A damaged church is seen in Homs, Syria, March 30. Fresh clashes between Syrian soldiers and rebels erupted March 30.
Here is an unsigned editorial titled "Protect Syria's Christians" from the Feb. 28 issue of The Catholic Register, the Toronto-based national Catholic Canadian newspaper.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a despot whose shooting and shelling of his own people cannot be defended, yet he may be the last line of defense for Syria's Catholics.
For that reason, Syrian church leaders are taking a cautious approach to the nearly yearlong rebellion to topple Assad. They have been pleading for calm, for dialogue and for Western assistance to find a peaceful solution to Syria's popular uprising as the nation moves ever closer to all-out civil war. So far, the dispute is political, but churchmen fear the fighting may quickly turn religious.
"Forcing the departure of the Syrian president will be a step (closer) for a civil war based on confessionalism," Syriac Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan has warned.
By "confessionalism" the patriarch means religious conflict between the ruling minority Shiite Muslims and the majority Sunnis that would inevitably engulf the nation's Catholics.
Syria (pop. 20 million) has about 400,000 Catholics who are members of various Latin and Eastern rites that have Syrian roots dating to Aramaic-speaking Christians of the first century. Protected under Assad, Catholics now fear persecution and exile from their homeland should the president be toppled.
Don't change the regime but help the regime change, they plead. And who can blame them?
Starting with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and on through the Arab Spring uprisings, the movement toward Middle East democracy has not been accompanied by protection for religious minorities.
In Iraq, Hussein's overthrow led to untold numbers of assaults and murders of Christians and more than 250,000 Christians fleeing to foreign refugee camps. In Egypt, Christians marched with Muslims a year ago to overthrow Hosni Mubarak. Today, radical Muslim groups routinely persecute Copt Christians and tens of thousands have fled the country rather than live in fear or as second-class citizens.
Assad has used guns and artillery for the past year to keep his hold on power. A month ago, the U.N. estimated 5,400 people had been killed and, with battles continuing, the death toll has probably passed 6,000. There is no justification for the organized, brutal killing of Assad's own citizens. At the same time, however, there is little doubt that Syria's Catholics will suffer if Assad, among the most secular leaders in the Middle East, is toppled and the vacuum is filled by religious intolerance.
That's why church leaders are not calling for his overthrow and why Syrian Catholics, by and large, are not standing with the revolutionaries. Throughout the Middle East, the dream of democracy has instead brought the reality of religious persecution.
"Remember Iraq," the patriarch has warned, "where Christians were abused, killed in their churches and their houses, and forced into exile."
Syrians do indeed remember -- and worry about their own fate.