Syria's Christians do not support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but they do want stability in their war-torn country, Lebanon's Maronite Christian Patriarch Bishara Rai told AFP on Thursday.
"I tell Westerners who say that we (Christians) are with the Syrian regime that we are not with regimes, we are with the state. There is a big difference," Rai told AFP, a week before the arrival in Lebanon of Pope Benedict XVI.
"In Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was removed, we lost a million Christians," he said at the patriarchal residence in Diman in northwest Lebanon. "Why? Not because the regime fell, but because there was no more authority, there was a vacuum."
The number of Christians in Iraq fell from one million under the regime of Saddam to 4,000 currently, following a wave of deadly attacks by Islamist extremist groups which triggered an exodus of Christians,
"In Syria, it's the same thing, Christians do not back the regime but they are afraid of what may come next, that is their feeling," said Rai.
The Islamist tide in the so-called Arab Spring countries has frightened many Christians, who are a minority in every Middle Eastern country and are concerned for their survival should the multi-religious nature of the region change.
Christians in Syria constitute one of the Middle East's oldest communities, though they number just five percent of a population of 22 million. Ever since the rise to power of the ruling Baath party -- led by the Alawite majority -- they have also enjoyed religious freedom.
The Alawite community, which accounts for some 10 percent of the total population, follows an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Many members of religious minorities in Syria fear that extremist Sunni Muslims, whose community has borne the brunt of the regime's repression, might stage revenge attacks should President Bashar al-Assad fall.
-- What future for Christians of the East --
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"We wonder all the time what might happen in the future to the Christians of the East," said Rai, one of the region's most influential Christian figures. "In times of war, economic crisis and insecurity, everybody suffers, Christians and Muslims."
"Unfortunately, they have sometimes suffered attacks, such as in Egypt and in Iraq," said Rai. "In Syria, Christians have suffered the same fate as others, and when Homs (in central Syria) and Aleppo (in the north) were bombed, they fled."
"Who has attacked the Christians? Not moderate Muslims, who are the majority, but rather, the fundamentalists, who treat them as infidels," said the patriarch.
He said Christians in the Middle East should not be treated as "second-class citizens."
"I reject Christians being treated as minorities requiring protection," he said. "They have been here for 2,000 years, starting with the advent of Christ, and they played a role in their respective countries, like the Muslims."
The Maronites are an eastern Catholic church in communion with the Holy See whose history dates back to what is now Syria in the 5th century. By the mid-8th century, most of them had moved to what is now Lebanon, where they constitute the largest of many Christian denominations.
The conflict in Syria has spilled over into Lebanon, where both Christians and Muslims alike are divided into supporters and opponents of the Damascus regime.
These differences have sparked deadly sectarian battles, mostly in Tripoli, Lebanon's second city in the north.
"In Lebanon, we must try to build unity... it cannot be done by magic," said the patriarch.
He also hoped that Pope Benedict XVI will insist on delivering a message calling for "coexistence" between Muslims and Christians when he visits Lebanon on September 15-16.