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Religious hate

Andreas Gorzewski / bkFebruary 24, 2013

The fronts in the Syrian conflict are increasingly hardening along religious lines. But the prospects for the Christian, Druze and Alawite minorities are all very different.

Syrien / Aufständischer / Bürgerkrieg

The various religious communities in Syria lived together peacefully for decades. But the ongoing conflict in the country is tearing ever deeper divides between the faiths. In its latest report on the violence in Syria, the United Nations Human Rights Council warned of the growing role of religion in the conflict.

Syria is an ethnic and religious patchwork. Three quarters of the around 22 million Syrians are Sunni Muslims. Alawites and Christians each represent 10 percent of the population. On top of that, several hundred thousand Druze, Shiites and Yazidi also live in the country. Beyond religion, ethnic tensions have also intensified between the Arab majority and the Kurdish population in Syria, which accounts for around 15 percent of the total population.

When the protests against President Bashar Assad's regime began, Christians, like almost all Syrians, welcomed the calls for reform, explains Adeeb Awad, pastor of the synod of Protestant churches in Syria and Lebanon. But at the beginning of the armed revolt, more and more foreign fighters streamed into the country. These included militant Islamists, who terrorized many Christian villages and drove out their inhabitants, Awad told Deutsche Welle. But in the major cities - except in Aleppo - there were few targeted attacks on Christians.

Syrian Christian children attend Sunday mass at a church in Damascus ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
Syria's Christian community represents ten percent of the populationImage: AFP/Getty Images

Religion and the regime

The increasingly religious nature of the conflict is less about faith, and more about what is commonly associated with certain religious groups, explains Swedish Syria expert Aron Lund. Whether an individual is considered to be for or against Assad is often judged based on their religion - regardless of their actual feelings.

Since most of the rebels are Sunni, the Sunnis are considered opposition activists, while the Alawites are seen as regime supporters. Assad, along with leading members of the political, military, and economic elites, is an Alawite, as are most recruits in the regime's notorious Shabiha militia. The Shabiha's atrocities in Sunni villages have served to deepen animosity, to the extent that few even notice that there are opposition Alawites and Sunnis in the government.

According to Awad, the majority of Christians also still support the government in Damascus. "Syria, as the only secular state in the region, offered Christians the best circumstances," he says. For Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians alike, a takeover of power by the radical Islamists remains a horror scenario. "That turned the Christians and other minorities into supporters of the army and the government," says Awad.

Foreign influence is also playing a considerable role in the escalation of sectarian conflict. The Hezbollah groups in Lebanon and Iran - both Shiite - support the Syrian regime, while the conservative Arab Gulf states are helping the Sunni rebels.

Syrian Kurds wave the Kurdish flag as they rally against the Syrian regime AFP/GettyImages
The Syrian Kurds could seek autonomy if Assad fallsImage: AFP/Getty Images

Names can betray religion

Syrians can easily tell which religion an individual belongs to - often the name gives it away. Anyone called Omar is, according to Lund, a Sunni. And addresses also provide clues. "People know that this or that district is more Sunni, or more Alawite, and which district supports the government, and so on," said Lund.

To be a member of a certain religion, and therefore to be ascribed a certain political position, can be dangerous. The UN has counted more than ten bombings in the residential districts of certain minorities or near religious places. These bombs served no military purpose, but were merely meant to increase religious tensions. Meanwhile, many hospitals refuse to treat the sick and injured if they belong to the wrong religion, and the UN reports that many do not go to state hospitals for fear of arrest and torture because of their religion.

The prospects for these minorities differ. The fate of the Alawite community, which emerged from Shiite Islam more than a millennium ago, is closely tied to that of the regime. Should Assad fall, Alawites could well face reprisals and repression. But it could be very different for the Druze, says Lund: They mainly live in the south of the country, and still support the government. "Though if the regime falls, they may split off and attempt to govern themselves," he says.

The Kurds in the north of the country are also said to be seeking autonomy in the event of a regime change. But that is impossible for the Christians, who are scattered across many towns and villages. Awad is still clinging to the hope of a peace agreement between the government and the peaceful part of the opposition, and he backs the Sunni Grand Mufti, who recently called for a peaceful cohabitation of all Syrians.

But there seems little chance of that at the moment. Lund expects the sectarian violence to continue, and adds that the situation is reminiscent of certain phases of the conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq. Religious and jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda could easily thrive. "They always become stronger when there is a war between different religious groups," says Lund.