For four decades the Syrian regime, led by minority Allawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam, has argued it is the sole guarantor of rights to Syria’s minority Christians, Allawites, Druze and others in a nation that is three quarters Sunni Muslim.
Since the popular uprising began, the regime has played on the fears of minorities suggesting that the protest movement is in fact an effort by armed Islamist extremists to establish an Islamic state in currently secular Syria.
Many still buy it.
“Catching up with my friends and cousins, I see that most of them are afraid,” said a Christian pharmacist from Damascus who asked to be known only as George.
“They fear that if the current regime falls, Sunnis will rule and that they will be fanatic and life won't be very nice for Christians,” he said.
Having lived the decades of Syrian involvement in Lebanon’s civil war, which pitted Muslims against Christians as well as Muslims and Christians against themselves and, over more recent years, seen the carnage in Iraq and the campaign of terrorism against Iraqi Christians, Syria’s minorities fear change.
Aware of these fears and eager to counter the regime’s propaganda, activists have been careful to include minorities whenever possible.
One of the most popular and enduring chants by protesters each Friday has been, “One, one, one! The Syrian people are one,” underscoring that the protests are not primarily religious, but popular.
“I see my friends and cousins expressing their thoughts in an irrational way,” George told Global Post. “I can feel that they are driven by fear of the unknown - so I'd like to think that if and when they start thinking rationally they will be able to see the light, and not just be afraid.”
George said the regime’s policy of enforced stability was a false benefit to minorities.
“Someone from outside Syria who hasn't lived there might think people are happy living together. But in reality the government was forcing everyone to be limited and to be quiet, so it was a kind of violence against all. To keep stability, the pressure had to build up.
“What if we had a very strong Sunni presence? Well, yes, it's a bit scary. But I don't think this is what will happen. I feel optimistic about it.”