The editor-in-chief of Syria News, Syria's largest Arabic language news portal with dozens of correspondents across the country, said that in almost five months of protests his team of editors had not seen any video footage in which sectarian slogans could be heard chanted during demonstrations.
In a question and answer session held with readers of his website, which is ranked among the 4,000 most popular websites in the world by Alexa, a web ranking service, Nidal Maalouf also said that no slogans in favour of Sheikh Arour, a Salafist religious leader stirring anti-Alawi sentiments, could be heard or seen in any video his team had seen.
Thousands of demonstrations have been held across Syria since March 15, when the protests demanding more political freedoms and accountability started.
There is little doubt that sectarian sogans have been chanted at times during protests. However, Mr Maalouf's statement appears to confirm what members of the opposition have been saying, i.e. that their movement is largely non-sectarian and that if any anti-Alawi and anti-Christian slogans have been chanted, this has happened only in a very limited number of occurences.
Syria News, a local website, is by far the most read news portal in Syria. Launched in 2002 at a time of timid liberalisation of the media sector, it quickly became very popular by reporting on a broad range of social subjects with relative independence. Besides its network of correspondents across the country it also uses contributions from its readers.
“Any local event that is not on Syria News cannot be found on any other news outlet in Syria,” many Syrian web readers will argue.
In a bid to draw support from the international community, religious minorities and from other constituencies afraid by Syria's potential fall into a civil and sectarian war, the Syrian government has been describing the unrest – which has gradually transformed into a countrywide popular revolt - as driven by sectarian and extremist motives.
Although the government has been unable to provide convincing evidence of an Islamist-financed and backed movement, it has managed to convince large segments of minorities of such a threat, through a carefully orchestrated media campaign and a ban on all international and independent media.
Regime supporters regularly claim that Sheikh Arour, a Sunni cleric that has attempted to stir anti-Alawi and anti-Christian feelings from his base in Saudi Arabia, draws large support among the population and that slogans in his favour are regularly chanted by protesters.
Another slogan that has been regularly chanted, according to regime supporters, is one calling for “sending the Christians to Beirut – the Lebanese capital that has a large Christian population – and the Alawis to the tomb – in Arabic the words for tomb (tabut) and Beirut rhyme. Interestingly enough, no one appears to have ever heard or seen anyone chanting that slogan.