By Michael Stott and Samia Nakhoul
BKIRKI, Lebanon (Reuters) - Violence and bloodshed is turning the "Arab Spring" into winter, the head of Lebanon's Maronite Church said, threatening Christians and Muslims alike across the Middle East.
Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, whose Maronite Church also has a strong presence in Syria, said change could not be brought to the Arab world by force and that Christians feared the turmoil was helping extremist Muslim groups.
"We are with the Arab Spring but we are not with this spring of violence, war, destruction and killing. This is turning to winter," Rai told Reuters in Bkirki, seat of the Maronite church in hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea north of Beirut.
The upheaval sweeping through the Arab world, toppling four veteran leaders, gave voice to millions of people who suffered decades of repression. But it also brought conflict in Libya and has tipped Syria toward civil war.
"We say that we cannot implement reforms by force and arms. No one can guess the scale of the great losses and damage which could result," said Rai, speaking this week in an ornately decorated reception room in the patriarchate in Bkirki.
Unlike the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 which overthrew Saddam Hussein, the Arab uprisings started as largely grassroot protests against entrenched leaderships.
But Rai, who attended a memorial service in Iraq last year for Christians killed in an attack on a Baghdad church, drew a parallel between Iraq and the rest of the Arab world, saying Christians could bear a disproportionate share of the suffering.
"How can it be an Arab Spring when people are being killed every day?" he said. "They speak of Iraq and democracy, and one million Christians out of an original 1.5 million have fled Iraq."
The patriarch said all communities in the Middle East were threatened by "war and violence, economic and security crises," but Christians were particularly vulnerable because of their relatively small and dwindling numbers.
Maronites, who have a presence in Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus, follow an Eastern rite of the Roman Catholic church and number about 900,000 in Lebanon, around a quarter of the population.
Lebanon's Maronite leaders have had tense relations with Syria and led calls for an end to its military presence in Lebanon in 2005.
But since protests erupted against President Bashar al-Assad many Christians have been uneasy about supporting the increasingly militarized and mainly Sunni Muslim uprising against his secular Baath Party, which ensured freedom of belief for minority faiths.
The 72-year-old Rai, elected patriarch on the same day in March last year that serious protest first broke out in Damascus against Assad, said Maronites were neither supporting nor opposing the Syrian authorities.
"Syria, like other countries, needs reforms which the people are demanding," he said. "It's true that the Syrian Baath regime is an extreme and dictatorial regime but there are many others like it in the Arab world."
"All regimes in the Arab world have Islam as a state religion, except for Syria. It stands out for not saying it is an Islamic state ... The closest thing to democracy (in the Arab world) is Syria."
"We are not defending it. But we regret that Syria, which wants to take a step forward ... is undergoing this violence and destruction and (use of) power and weapons."
The United Nations says more than 7,500 people have been killed in the uprising and puts the blame for the bloodshed mainly on Assad's government, saying it has reports of summary executions, imprisonment and torture by authorities.
Syrian government forces have bombarded opposition districts of the city of Homs for weeks, killing and wounding civilians cowering in its ruined buildings.
Assad's government said in December more than 2,000 police and soldiers had been killed by what it describes as "terrorist armed groups," backed by foreign powers, which it says are trying to stir up violence in Syria.
Rai has expressed fears the Arab uprisings could replace autocratic leaders with radical Islamic groups, and said extremist groups were getting foreign support.
"It's not the people who want them. There are countries behind them, supporting them financially and militarily and politically," he said. "Moderate people do not want them."
"We do not speak out against any sect and we do not fear moderate Islam. We fear the extremists groups that use the language of violence."
Many Lebanese of all religions, still recovering from their ruinous 1975-1990 civil war, fear the violence in Syria will upset their own fragile sectarian balance and could push the country toward its own renewed conflict.
Rai said Lebanese were divided by events across the border, and he feared the shockwaves could have an impact in Lebanon, home to Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims, Maronite and Orthodox Christians, Druzes and Alawites - the same sect as Assad.
Two people were killed in street battles in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli three weeks ago between Alawite supporters of Assad and Sunni Muslims who back the uprising against him.
"God forbid that the conflict turns into a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Alawites," said Rai.
"In Tripoli we have Alawites and the situation there is like a fire (smoldering) under the ashes."
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Sophie Hares)