Grim Easter: Syrian Christians Caught in Conflict

April 24, 2011

NPR Staff

There are reports that Syrian security forces carried out raids Sunday, imprisoning dozens of opposition activists.

After an uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad began five weeks ago, a bloody clash between protesters and government forces have left more than 300 people dead, according to human rights groups.

Caught in the middle of this fighting is Syria's Christian population, which makes up 10 percent of population.

Typically, Easter Sunday in the country is marked with overflowing churches and streets packed with the faithful, gathering to ceremonially burn palm leaves in preparation for next year's Ash Wednesday. But this year, those celebrations were muted.

NPR's Deborah Amos, who spoke to host Linda Wertheimer from neighboring Lebanon, says the Christian enclave of Bab Tuma in old Damascus is usually festive on Easter.

"There are floats, Easter egg hunts and processions, but not this year," she says.

In contrast, Amos says churches were half-empty. Homes that are typically done up in holiday decorations stand bare, out of respect for those who have died in the recent weeks of fighting.

Amos says many Christians in Syria are wealthy, educated and disproportionately serve in senior government positions. They are largely supportive of Assad, who has gone out of his way to reach out to them.

Syria enforces a strictly secular government, in order to keep sectarianism in check. Assad has brought members of minority groups into the fold, visited Christian communities and delivers a special Christmas message to them each year.

Assad perhaps can identify with them. In Sunni-majority Syria, he is too from a minority group, the Alawites – a branch of Shiite Islam.

"The president, like his father [Hafez Assad] has reached out to all of Syria's minority communities," says Amos.

There are now reports that opponents of Bashar Assad have threatened Syrian Christians because of their close relationship with the president.

Amos says, however, the truth is difficult to navigate. This story fits into the government's narrative that the uprisings are organized by Islamic fundamentalists, but the protest organizers she's spoken with forcefully deny these allegations.

"They say this is the work of the regime to scare the Christian community," Amos says. "The uprising organizers are really steering this away from a sectarian challenge."

The government, meanwhile, is framing the uprising as a movement by fundamentalist Muslims and is encouraging Christians to side with it. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.