Full transcript of interview with George Stifo, spokesman of Syrian Christians forDemocracy. Article can be found here (Portuguese).
How representative are the Syrian Christians for Democracy of the Syrian Christian population?
Syrian Christians for Democracy is a new organization that was established almost two months ago. The point for establishing it was to show that Christians are represented in the on-going revolution and that we are supportive of the revolution.
Syrian Christians for Democracy consists of 13 people who established the organization and who are from all the different denominations and churches of the Christian community. We have Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, as well as different ethnic communities such as Assyrians, Armenians and Arabs.
Up to what point do you represent the Christians who are actually in Syria and who in their public declarations up to now have seemed to be either sitting on the fence or supportive of the regime?
Currently we are receiving many messages of support from Christians in Syria. We are not a political organization, as much as a lobby group for Christians who are residing in Syria. What we are doing is trying to help the people in the country, and we are receiving a lot of support from people inside the country. Many groups and individuals as well as political organizations have spoken to us and shown support of our organization.
These include Syrian Christians in Syria?
Many have contacted us, asking to join, asking to support, and to help in any way, shape or form.
When we see images of the protests, are there Christians on the streets as well?
Syrian Christians have been protesting since the beginning. One of the main organizations doing so is the Assyrian Democratic Organization. They have been public about it, their members have been detained and arrested. They have been attacked. Other Christians in other areas whether in Damascus, Homs or suburbs of Damascus have been protesting. Many have been detained, some have been killed.
In many cities, mainly Homs and suburbs of Damascus you’ll see many Christians protesting alongside their Muslim brothers, this is a country that unites all different groups and Christians are no different from any other group. Christians are indigenous to the land of Syria, they have been there for thousands of years, they have been fighting the battles of the country for thousands of years, and this is another battle for the people of Syria and the Syrian Christians are a part of this community, will support it, have been supporting and will continue to support the revolution.
Hierarchies have been either wavering or outright in their support for the regime. Are they constrained in their freedom to speak, or do they genuinely like the regime?
Usually we know that dictatorships do not allow people to speak their mind. The hierarchies are under heavy watch from the Syrian government. So what happens is that they are constrained from speaking. If you notice in the recent months their tone has shifted from pure support to being passive and calling for peace and an end to violence. We have noticed that some of the Patriarchs, including the Melkite Patriarch has openly said that the Christians of Syria are not bound by any regime or person, and they are not bound by any regime or person and they are supportive of any regime that rules the country as long as that person or group receives the support of the people. We understand the kind of constraints that the hierarchies are under, and we notice that most of them do not speak, and the ones who do are bound by what the Government tells them to do. We have lived in these countries for years and we know what’s going on and we know how they act, how they harass people and scare people, how they attack them and their families. This has been going on for decades, it’s nothing new, and it will continue as long as the regime exists.
Syrian Christians look to Iraq and Egypt, and they worry that the same will happen in Syria. Is there a real risk of sectarian conflict?
These fears are understandable, especially from minorities. Human nature teaches us that we are afraid of the future, especially if we don’t know what the future is. In the case of minorities it is even scarier, especially because of what happened in Iraq in the past years. However, what happens is that there are changes coming to the region and certain Christians recognize that, and they are trying to see which side of the opposition is going to support them, and most of the opposition and the public has been openly speaking about a Government which will be civil or secular in nature, and democratic.
Christians are not tied by a single individual or regime. We are a group within Syria, we are part of the community and not a single group or Government represents us. One of our goals is to calm these fears and make sure that the opposition and any group working for the future of Syria, has the best interests of the Syrian people, including Syrian Christians, and that the rights of Christians are represented in the future Government of Syria and that Christians are represented in these opposition groups and the Syrian Government. This is our goal and we are working hard on this, and we will try to get the support of other Syrian Christians that are working on this in Syria and we will all continue to work hard to make sure that every group within Syria and the opposition to the Syrian Government does recognize Syrian Christians and their rights in the future of Syria.
Could Christians become tainted by association to this regime and suffer a backlash if it falls?
There are many Syrian Christians participating in the protests, and they have been vocal. Many of the opposition groups have been Christian Syrians. The current regime does not constitute a single group, it’s a combination of different groups, it has every single sect and denomination within it and the people of Syria recognize this. So the issue of a backlash won’t affect the entire population, a few individuals might be tainted by it, those who have openly spoken in favour of the regime and who are fighting alongside it against the people, however the opposition groups have openly been saying that people will not be targeted in the future, they will make sure this will not happen. Everybody is seeking a civil country based on law, so anybody who has been killing or stealing the money of the people will be tried in a court of law. Other than that, a backlash might take place on an individual basis, but we don’t believe that will be the case, or that we should fear this. The people of Syria have been living together for thousands of years without any issues. We do not believe that the future is going to be any different.