pilgrimage retracing the footsteps of St. Paul, comes at a time of escalating tensions in the Middle East.

Violence between Israelis and Palestinians reached unprecedented heights in April, with Palestinians firing mortars into Israel, and Israel temporarily reoccupying a Palestinian-ruled area of the Gaza Strip.

Also in April, Lebanese-based Hizbullah guerillas fired on Israel's northern communities. Israel responded by attacking a Syrian troop position deep inside Lebanon. Syria, which has 30,000 troops in Lebanon, supports Hizbullah attacks against Israel. Israel, which captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War, unilaterally ended its occupation of southern Lebanon a year ago.

Should the violence continue, analysts say, the conflict could escalate and engulf the entire region.

Against this backdrop, it is unclear whether the Pope's visit to Syria will take on an overtly political dimension.

On the one hand, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir of the Maronite Catholic Church in Lebanon has, in recent months, openly demanded that the Syrian army quit Lebanon. Sfeir asserts that Syria's presence is a de-stabilizing force that saps the country's economic strength, and which, if left unchecked, could plunge the country into another war. Muslims, who tend to support Syria's continued presence, and Christians, who do not, ended 15 years of civil strife in 1990.

The Holy Father must balance these demands with the knowledge that overt criticism of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad or any other Middle East leader could compromise the safety of the region's beleaguered Christian minority. Roughly a quarter of the population of the Middle East during the mid-1800s, Christians today comprise only 1% of the population.

Approximately 16% of Syria's 17 million citizens are Christian, among them 300,000 Catholics.

David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said that Syria's Christians “are vulnerable in that they are a minority in a nonpluralistic, non-democratic society.” While Christian communities in the Middle East currently enjoy a certain level of security, due to Islamic fundamentalism and regional stability, Rosen said, “they don't know if that security will necessarily be there tomorrow.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a cleric with close ties to Syria's Christians categorized the Syrian minority as “second-class citizens. They're known as ‘Dhimmi,’ which means ‘half’ in French. They are forced to pay taxes Muslims do not have to pay. If they can afford to pay, they get protection [from government forces]. If they can't pay, which they often cannot, they receive no protection.”

Characterizing Syria as “a very secluded and severe society,” the cleric said that the Christians “are not free people. They live the way people once lived in the former Soviet Union. If you toe the party line, you survive. If you do not, you do not survive.”

Not that you will hear this directly from Syrian Christians.

“When you meet Christians in Syria they will say how wonderful it is to live there. Even the Church leaders are hostages of the regime.”

Asked whether individual Christians have been targeted for imprisonment or torture — things that occur quite frequently in Syria — the cleric replied, “We don't know. We don't know the name of even one resistance fighter in Syria. This is not by chance.”

The cleric noted that very few Christians enter the professions or the ruling Baath Party because there are unspoken quotas being used against them.

“Officially, there are no differences between them and Muslims, but the fact is you cannot have large numbers of Christians in academia or medicine or law or even teaching. They are not awarded the same rights as Muslims.”

Rosen said that John Paul's upcoming trip should help bolster the Christians.

“I think wherever the Pope visits, there is an important psychological value for the local Christian community. It gives them a greater sense of security. It also emphasizes the public relations value the Christian community can provide internationally.”

When a high-profile international visit takes place in a non-Christian country, Rosen said, the leaders feel obliged to demonstrate how well its minorities are treated.

“The more a leader can demonstrate that things are great for the Christians, it serves his interests internationally. It's important for the Syrians to counter any suggestions coming from the U.S. or elsewhere that it is a totalitarian society, that it does not harbor or encourage terrorists. If Assad can show that things are going well for the Christian community, it can serve as an important counter-weight.”

While aides to the Pope have predicted that he will steer clear of political statements, and concentrate instead on spiritual matters, Professor Gerald Steinberg, a Middle East expert at Israel's Bar Ilan Univesity, is not so certain.

“When the Pope was younger, he was known for taking political positions in such places and the former Soviet Union. It is possible that he will speak out,” Steinberg said.

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.