As the Arab Spring continues to unfold and degrade across the Middle East, Christians in Syria find themselves watching with a wary eye to see how their freedoms will be affected by the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Some Syrian Christians believe that Assad has been their friend, since he has provided protection to them as well as to other minority religious groups in a country with a majority Muslim population. Other Christians have sided with the Syrian opposition in the uprising.
In Syria the Assad regime is mostly composed of Alawites, a minority branch of Islam. The opposition in the uprising is led mostly by Sunni Muslims, an Islamic sect to which the vast majority of Muslims adhere. Under Assad's government, Christians, comprising about 10 percent of the Syrian population, have been tolerated and protected. Many Christians in Syria worry that this could change with the current uprising, and they fear persecution under a Sunni-led government. They are apprehensive, not knowing how a government led by the opposition would ultimately treat them.1 Populist democracy, it seems, is not always the friend of minority faiths, nor is autocratic rule necessarily a direct foe-especially in a religiously saturated state, such as Syria.
Spreading American Democracy
Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when U.S. President George W. Bush announced his intention to topple Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime and spread American democracy to the Middle East, many American Christians have bought into the vision, reminiscent of old-time colonialism, that it is America's mission to impose our version of freedom on the rest of the world.
But while the autocratic regimes of Assad, Hussein, and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt all undoubtedly perpetrated their share of brutality and horror, they did at least provide some measure of stability, tolerance, and protection to the minority Christian population within their borders. Democracy, on the other hand, brings with it the fickle will of "we the people" and, often, majoritarian rule without sufficient protection for minorities.
In Iraq, prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Christian presence in the country was close to eight percent of the total population. Saddam's regime was tolerant of Christians and helped to protect them from violence. However, after the Americans effected regime change, Iraqi Christians were targeted, and violence against them skyrocketed. It is estimated that half of the Iraqi Christian population fled the country in the years following the overthrow of Saddam's regime.2
Not far away in Egypt, the Coptic Christian churches have had a long and proud history dating back to the evangelist Mark. Christians currently comprise about 10 percent of the Egyptian population. After the fall of Mubarak's dictatorship, the first truly democratic elections in recent Egyptian history were held. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political movement, gained power, and reports of persecution against Christians in the country are on the rise. 3 It remains to be seen whether this trend will continue and how the revolution will affect Egyptian Christians in the long run.
While all this happens, Syrian Christians are waiting and watching to see what democracy will mean for them. For all its virtues, democracy apparently also has its liabilities. Majority rule is a positive thing only if there are checks and balances to safeguard the rights of those in the minority-both political and religious. This is a truth of which many Christians in Islamic states are acutely aware.
Democracy Sometimes Leads to Persecution
But while many Syrian Christians are fully sensitized to the risks associated with democracy, most American Christians seem to think that democracy, whether in its direct or representative form, is a biblical value. Therefore, for them it only makes sense that America, the land of the free, should export its version of democracy to the world. But for all its virtues, democracy has been successful in America only because of our constitutional protections and certain long-established cultural norms. Chief among these is the First Amendment's mandate that church and state be separated in the United States. As long as this remains the case, those of minority faiths have a better chance of receiving protection in America.
The exalted view of democracy held by many American Christians has likely influenced their belief that the end-time antichrist described in the Bible will be a one-man atheistic dictator who will force people to worship him. However, a careful reading of the biblical book of Revelation and other passages paints a different picture. Revelation implies that the end-time movement to establish a mixed church-state government, which becomes the end-time superpower, is actually a democratic, populist-driven movement, and one with Christian overtones.
In Revelation 13:14 the Bible states that the second beast, symbolic of an end-time superpower, "deceiveth them that dwell on the earth" and then tells "them that dwell on the earth, that they should make an image to the beast, which had the wound by a sword, and did live." That the nation represented here feels it necessary to deceive the people of the earth and command them to make the image (i.e., to set up a government that copies that of the first beast) indicates that the second beast needs the power of the populace to accomplish its goals. As such, this passage indicates that this end-time superpower is a democratic kind of society in which the populace exercises its will through the government.
Additionally, Revelation 13 and 17 clearly portray the end-time church-state coalition assembled by the antichrist as being religious in nature, not an atheistic power. Instead of being a power that is "anti" Christian, the antichrist is a counterfeit religious power symbolized by an adulterous woman (church) that has been unfaithful to her heavenly Spouse. This apostate church forges alliances with the political powers of the earth, and persecution for the true people of God follows.
Contrary to popular speculation in some quarters that Islam is the end-time antichrist, Christians who understand eschatology from a historicist perspective understand that the biblical antichrist power has been in existence since the time of the early church (see 2 Thessalonians 2:7). The apostle Paul understood that the antichrist would be a pseudo-Christian power, arising from within the church after a "falling away" (apostasy), and that this power would sit in the "temple of God" (i.e., the church), deceiving those who would not receive the love of the truth (see verses 3-6). Paul also spoke of a power that would hold back the revealing of the Antichrist power in his day. Perhaps in our day Islam is a power being used of God to hold back the antichrist's final rise to worldwide power after the healing of the deadly wound mentioned in Revelation 13.
As our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria pray and hope that whatever comes next will bring them peace, we are reminded of both the virtues and liabilities of democracy. To be certain, democracy is a good system of governance if it exists within a framework that provides protection for the minority. Perhaps in some societies, though, democracy is not the most practical approach at all. And then, of course, there is Revelation's reminder that democracy, unchecked, is often detrimental to freedom and can even lead to persecution.