DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Church bells mingle with calls to prayer from mosques in the Old City of Damascus, home to Christian communities rooted here long before the Islamic era.
“Many Muslims feel they own the truth. Many Christians do too,” said Mayssa Rumman, who runs a tiny, lovingly restored hotel in Bab Touma, a Christian quarter of the Old City.
“But we don’t fight about it and it doesn’t stop us from being neighbors or from working with each other,” she said.
Syria’s dwindling Christians coexist with their Muslim compatriots in a country many of them see as a safe haven, in a region where religious minorities often struggle for survival.
Pope Benedict XVI is so worried about how Christians are faring in a conflict-prone Middle East that he has called bishops to the Vatican in October to consider their plight.
A document he presented on Sunday during a visit to Cyprus blames the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, the Iraq war, divisions in Lebanon and rising political Islam in Egypt for accelerating migration that disproportionately erodes the Christian presence.
Syria remains a relatively benign place for Christians, who nevertheless fear any spillover of regional conflicts and the rise of Islamist movements that might restrict their freedoms.
Muslims and Christians enjoy equal rights here, apart from a constitutional stipulation that the president must be a Muslim.
They also face the same restrictions on political freedom in a country that has known only firm Baath Party rule since 1963.
As the Vatican document puts it, without naming Syria: “In other countries, authoritarianism or dictatorships force the population, Christians included, to bear everything in silence so as to safeguard the essential aspects of living.”
Samer Lahham, a layman who runs ecumenical relations at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus, told Reuters that the Syrian government “really puts religion aside,” noting that passports and identity cards make no mention of religion.
“Secularism plays a very important role, enabling minorities to live in peace and dignity and get access to their rights. We are allowed to build new churches, institutions and schools.”
But Christians were uncomfortably aware of the “fanaticism and extremism” preached by some Islamists elsewhere, he said.
“They are everywhere, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, so nobody can ignore the trend,” Lahham said, adding that moderate Muslims were also alarmed at potential damage to the social fabric.
President Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, crushed an armed uprising by Islamists belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood group in the early 1980s. Islamic influence has spread in society since then, as elsewhere in the Middle East, with the government seeking to co-opt moderate Muslim leaders.
Syrian Christians also fear being tarred by association with the West, whose support for Israel and military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have fueled hostility among Muslims.
“Fanatic groups under religious names refer to what has happened since 9/11, the war against Iraq, as a war between the Christianity and Islam, between West and East,” Lahham said.
Assad, who inherited power when his father died in 2000, belongs to Syria’s Alawite Muslim minority and has shown a solicitous attitude toward Christians, who in turn have supported the secular, Baathist order.
“The fact that Iraqi Christians became a special target of Islamist prejudice and general banditry and extortion following America’s destruction of the Baathist regime in 2003 only drove home the vulnerability of Syrian Christians,” said Joshua Landis, a Middle Eastern scholar at the University of Oklahoma.
“Syria is the only country in the Islamic world in which school textbooks — those required in religion classes in government schools — state in simple language that Christians will go to heaven just as Muslims do,” Landis said.
Assad and his wife Asma both attended schools originally established and run by Christians.
Still, the Christian community, reckoned to form 10 percent of Syria’s population in the 1940s, is shrinking — parish statistics gathered by church leaders suggest that Christians now make up only six percent, Landis said.
The decline is due to faster emigration and lower birth rates among Christians than Muslims — a trend linked to their generally higher levels of education and urbanization. Family ties with Syrian Christian emigre communities make it easier for Western-looking Christians to find new homes abroad.
“Economic problems motivate many people to leave, not only Christians but Muslims too,” said Lahham, at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, off the Old City’s Biblical Straight Street.
“We are becoming a much tinier minority, but that doesn’t mean we don’t contribute to society. Our institutions, schools, hospitals and educated people can help develop society and maintain harmonious coexistence,” he said.
Murhaf Jouejati, professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University in Washington DC, said a quest for jobs, rather than any fear factor, was the main reason for Christians to emigrate, even though they had benefited from the new openness of the Syrian economy.
“Nonetheless, Christian Syrians are part and parcel of Christians in the Middle East and they do feel the rise of a brand of Islam that did not exist before,” Jouejati said.
The flow of migrants is not all one way.
Rumman, the Christian hotelier, has moved back to Damascus although her whole family moved to the United States in 1986.
“I love the States. We were very lucky to go there and my kids are American, but when they come here they can sense the good things we have here and don’t have there,” she said.
Returning to buy and renovate the hotel had changed even her own views of Syria, colored by 20 years of living in America.
“We have Muslim and Christian employees. The Muslims believe in their Koran. They don’t believe Jesus is God. I don’t believe in the hijab (headscarf),” she said, sipping tea among potted plants on a roof-top terrace, overlooked by a church dome.
“But I can believe and practice my Christianity and I can be friends and work with the rest of the people who don’t believe what I believe. This is what I felt here.”
Editing by Dominic Evans