Can an Islamist society respect Christian liberty? The ambivalence of Christians in Syria

A few weeks ago I noted that many Christians, both in the country and outside of it, were supporting the Assad regime in Syria. According to The Economist this is beginning to change.

Keen to portray the uprising as a sectarian insurrection by extreme elements of the Sunni Muslim majority posing a vicious threat to minorities, Mr Assad has often wheeled out bishops and nuns to express devotion to his regime and to condemn supposed foreign interference. Yet they do not carry their flocks with them.

Amounting to about 10% of the country’s 23m people, Syria’s Christians increasingly, if still often privately, express sympathy for the opposition. In battered cities, behind closed doors in living rooms cluttered with statues of the Virgin Mary, many grumble about the bloody crackdown. Christians and Muslims often attend funerals together for the victims of government violence, such as Basil Shehadeh, a young Christian film-maker recently killed in Homs, Syria’s third city. Christians are well represented in the political opposition. The Syrian National Council, a group mainly of exiles, includes several. The “local co-ordination committees”, as activists’ cells are known, contain numerous Christians. A church-based group ferries medicine around the country to help the victims of repression.

Of course, this does not mean Syrian Christians are unaware of the dangers of an Islamist regime.

On social networks Christians send each other cartoons of women draped in the veil and men with bushy beards as harbingers of the new Syria. “I’d rather have this regime than chaos or Islamists,” says a teacher in Bab Touma, a Christian quarter of Damascus, proudly pointing to his scantily clad female family members.

While the revolutions going on in the Middle East certainly increase religious freedom for Muslims, the same is not always the case for Christians. Muslim men in Egypt can now sport beards and Muslim women are beginning to wear burqas, but Christians are worried. As events in Tunisia make clear, freedom of expression for Muslims is often accompanied by the repression of those not committed to Islamic standards of modesty or blasphemy.

The best way forward is for the Arab world to figure out a way to respect pluralism and religious liberty while avoiding the pitfalls of both radical secularism and radical Islamism. Christians in the west have long made the distinction between morality (and religion) and politics, while never entirely separating the two. And the reality is that even most Muslims who live in the United States have adapted to the American version of secularity. The question remains, will majority Muslim countries find a way to do the same?


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 21, 2012, in International Affairs, Islam, Religious Liberty and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Can an Islamist society respect Christian liberty? The ambivalence of Christians in Syria.

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