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Scholar: Syrian Christians Must Look To Egypt For Answers

by Edward Pentin | March 21, 2012

Najib Awad.

(Rome) - Syrian Christians should try to follow the example of Egypt’s Copts in trying to push for authentic democracy in their war-torn country. That’s according to Najib Awad, a Syrian-born theologian and Yale University graduate who currently lectures at the University of Goettingen, Germany. A Christian author on the Arab Spring, Awad also believes that Syrian Church leaders need to recognise the persecutions of the Assad regime such as those of a political and economic nature, even though it has allowed them to worship freely. Awad was a guest speaker at a Sant’Egidio conference on the Arab Spring at the end of February.

Would you say a possible international intervention in Syria, as it happened in Libya, would make the situation worse?
I think it would make it worse. Syria is much more complicated than Libya, in this regard. In Libya when NATO helped, it ended up with some small pockets of resistance; there were no sectarian or religious factors that could have strengthened one particular front.

Church leaders have shown some sympathy for the Assad regime. What is your view of this?
This requires a multifarious answer. There is this factor in Baath (Assad) regimes of protecting the minorities and playing the game of sheltering minorities. This made Christians believe they were not being persecuted because they had a sort of religious freedom. They were even celebrating publicly Christmas and Easter. So when you sell them that, it makes them feel genuinely protected and treated in a special way. In my view, we should be careful in perceiving it in this way. Yes there were no religious persecutions but there was instead a four-fold persecution – political, social, economic, and intellectual. That persecution targets everyone in country who doesn’t support the regime whether they be Christian, Muslim or Alawite, even. But the Christians don’t like to acknowledge that persecution. Certainly [Christian] leaders would always like to highlight that they could practice their belief freely. So  that sort of served in the propaganda of the regime and supported it. 
So that’s one factor. Another has to do with the future. There is a tendency among Christian leaders to compare Syria with neighbouring countries where Christians live, but they don’t really listen to the laity. They ask Christian leaders in Iraq, or Egypt and they have a similar voice that is supportive or in favour of dictatorship because they give them religious rights. They are always talking about how difficult Christian life in Iraq.

You mentioned that there is a culture of suspicion among some Christians in Syria. Can you explain what you mean by that?
There is a lack of an objective perceptive reading of the persecution that Christians in Iraq or Egypt had been facing. In Egypt, inside the Christian community, we became used to hear two voices. One would be supportive of Mubarak, among the hierarchy, but during the revolution the young generation of Copts were the opposite. They went out into the streets and rioted and were really part and parcel of the demonstrations.

The Patriarch of Syriac Catholics, Ignace Joseph III Younan, said recently that democracy needs time, it cannot happen rapidly. What do you say to this view?
That is true but the process has to begin at some point. I don’t think the regime is really willing to begin the process of democracy. Assad keeps talking about it, saying this or that reform will lead to it, but we just need to look at the results. He just issued a Constitution very recently. I have read it, to see how this Constitution could be the foundation of the country’s journey towards democracy. But what this new Constitution does is shift all the authority from the hands of the one party to the power circle of the President. It’s just really replacing one dictatorial mentality with another; it’s worse even, because he can, according to this new Constitution, dismantle the People’s Assembly. This means the role of MPs is one of mere consultation; they don’t have any legislative authority. The President can dismantle them any time he wants. He can even change the Constitution whenever he thinks it’s necessary.

The history of Syria has not been one of inter-confessional clashes such as those for example in Egypt or Iraq or Lebanon. What are the chances of a rise of political Islam if the regime is toppled?
It depends on what type of Islam would prevail in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood is no doubt influential – in the National Council they have the upper hand at least. They are ideologically and politically an extension of other Muslim Brotherhood parties in Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and even Turkey. If the revolution wins, the Muslim Brotherhood would definitely gain the upper hand in the country politically speaking because they would be automatically supported, pushed to the first front by the Muslim Brotherhood in other countries – Turkey, Egypt, Jordan. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan have actually already started to put pressure on King Abdullah to support the Syrian revolution out of a feeling that once the Muslim Brotherhood come to power, they can have better chances in Jordan as well. So even if on the ground the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood are not available (they have always been present but not available in terms of being directly influential), they will have an influential voice within the new Syrian regime.

Would you say a new era is beginning among Christian minorities in the Arab world, one in which they move beyond having protective regimes?
That’s a very important question. I don’t think we can first speak of Christians as one monolithic body. We have to ask the question more contextually. I think in Egypt, Christians are giving signs that in civil society terms, they are more mature than for example the Christians in Syria. They have already started to develop an almost unified view about how Christians can have a role in the new Egyptian society, and it seems they are showing serious willingness to go beyond denominational difference. Their success in that will decide whether the Arab Spring was a spring for the Christians or not.

So Egypt will be the model?
Egyptian success and failure will definitely influence other parts, especially Syria.