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21 June 2012

Religious Liberty - Syria

Religious Liberty - Syria

With a death toll above 10,000 people, 1.5 million in need of humanitarian aid and the country on the edge of a sectarian conflict the crisis in Syria is front-page news.

Violence erupted in Syria in March 2011 as the regime tried to suppress a popular uprising. Protestors called for Syrian leader President Assad to step down, political prisoners to be released, and for freedom and democracy to reign in a country chequered with a bad human rights record. The internal conflict threatens to erupt into a full blown civil war.

This week, Major-General Robert Mood, head of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, told the UN Security Council that: “The suffering of the Syrian people is getting worse amid escalating violence in the country”. Gen Mood led UN observers into Syria in April to monitor the violence and support the implementation of a six-point peace plan put in place by Kofi Annan, UN and Arab League special envoy, after the Homs area was shelled by government forces for nearly a month.

The peace plan included a ceasefire, which although brokered between the two sides in April, was soon violated by both the government and the opposition. Gen Mood has confirmed the UN forces will stay in the country despite having suspended their missions last week after coming under fire.

David Cameron announced this week that Russian president Vladimir Putin, an ally of President Assad’s regime in Syria said in a joint US-Russia statement that he was not ”locked in” to Assad remaining president, but that discussion was needed to focus on the transition of power in Syria. Russia, along with China has blocked two UN resolutions which mentioned sanctions against Syria and President Putin repeated yesterday that “we believe that nobody has the right to decide for other nations who should be brought to power, who should be removed from power”. Russia is keen to avoid situations similar to Libya where violence has continued even after regime change.

Christians are a minority in Syria, accounting for only 10 per cent of the population. The National Council, which opposes President Assad’s regime, consists of mostly Sunni Muslims who make up 74 per cent of the country. Alawites, of which Assad belongs to a sect, are another minority, making up around 10 per cent of the country. Although massively in the minority, Alawites have taken centre stage in national affairs for the past 42 years filling most key government positions. They have the most to lose if Assad was to step down. The National Council has been plagued with infighting and criticised for its lack of out outreach to minorities. This has done nothing to stem the fear that minorities, including Christians, will be persecuted in a post-Assad vacuum.

According to the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (WEA-RLC) it is too simplistic to say that Christians are entirely pro-regime: “Minorities anticipate complete uncertainty and chaos after the ouster of the president which could bring with it sectarian bloodbath and/or a dominant political force that will refuse to recognise minorities and their rights and protect them.”

The alleged massacre in the tiny village Qubair at the beginning of June, points to signs of growing sectarian conflict. Coming only days after the atrocities seen in Houla, which the UN confirmed was the setting for the death of at least 108 people. The BBC reported that villages, Christian, Sunni, or Alawite, are vulnerable to the question, “whose side are you on?” and that “the world witnessed the beginning of the sectarian conflict in Houla”.