TARTUS, Syria — J. Toumajian was shocked when he heard about demonstrators chanting in his small town: “Christians to Beirut; Alawites to tabout [the coffin].”
The murderous slogan was being chanted last July by some fifty Muslim extremists demonstrating against the Syrian government, according to Toumajian, an Armenian Catholic.
Alawites are an offshoot of Shia Islam. President Bashar al Assad is Alawite, and some Syrians believe that Alawites have received preferential treatment under his rule.
Toumajian says he was both afraid and outraged to witness such religious hatred in secular Syria. He says local Muslim leaders quickly repudiated the slogan.
“The Muslim dignitaries came to the Christian areas and said no one will touch you as long as we’re alive.”
The eight-month uprising against Assad’s government has shaken Syria to its core. Government opponents point out that demonstrators include Muslims, Christians, Alawites, and other minorities. They argue that the government is trying to pit religious minorities against the opposition movement.
A small number of extremists do participate in the opposition, concedes Mohammad al Habash, but the vast majority of demonstrators are moderates who seek cooperation with religious minorities. Habash is a member of the Syrian parliament and head of Islamic Studies Center in Damascus.
Habash says the opposition unites secularists, leftists, centrists, and the religiously devout. Islamic activists want to see a moderate form of Islamic government such as exists in Turkey, he says.
“Even the Muslim Brotherhood, the new generation, believes we have to find some way to separate church and state,” he says. “Most of them call for a civil state.”
Christians, Alawites, Druze, and other religious minorities make up about 26 percent of Syria’s population of 22.5 million.
Many Christians fear they will be driven from their homes as happened in neighboring Iraq, says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
If Sunni Muslims dominate a new government in Syria, says Landis, Christians “worry that they will be living in a hostile environment.”
Cars buzz around a traffic circle in Tartus, a city in which Christians and Alawites are a majority. In the center of the traffic circle sits a statute of Syrian dictator Hafez al Assad, father of the current president.
At the beginning of the uprising, Bashar al Assad ordered the dismantling of all his father’s statues in order to remove a flashpoint for demonstrations. But the people of Tartus formed a human barricade to prevent its removal.
“We stood around the statute so no one could take it down,” says Feras Dieb, a local businessman who participated in the event. He is an Alawite.
He notes that Alawites used to face a lot of discrimination and lived in poor, rural areas. Hafez al Assad, who seized power in 1970, has helped Alawites and all Syrians, according to Dieb.
“We have free education and free medical care,” he says. “In each village, he built a high school.”
His sister, Wafaa Dieb, is convinced that extremists control the opposition movement, seeking to install a Taliban-style, fundamentalist regime in Syria. Religious minorities and women would suffer, she argues.
“I don’t want Syria to become like Afghanistan,” she says. “I don’t want to stay home; I want to be able to work.”
Many Alawites joined the Syrian military, so some opposition activists perceive the entire community to be pro-Assad.
“Every extended Alawite family has a member in the military,” says Prof. Landis. “It will be like the Sunnis in Iraq. They will be cast out when there’s regime change.”
Others argue that Syria’s history of diversity and secular tolerance will be maintained whoever comes to power.
Father Elias Zahlaoui, a Melkite Catholic priest in Damascus, sharply criticizes the lack of democracy in Syria. He advocates negotiation between the two sides.
“We had one party grab power here in Syria,” he says. “But democratic changes won’t happen overnight.”
He believes that Assad with follow through on promised reforms, including competitive parliamentary elections scheduled for February. “The country must be at peace to have all these things.”
Opposition leaders, however, have rejected negotiations as a trap that would allow continued one-party rule.