VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - Middle East Christians are struggling to keep hope alive with Arab Spring democracy movements promising more political freedom but threatening religious strife that could decimate their dwindling ranks.
Scenes of Egyptian Muslims and Christians protesting side by side in Cairo's Tahrir Square five months ago marked the high point of the euphoric phase when a new era seemed possible for religious minorities chafing under Islamic majority rule.
Since then, violent attacks on churches by Salafists -- a radical Islamist movement once held in check by the region's now weakened or toppled authoritarian regimes -- have convinced Christians their lot has not really improved and could get worse.
"If things don't change for the better, we'll return to what was before, maybe even worse," Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria Antonios Naguib said at a conference this week in Venice on the Arab Spring and Christian-Muslim relations.
"But we hope that will not come about," he told Reuters.
The Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, feared the three-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spelled a bleak future for the 850,000 Christians there.
"If there is a change of regime," he said, "it's the end of Christianity in Syria. I saw what happened in Iraq."
The uncomfortable reality for the Middle East's Christians, whose communities date back to the first centuries of the faith, is that the authoritarian regimes challenged by the Arab Spring often protected them against any Muslim hostility.
Apart from Lebanon, where they make up about one-third of the population and wield political power, Christians are a small and vulnerable minority in Arab countries.
The next largest group, in Egypt, comprises about 10 percent of the population while Christians in other countries are less than 5 percent of the overall total.
Under Saddam Hussein, about 1.5 million Christians lived safely in Iraq. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, so many have fled from Islamist militant attacks that their ranks have shrunk to half that size, out of a population of 30 million.
Arab dictators led secular regimes not to help minorities but to defend themselves against potential Islamist rivals. Christians had no choice but to depend on their favor.
"There was no alternative," said Reverend Milad Sidky Zakhary, director of the Catholic Institute of Religious Sciences in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria.
The conference, organized by the Oasis Foundation led by Venice Cardinal Angelo Scola, brought Middle Eastern Catholic clergy together with European and Arab analysts to examine how the changes in the region could help Christian minorities.
Olivier Roy, a leading French specialist on Islam, said the stress that Arab Spring protesters place on freedom, individual rights and better government could thwart any bid to establish an Iranian-style Islamic republic in the Arab world.
But this trend also meant that the tightly-knit Christian communities could no longer depend on protection as a minority. In an open system, Islamists may stoke American-style "culture war" controversies to set strict religious limits on policies.
"I think we'll have several difficult years," he said.
Tunis Archbishop Maroun Lahham said some Islamists wanted to overturn authoritarian systems to impose sharia as the sole legal system, but noted that "young Arabs, especially Tunisians, do not seem to be too enthralled by the Islamist ideal."
In Algeria, said former Algiers Bishop Henri Teissier, the state fosters Islam but has quietly tolerated a growing group of ex-Muslim converts to evangelical Christianity because they appealed to individual rights as the Arab Spring protesters do.
But in Egypt, where the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic minorities are under heavy pressure from Salafist Muslims, methods the state used to keep Christians in line before President Hosni Mubarak was toppled haven't changed.
When there is a conflict between a Muslim and a Christian, the police still have them hold a "reconciliation session" that usually ends in the Muslim's favor, Naguib said. "They do not refer to the law, to justice or the courts," he said.
Zakhary agreed that laws proclaiming legal equality for all Egyptians are not enforced. "As a Christian, I must hope. But I must recognize that there has been no real progress," he said.
Referring to one of Venice's best-known musicians, he added: "The great Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi wrote the beautiful symphony The Four Seasons. For us Christians in Egypt, there are only three seasons. There is no spring."