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from issue no. 02 - 2007

SYRIA. The Christian communities

The “rogue State”, refuge for Christians

Bush’s advisers aimed to overturn it after “liberating” Iraq. Yet today Assad’s “Baathist” regime is watching over the daily life of Christian communities of apostolic tradition. Who now fear the Iraqi contagion

by Gianni Valente

They built the church of Saint Paul close to the Bab Kissan gate. In those parts the walls of Damascus still remember the night that Saul had to escape the city, lowered in a basket by his new friends, to get away from those who wanted to get rid of him. The former persecutor of Christians, as soon as he was baptized by Ananias after having met the Lord on the road to Damascus, precisely there began to «proclaim Jesus Son of God» in the synagogues. For that reason the scandalized Damascene Jews «also kept watch night and day on the gates of the city to do away with him».
If the Damascus of that time had become an untrustworthy and dangerous place for Paul, for many that bear the name of Christ the exact contrary seems to have been happening for quite a long time. It has been for at least a century that when the Christians in the Middle East flee they often flee to Damascus and other cities in Syria. The Christian Iraqis who came to escape the violence and persecution that broke out in their maddened country are only the last of the series. It had already happened to the Armenians who in 1915 fled from the massacres fomented by the Young Turks in Anatolia, and then to the Assyrians fleeing Iraq in the ’Thirties, when the newly independent state had bloodily suppressed their separatist aspirations (stirred by the false promises of the preceding British Protectorate).
It is an eloquent geopolitical paradox and yet altogether repressed that the country till now assigned ex officio by the Bush administration to the so-called “Axis of Evil” should be a kind of protected shelter for the Christians of the Middle East area. A “vocation” that results mainly from a cocktail of fortuitous historical circumstances, ancient and recent. And that explains at least in part the variegated features of the Christianity present in Syria, a true kaleidoscope of ceremonies and traditions (around a million faithful, out of a population of almost twenty million, with eleven hierarchies and different communities, with as many as three Patriarchs of Oriental Churches that have their Sees in Damascus, de facto and consciously heir to the Apostolic See of Antioch).

Muslim pilgrims resting by the Dome 
of Clocks, in the courtyard of the Umayyad mosque

Muslim pilgrims resting by the Dome of Clocks, in the courtyard of the Umayyad mosque

From Saint Paul to the French
After Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem, the most important places of pilgrimage in the Middle East are in Syria: places such as the hill sanctuary of Saint Tecla, a disciple of Paul, or the sanctuary of Our Lady of Saidnaya, that carefully conserves under lock and key an icon attributed to Saint Luke. Places of prayer going back to the 4th and 5th centuries, which one enters barefoot as in the mosques. West of Aleppo, the ruins of thousands of churches scattered in the famous ninety “dead cities” testify to the triumphant flowering of the Christian Syria of Antioch tradition, very early put in question by the establishment of the monophysite doctrine that the Syriac Christians embraced not least as a religious mark to distinguish them from their Byzantine masters. In the seventh century, when under the Umayyad Damascus became the capital of the first Islamic empire, the new power left ample space to the Arab and Arabized Christians of Syria. Saint John Damascene, son of an official of the caliph of Damascus, is the most famous example of the long-lasting importance of the Christian community englobed in the nascent Islamic civilization. «Those who remain faithful to their Church Arabize en masse […]. It was thanks to the Christians of Syria that the conquerors came into contact with ancient thought and garnered its immense legacy» (J. P. Valognes, Vie et mort des chrétiens d‘Orient, Fayard, Paris 1995, p. 704). The life of the Christians became more difficult with the coming of the Abbasids and more bitter still because of the fierce reprisals of the Mamelukes after the Crusades. The long Ottoman period was also to be dotted with anti-Christian violence and pogroms that mainly broke out when «the Christians appeared as the pretext for European interference» (ibid, p. 707). But in the calm periods the Christians were able to flourish with their commercial and intellectual activities. At the end of the 19th century, under the Turkish dominion, the Christian presses and the Arabic texts they printed were among the factors inspiring the cultural and politic renaissance of the “Arabness” that was to flow into the movement for national independence. After the First World War, the period of the French mandate, beginning in 1921, was to give an original and lasting mould to relations between the Christian community and political power in Syria. While in Lebanon the mandatory power tried to encourage the creation of a Christian state, fossilizing the relations of force among the religious confessions in a static partition of power, in Syria, where the Christians were in the minority, the opposite path was taken in some respects. The Constitution of 1930, inspired not least by the Christian jurist Edmond Rabbath, softened confessional divisions and the risks of religious conflict in Arabic unanimity, prescribing the total neutrality of the civic power towards the diverse religious communities. A “secularizing” model that was a bulwark protecting the Christians. When independence came in 1943 Muslim circles demanded the abolition of the “decrees of secularization” introduced during the period of the Mandate. The new Constitution drafted in the early ’Fifties, did not define Islam as the State religion despite pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood, limiting itself to prescribing the necessity for the President to belong to the Islamic religion. In those years individual Christians who had stood out for their support of national independence played a notable political role: Fares al-Khoury, a Christian political leader in the period of the Mandate, was twice elected (1945 and 1954) Prime Minister (something that would have been unimaginable in Iraq or in Egypt).

