BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria's minority Christians are watching the protests sweeping their country with trepidation, fearing their religious freedom could be threatened if President Bashar al-Assad's autocratic but secular rule is overthrown.
Sunni Muslims form a majority in Syria, but under four decades of rule by Assad's minority Alawites the country's varied religious groups have enjoyed the right to practice their faith.
Calls for Muslim prayers ring out alongside church bells in Damascus, where the apostle Paul started his ministry and Christians have worshipped for two millennia.
But for many Syrian Christians, the flight of their brethren from sectarian conflict in neighbouring Iraq and recent attacks on Christians in Egypt have highlighted the dangers they fear they will face if Assad succumbs to the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world.
"Definitely the Christians in Syria support Bashar al-Assad. They hope that this storm will not spread," Yohana Ibrahim, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, told Reuters.
Protests erupted in Syria two months ago, triggered by anger and frustration at widespread corruption and lack of freedom in the country ruled with an iron fist by the Assad family for nearly half a century.
Although some Christians may be participating in the protests, church institutions have not supported them.
Christians contacted by Reuters said they backed calls for reform but not the demands for "regime change", which they said could fragment Syria and give the upper hand possibly to Islamist groups that would deny them religious freedom.
"The Christians in Syria -- whether Orthodox, Armenians, Maronites, Anglicans, Assyrians or Catholics -- consider themselves first (Syrian) citizens, the sons of the land," said Habib Afram, president of the Syriac League.
"The general atmosphere from the churches' positions and from Christian figures is fixed on stability and security because religious freedom is absolutely guaranteed in Syria," he said.
Syria's Christian community is believed to make up around six percent of the population, down from 10 percent at the middle of the last century.
Christians have equal rights -- and the same restriction on political freedom -- as Muslims, apart from a constitutional stipulation that the president must be a Muslim.
"Our ethnicity or language may not be recognised and we are not allowed to form a party, but this is the case of all Syrians," a church source said, adding that the choice for minorities in the Middle East was "to be ruled by the military or the turban of a cleric."
In a region where minorities face growing challenges, and where tensions between Sunni Muslims and Shi'ite Muslims are on the rise, Syria still feels like a refuge to many Christians.
Iraqi Christians have frequently been targeted in violence which followed the U.S. invasion in 2003. Fifty two people were killed in an assault on a Baghdad cathedral last October.
In Egypt, where a popular uprising overthrew strongman Hosni Mubarak in February, 12 people died in a Cairo suburb last week in fighting sparked by rumours that Christians had abducted a woman who converted to Islam.
"The change that came at the hand of the American army in Iraq did not protect the Christians and the change that came from the people in Egypt could not protect the Christians," the source said.
"Minorities are paying the price in these revolutions".
Some Christians detect the same sectarianism in chants at recent Syrian protests.
Samer Lahham, who runs ecumenical relations at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus, said the fact that protests have broken out mainly after weekly Muslim prayers -- which offer a rare chance for Syrians to gather legally -- had lent a "religious identity" to the demonstrations.
"Christians cannot be part of such action, although they support tangible reformations at different levels, slowly but steadily," he said. "They fear the hidden plan is to transform Syria into a religious system governed by those who... do not have the culture of accepting the other," said Lahham.
Assad's father, Hafez, crushed an armed uprising by Islamists belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood group in the early 1980s. Islamic influence has spread in society since then, as elsewhere in the Middle East, with the government seeking to co-opt moderate Muslim leaders.
Ibrahim said that the churches are not encouraging people to take part in demonstrations nor to be involved in acts seen hostile to Assad's rule.
"In every speech we talk about awareness and that we should be vigilant to stay away from what could affect our presence."
"We have the same views (as protesters) against corruption and bribery, and with reforms but all of these demands should not lead me to participate in ruining my home and destroying my country," Ibrahim said.
"I can guarantee that 80 percent of the people come to the church to hear what the church say about (protests), and they commit (to its position)," the archbishop added.
Editing by Dominic Evans