Syria: Christians vulnerable as regional power struggles unfold


By Elizabeth Kendal

As US-allied dictators fell in Tunisia and Egypt, Iran scoffed while the US-allied dictators in the House of Saud shuddered. Everything changed, however, when Bahraini and Saudi forces, with the tacit approval of the US, crushed the ‘pro-democracy’ protests at Pearl roundabout. The media are confused by what they see as ‘mixed responses’ because they fail to realise that who falls is far less important than who rises. In Bahrain the protesters were Shi’ites; their success would have been Iran’s gain. When dissent was crushed in Bahrain, the ‘Arab Spring’ transformed into a struggle over the regional balance of power. For decades, the US – Sunni Arab axis prevailed. Then the Iraq War opened the way for Shi’ite Persian Iran to gain the ascendancy. As the struggle for the regional balance of power heats up, Syria becomes absolutely pivotal.

Syrian protests

Syria is 90 percent Sunni Arab, yet it is central — both geographically and strategically — to the Iran-Syria-Hezballah (Shi’ite) axis. This situation arose because the ruling Assad family belong to the obscure Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ism considered heretical across Islam. Needing allies, Syria’s former president Hafiz al-Assad (father of the current president Bashar al-Assad) forged close bonds with Musa al-Sadr, the most prominent Shi’ite leader in Lebanon. In 1973 al-Sadr issued a fatwa recognising Lebanon’s Alawites as Shi’ites. This was not only a coup for the Alawites, it was vital for the region’s Shi’ites, for without Syria there would be no ‘Shi’ite Crescent’.

In 1980 the Assad regime formed a strategic alliance with Iran. Since then, Iranian Revolutionary Guards have served alongside Syrian Republican Guards protecting the Assad regime. It also resulted in Iranian Shi’ite missionaries having free range in mostly Sunni Syria. Relations with Iran have only grown stronger since Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000. Hundreds of thousands of Iranian and Iraqi Shi’ites have since been naturalised as Syrian citizens.

However, nothing has drawn Syria’s Sunni masses to the Iran-Syria-Hezballah axis as did Hezballah’s 2006 war against Israel. While Syria is still only around one percent Shi’ite, Shi’ism has been popularised to the extent that analysts talk of ‘Shi’itization’. Naturally this horrifies the Muslim Brotherhood and the US-Saudi axis. While Israel, the US and the Saudis would love to prise Syria out of the Iran-Hezballah axis, Iran and Hezballah cannot afford to lose Syria if they are to remain ascendant. Consequently Iranian forces are aiding the Assad regime while Salafi jihadists from Saudi Arabia are aiding the Syrian opposition. Now Syria risks being torn apart by an Iraq-style sectarian conflagration over the regional balance of power. Should this eventuate, Syria — like Iraq — will drown in blood.

There are about 1.4 million Christians in Syria, comprising 6.3 percent of the total Syrian population (Operat ion World). Furthermore, Syria hosts some 1.2 million Iraqi refugees, including hundreds of thousands of Assyrian and Chaldean Christians and Mandaeans. Because Syria has been Baathist (secular and socialist, as was Iraq), repression has been political, not religious and Christians have had a higher degree of freedom in Syria than those in other Muslim states where Sharia is observed.
Most Syrian Christians are deeply concerned that if the regime loses control, they will suffer immensely in the resultant chaos. Consequently, Syrian Christians are maintaining a very low-key approach both politically and religiously. They kept their observance of Easter very quiet this year, cancelling traditional public processions and celebrations. The riots have not been sectarian yet, being rooted in grievances that are social (repression and inequality) and economic (unemployment plus massive fuel and food price hikes). However, the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Gregory III Laham, has cautioned that criminals have b ecome involved now and weapons are flooding in. What is more, he adds, there are fundamentalist Muslims calling for jihad.


impart wisdom and restraint to all world leaders involved: the al-Assad regime in Syria; the Iranian regime; the House of Saud; the US administration; the Israeli, Lebanese and Turkish governments; and that a solution will be found to avert collapse and restore peace, for the sake of the Church and the nation. (Proverbs 21:1)
 fill all Syria’s Christian leaders with great spiritual wisdom and authority, that they will be able to lead God’s people according to God’s purposes.
comfort and encourage all Syria’s Christians with his presence, and draw them into prayer and Christian unity, that they will grow in grace, faith, brotherly love and sanctification, to the glory of God.

Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. This prayer bulletin was initially written for the Australian Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission


  1. Shias are massacring Sunnis in Syria with the help of Iran. Shia are worst enemies of Islam. Oh, Sunnis of world help Syrian Sunni.

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