(Reuters) - In a walled churchyard in the old city of Damascus, a small group of Syrians debate whether the time has come to flee one of Christianity’s ancient heartlands.
Members of a Christian community which stretches back 2,000 years, they worry that Syria’s civil war can have no happy outcome and they face an upheaval that fellow believers have already suffered elsewhere in the Middle East.
“The future is full of fear,” said one man who gave only his first name, Rami. “We hope our fate will not be that of the Christians of Iraq, but nothing is guaranteed. Now we meet in church rather than cafes because we’re afraid of being bombed.”
Rami’s friends were gathered at the Evangelical Church in the ancient Bab Touma quarter of Damascus - the city where Saint Paul began his mission to spread Christianity - a few days before Pope Benedict is due to visit neighboring Lebanon.
As evening shadows lengthened after a Sunday service, the young men and women found temporary sanctuary in the churchyard from the civil war which has already displaced many of them.
Anticipation of Benedict’s Middle East trip has done little to lift the mood of despair which grips the estimated two million Christians in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is battling a 17-month-old uprising against his rule.
Few Christians have supported the revolt, fearful for their future if the country’s majority Sunni Muslims choose an Islamist leadership to replace decades of ruthless but secular Assad family rule.
Neighboring Iraq, where sectarian violence after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein forced half the Christians to flee, offers frightening parallels, while the revival of Sunni Islamists in the 2011 Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt also fills Syria’s Christians with foreboding.
Many now say they will be losers whatever the outcome of Assad’s struggle to hold on to power - suffering alongside the rest of the country if the conflict persists, and particularly vulnerable if their fear of an Islamist victory comes to pass.
“I‘m thinking about leaving the country if Islamists rule Syria,” said a Catholic antiques trader in Damascus. “I expect reprisals against Christians.”
Syria’s Christians, who make up less than 10 percent of the 23 million population, include Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Maronite and Melkite Greek Catholic faithful.
Already thousands have left, part of a larger tide of displaced Syrians escaping the conflict in which opposition groups say 27,000 people have died.
Amid the relentless and increasingly sectarian violence, it is hard to know whether Christians have been victims of targeted attacks or swept up in the broader, indiscriminate bloodshed.
The Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Yohana Ibrahim, told Reuters that hundreds of Christian families had fled in recent weeks as rebels and soldiers battle for control of the country’s biggest city.
“In its modern history Aleppo has not seen such critical and painful times as the last few weeks. Christians have been attacked and kidnapped in monstrous ways and their relatives have paid big sums for their release,” he said.
In the central city of Homs, which saw the heaviest bloodshed earlier this year, he said several churches and Christian centers had been damaged in the fighting.
“Until a few months ago the idea of escaping had not crossed the minds of the Christians, but after the danger worsened it has become the main topic of conversation.”
Many fled to Lebanon, Turkey, Cyprus or Egypt, while Armenian Christians in Aleppo were preparing to evacuate to Armenia, he said in emailed responses to questions.
“SIDING WITH THE REGIME”
Christian reluctance to join the revolt often goes further into outright support for the 47-year-old president, who himself is from a minority faith.
Assad’s Alawite community, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam which has dominated the country’s ruling class for four decades, is about the same size as the combined Christian population.
Paolo Dall‘Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who was expelled from Syria in June after three decades in the country, said some priests and bishops were pressured into supporting Assad, while others did so because they sympathized with authorities.
“There are a lot of Christians that are against the regime, doing a lot of work, especially on humanitarian level in the street, for the people,” he said by telephone. “(But) for cultural and security reasons, our religious leadership has sided with the regime and still are doing that.”
Those perceived ties with the Syrian leadership are likely to fuel rebel resentment against Christians - a danger which Dall‘Oglio said he warned of when the uprising first broke out.
“I said to the Vatican one and a half years ago: ‘If we do nothing, we will be kicked out’. And this is what is happening,” he said. “So this is nothing to be astonished about. A lot to be upset, sorrowed and bitter, but not to be astonished about.”
Dall‘Oglio, now an active supporter of the Syrian opposition, said Pope Benedict had always been clear in his support for freedom and rights.
“But the diplomacy of the Vatican has been very weak, probably weakened by the official attitudes of the local bishops and officials,” he said, adding he had just completed an eight-day fast “for the pope’s visit and the future of this country”.
Some Christians have held prominent positions under Assad including defense minister Daoud Rajha, assassinated on July 18 in a bombing which killed three other top security officials.
Others have taken leading roles in the political opposition to Assad’s rule, including the writer Michel Kilo who was jailed in 2007 for demanding reforms and George Sabra, who ran for presidency of the opposition Syrian National Council.
In an open letter to Christians last week, Sabra said it was not too late to throw their support behind the revolution.
“Your place in the ongoing battle for freedom across the country is still reserved, and your participation is requested,” he wrote. “What is left of a Christian’s Christianity if he is not with the cause of freedom and... building his country?”
Authorities “are spreading fabricated fear in your ranks about your Muslim brothers by talking about al Qaeda and extremist Salafists,” Sabra said.
That message has had little impact in some quarters of Damascus, where Christians, Druzes and Shi‘ite Muslims have formed armed vigilante groups allied to Assad against the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels.
“They want to force us to emigrate like in Iraq. To empty the region of Christians,” said Youssef, outside the Damascus church. “At the start of the crisis we were neutral, although privately we were with the regime.”
“But now we want to arm ourselves in self defense - we have relatives who have been killed”.
Proud of their long history in Syria, which predates the Muslim presence by six centuries, Christians say their culture, literature and arts has been central to Syria’s development.
“Syrian society needs Christians and this is what we want to stress to our children - that however hard the situation, they should be patient,” said Gregorius Lahham, the Greek Melkite Patriarch of Antioch, in Turkey.
But in the courtyard of the Evangelical Church, his efforts to reassure cut little ice.
“Why is Benedict not coming to Damascus to defend our presence?” asked Lina, outside the church. “We are the foundation of this region. Christianity emerged from here and now we see it ending. We are the last Christians here.”
Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny; editing by David Stamp