Boys working in the al-Bzouriah suq 
in Damascus

Boys working in the al-Bzouriah suq in Damascus

The Alawite variant
From the late ’Forties the secularising pan-Arab nationalism – in the conception of which Christian Syrians and Lebanese thinkers such as Michel Aflaq and Antoun Saadé had played a key role – became the official ideology of the ephemeral military governments that followed one another up to that firmly installed by General Hafez el-Assad in 1970. Under Assad the military-socialism hinging on the Baath party redefined on that doctrinal basis the relations with the religious communities also: secularization of public life, formal nullifying of discriminations for reasons of religion, exaltation of Arab-Syrian identity as single founding criterion of national unity to which religious particularisms were to be subject. Along with Lebanon, Syria is still today the only Arab country where Islam is not formally defined as the State religion by the Constitution and religious adherence is not reported on citizens’ identity cards.
The secularizing and a-confessional choice of the regime was also based on contingent motives to do with the workings of politics. The nomenklatura that monopolized power under Hafez el-Assad – and continue to administer it under his son Bashshar, who “succeeded” him in 2000 as president of the country – was largely recruited from the Alawite community, the minority Islamic group of an esoteric Shiite cast, considered heterodox by the Sunni majority. This power bloc adopted pan-Arab nationalism as an ideological umbrella for a hegemony hard to defend by “Islamic” criterions of legitimacy. And has not hesitated in the past to quell in blood the symptoms of fundamentalist contagion threatening to enflame the Sunni majority. In Hama, the traditional stronghold of Islamic radicalism, they certainly have not forgotten the 1982 uprising against the regime (accused of “atheism” and pro-communism by the Sunni rebels) which was suppressed with artillery and the airforce, flattening the central district – particularly the mosques – and causing 20,000 deaths.
In the past the Christians have also suffered under the statist and authoritarian ideology of the regime. In 1967 the Christian schools were nationalized. In particular those of the Catholics, who in their stiff rejection of any compromise with the managerial claims of the government condemned a very precious educational and cultural heritage to be lost. The more than thirty-year-old statist economic policy has frustrated the professional and economic aspirations of the many Christians traditionally belonging to the bourgeois elite, driving many influential Christian clans to emigration. And all associative life and the use of ecclesiastical property is strictly monitored by the State, with the heads of the Churches summoned for a debriefing by the security services every time they return from a trip abroad. But even in these conditions the blend of “secular” nationalistic ideology and power bloc hegemonized by a marginal Islamic minority continue to be a fortuitous circumstance that in fact facilitates the daily life of the Syrian Christian communities.
There is no restriction on the free expression of Christian practices and devotions in Syria. Masses, processions, pilgrimages, summer camps, conferences, catechism courses, even scouting take place in cities and villages without the excessive discretion or timid dissimulation that mark the external and public demonstrations of the Christian faith in other countries with Muslim majorities. The Christian feasts of Christmas and Easter – both Latin-Catholic and Eastern-Christian – are holidays for the whole country. In the Christian districts the crossroads and the housefronts accommodate Marian aedicules and crucifixes. The churches, like the mosques, are exempt from the payment of the public services run by the State, which ensures cost-price materials for the building and refurbishing of religious buildings. Last June a presidential decree guaranteed to the Catholic communities the possibility of regulating matters of private family and hereditary law according to norms and criterions that by-pass the Koranic legislation in force for the Muslim majority. In mid December in his speech to the Syrian ambassador to the Holy See Benedict XVI described Syria as an example unique in the world «of peaceful co-existence and tolerance among the followers of different religions» and expressed appreciation for «the legislation recently introduced by the Syrian government for recognizing the legal status of the Churches present in your country».

