Rocking the boat of Syrian religious tolerance

With more than 4,000 years of history, Damascus, like the rest of Syria, has been home to multiple faiths. But with the recent political unrest, many are starting to wonder whether this delicate balance of religious tolerance may soon be gone.

­Protests in Syria started out with political slogans. But when violence breaks out, people come to blows over issues of faith, not politics.

For now, Huda is enjoying the quiet comfort of her home. Like most Christians in the country, it is a life she has been used to since her childhood.

“I was growing up in a place with Christians, Jews, Muslims, and everyone got along just fine. We still do, actually,” she says.

But it is not like this everywhere. More than 70 per cent of the Syrian population is Muslim, and just like Christians, most Muslims here belong to different branches of the religion.

Take, for example, the president himself. Bashar al-Assad is a follower of the Alawite branch of Islam, whose followers are a minority among the predominantly Sunni population. So, some of those dissatisfied with the current regime have been directing their animosity towards all Alawites.

“If some have a problem with the government, and because [the regime] belongs to this sect, they have to fight against this sect,” an independent member of the Syrian parliament told RT.

And it can be a bloody battle, indeed, as Nizha Ali Ibrahim, an Alawite Muslim who recently lost her son, knows only too well.

“I don't know why my son was killed. He was just working in a shop, and his killers knew that he was not politically active,” she explains. “But they also knew he was an Alawite, and that must have been reason good enough for murder.”

Such violence is something that is new to Syria, where religious minorities have a special status largely because the country's leader is himself a member of one.

“We are protected by law, which allows us to live according to our customs,” Huda continued. “Since the protests started, a lot has changed… and it's strange for us. It [the source of the intolerance] must be coming from the outside.”

Whoever is rocking the boat of Syrian religious tolerance, they are not reaching their goal just yet. The prevailing attitude on the streets is still that of acceptance. But if the political unrest worsens, the lives of many religious minorities in Syria could be at stake.

Meanwhile, Russia continues its calls for the Syrian leader Bashar Assad to end the bloodshed and implement promised reforms. But as human rights activists report six more people killed as government forces continue their crackdown on protesters, it looks as if the appeals are falling on deaf ears.