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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In this part of the program, two reports on the uprisings in Northern Africa and the Middle East. We start in Syria where four months of protests and a government crackdown are straining the ethnic and sectarian mix.

The government and military command are dominated by Alawites. That's a minority sect that's an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The protesters are mostly Sunni Muslims. Syrian officials warned of sectarian war if the protests continue, and that message has spread fear among Syria's minority communities; in particular, Syrian Christians.

NPR's Deborah Amos is in Damascus.

DEBORAH AMOS: Ghasan Maadi is worried. He lives in Bab Touma, a Christian neighborhood in central Damascus, a place of cobblestones and church bells. His shop is tiny, the size of a closet, but he's always made a living until now.

Mr. GHASAN MAADI (Shop Owner): The people are afraid now, walking in the streets. They stay most of the time in their houses. They are afraid of spending too much money now.

AMOS: He's convinced that protesters are Muslim extremists, and he wants no part of their demands.

Mr. MAADI: Because they are destroying the Syria in this way.

AMOS: Syria's Christians, about 10 percent of the population, have always been a confident minority. Crosses are worn openly here. Christians have a tacit political alliance with the more powerful Alawites, who dominate the government and the military, and the regime counts on Christian support.

Professor FAWAZ GERGES (Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science): The sectarian divide is real.

AMOS: That's Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East specialist, who made a recent trip to Syria.

Prof. GERGES: The millions of Syrians who have not actively joined the protesters, even though they are unhappy with the authoritarian Syrian regime, they are terrified about the morning after.

(Soundbite of chanting)

AMOS: An Orthodox priest performs an afternoon wedding for a happy bride and groom, but this parish is nervous, says Father Gabriel Daoud. He believes the protest movement is anti-Christian with aims to undo Syria's fiercely secular system. He does acknowledge that some in his community have joined the demonstrations.

Father GABRIEL DAOUD (Syriac Orthodox Church): There's a few Christians, but they are like individuals. They want to push the democracy. They want to push the human rights.

AMOS: Do you think they're right to do what they're doing, those Christians who are?

Father DAOUD: I don't believe in them.

AMOS: What do Syrians believe? Activists say they're fighting for democracy and reform, but pro-government supporters point to other messages. One example, a Syrian Muslim cleric who broadcasts from a private Saudi satellite channel. He preaches sectarian hate, say those who've monitored the broadcasts, and some protesters have chanted his name.

Activist Assad al-Achi charges that Syrian state TV has a part in defining the protest movement as Islamist.

Mr. ASSAD AL-ACHI: They do incite sectarianism sometimes.

AMOS: How?

Mr. AL-ACHI: By really trying to show that this is an uprising by the Sunni fanaticals.

AMOS: Achi moved to Qatar recently for work, but his family is all in Syria. And he watches Syrian TV. He's disturbed by what he sees.

Mr. AL-ACHI: People can see what the Syrian TV is doing. They are laughing at it. They are actually making videos about it to just mock it. But it is at the same time, on the other side, inciting - creating hardliners, I guess.

AMOS: Hardliners on both sides, says Paul Salem. He heads the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, and he says four months of protests have created the divide.

Dr. PAUL SALEM (Director, Carnegie Middle East Center): Yes, I think it has. I don't think it intended to do that, and I think the protests are trying to remain very nationalist and very focused on democratic demands. But once people start getting shot, issues of community and identity certainly are triggered.

AMOS: In a country that's been stable and calm for 30 years, the past four months have been shattering, says Salem. Now, all sides agree it's time for change, and Syrians are aware of the risks.

Dr. SALEM: People in Syria do not want a civil war. People in Syria do not want to end up like Iraq or Lebanon or Libya. This is a very, very, very serious crisis. Sectarian tensions are very high, tensions between elements of the population and the government. The government has apparently lost, on and off, control of certain towns and cities. It is maybe a slow burn, but it is a decided burn.

AMOS: A slow burn by design, says Salem, by those trying to push for change without pushing the country into chaos.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

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