Syrian Christians Rise, Unite to Oust Assad

On a rainy Friday in Washington, I gathered with passionate members of a Syrian opposition group representing a minority whose voices must be heard in the revolution and in the new Syria.

What, I asked the Syrian Christians for Democracy assembled around tables pushed together in the lounge of the Hotel George, is the one thing that Americans need to know about Bashar al-Assad?

"He's killing kids," Maroneh native and Boston diaspora leader Essam Francis answered succinctly.

As Christians, as Syrians, these activists were brought together by the bloodshed sown by the brutal regime that has slain about 8,500, according to the latest United Nations estimates, including the massacre of entire families this week in Homs -- 16 members of the Tahhan family, 20 of the Rifaei family, and more, according to the chilling reports of the Local Coordination Committees of Syria.

"Each member of the organization was against the regime on his own," said Roy Tohme, secretary for the group. "Most of our members are veterans against Assad."

That includes Jries Altalli, who spent nine years as a political prisoner and whose daughter is a member of the Syrian National Council; Walid Phares, who is advising the fledgling organization; and George Stifo, communications director for the group, president of the Assyrian Democratic Organization, and a member of the SNC (which is about 8-10 percent Christian).

"Many of the Christians in the Middle East were terrified of the results, seeing what happened in countries such as Iraq and Libya and Egypt," Stifo said. "It began to scare them of what could happen also in Syria. So we saw a lot of the Christians staying out of this completely."

He said that it's not true that the majority of Christians in Syria back the regime, but remained a "silent majority" out of uncertainty about the present and future.

"Our organization looked at this and said, well, it's taking so long for Christians to make a move," Stifo said. "We are with the revolution, and the regime was using this claim that Christians were backing them, that the minorities are all with the regime, and using this as leverage for them to stay in power."

"So we decided to show that, no, the majority of Christians are not with the regime."

The SCD was launched in December, nine months after the Syrian revolution began in earnest. In addition to uniting Christians on the ground in opposition to Assad, the organization wanted Christians inside and outside Syria -- who have offered lots of support to the group -- to know that they have someone to speak for them.

"You will have a voice outside this country," Stifo said. "You will have a voice in the future as well. We don't want you to feel isolated and alone in this fight. Those of you who are fighting, you have an ally, and those of you who are not fighting, if you decide to, we are here to help."

The new constitution put forth by Assad last month, which the regime claims was overwhelmingly approved, "treats Christians as second- or third-class citizens," he added. "It has pushed the Christians to look past this regime."

The members said that Muslims in the revolution have been supportive of the group's founding.

"Muslims are also very helpful, very receptive, understanding," Stifo said, even "joyful to see a group of non-Muslims saying openly, we are against this regime in support of the revolution. It gave them hope that, OK, the regime is saying that minorities are with them; it's not true."

"It's a mutually beneficial relationship," Tohme said, adding that they might not be best friends and will probably have to democratically duke it out in the new Syria. "We may have our diverging views of what the future Syria looks like."

Francis noted that the support publicly shown for the opposition by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri actually looks like a ploy to aid Assad.

"The Syrian regime helped al-Qaeda kill Americans in Iraq," he said. "For al-Zawahiri to say something against the Syrian regime is not right. He did a favor for the regime to do that. He gave them reason to kill a lot more people."

Executive director Ayman Abdel Nour said that the regime met several months into the uprising, when it found itself under fire for killing innocent, unarmed civilians, and decided to lay government weapons at the doorsteps of some of the country's citizens along with some nasty rumors.

"They tell the minorities that the Muslim Sunnis are coming to kill you in order to change the civil unarmed demonstrations in the streets into clash with rebels," Abdel Nour said of Assad's plan "to make them all fractions against each other and forget about it."

"It is invented by the regime and it will die with the regime," he said.

The regime quickly latched onto the new Christian organization that brings together the 11 sects living in the country, attacking the SCD as Zionist, American, CIA, you name it.