Muslim devotions in front of the mausoleum of Saint John the Baptist, 
in the Umayyad mosque

Muslim devotions in front of the mausoleum of Saint John the Baptist, in the Umayyad mosque

Iraqi shadows
Now, however, “secular” nationalist pan-Arabism, having lost force as a political rallying-call to Islamic radicalism in the rest of the Arab world, looks under pressure in the last retreat of Syria. The Baathist regime abandoned any show of religious indifference some time ago. Even in Syria the Islamic renaissance is changing the daily social texture in depth. Religious fervor in the younger generations, exorbitant multiplication of mosques and their noisy loudspeakers, a boom in Islamic confraternities and cultural centers, a spread of one-time forbidden Koranic schools, diffusion at exponential rate of the veil, taped readings from the Koran even on long-distance coaches with devout drivers. The government is striving to canalize the Islamization of collective life within a policy of inter-religious harmony that demands full and constant alignment on the part of the religious leaders. In Syria more than elsewhere the official reactions of the Muslim leaders to Ratzinger’s speech in Regensburg seemed that of intellectual detachment and “academic” moderation. But the Iraq catastrophe is stirring worries and anxious comparisons among the members of the Christian minorities. Father Pierre Masri, director of the Biblioteque spirituelle of Aleppo confides: «From their co-religionists who have fled Iraq the Christians here have heard terrible stories, an abyss of ferocity that nobody would have imagined a short time ago. And everybody can well see that the factors at work in the Iraqi scenario before the war are also present in the current Syrian situation. Here, too, there are Sunnis, Alawites, Shiites, Kurds. Here, too, there are signs of fundamentalist infection, still held at bay by the security services. Here, too, there is a political leadership forever in the sights of the United States…».
At the end of 2003, a few months after the “liberation” of Iraq, the US Congress and Senate voted sanctions against Syria accusing Damascus of «supporting terrorism» and denouncing Syrian policy in Lebanon. In those months the Bush administration declared its aim to be «regime change in Syria». The “prince of darkness” Richard Perle, at that time Chairman of the Defense Policy Board and great neocon strategist of American foreign policy, suggested shifting to Syria the US soldiers who had overthrown the Iraqi regime. In 2004, while the groundwork for the substantial freedom of Iraqi Kurdistan was being done, in the north-east of Syria – with significant timing – there was insurrectionary activity among the Kurds.
Now that America seems to be abandoning the neocon line and direct channels of communication have opened between Syria and the US in relation to the summit meetings on the tragic Iraqi situation (that of 10 March last and the one planned for 10 April) the shift is also of concern to the Christians of Syria. «They well know», says Father Masri, «that they would be the first to pay for the political destabilization of the country brought about from outside. And they all repeat the same thing: if we have to choose between democracy and life, we choose life».

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