Christians face unrest in Syria

Syriac Christians, faced with the current unrest in Syria and violent opposition to the régime of President Bashir Al-Assad are torn between desiring a return to stability and a horror at the violence which has ensued. It is a fact that under President Assad and his father, Christians, who comprise about 10% (1.7 million) of the population, have enjoyed considerable freedom to practice their faith in a stable society.

The principal Christian church is the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East with large communities of Syrian Orthodox, Armenian and various Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome. Christians tend to be urbanized, and most live in Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, and Lattakia, although significant numbers live in the Hasaka governorate in the northeast.

There is a strict de facto separation of church and state. Religious groups tend to avoid any involvement in internal political affairs. All religions and orders must register with the Government, which monitors fundraising and requires permits for all religious and nonreligious group meetings, except for worship. Recognized religious groups receive free utilities and are exempt from real estate taxes and personal property taxes on official vehicles. Orthodox and Western Easter, as well as three Muslim religious holidays are official national holidays.

The Government generally refrains from becoming involved in strictly religious issues but its policies tend to support the practice and study of moderate forms of Islam and the Government selects moderate Muslims for religious leadership positions and is intolerant of and suppresses extremist forms of Islam. It encourages the genuinely good relations which have existed between all the recognised religious communities for many years.

It is hardly, surprising, therefore, that the churches are generally pro-government and fearful that any régime change will result in the dominance of Islamic extremists. Many of these same ancient Christian communities in Iraq have suffered appalling violence since the fall of Saddam Hussein and their co-religionists in Syria have good reason to fear that they will be possible victims of violence. For this reason they are largely silent in the midst of the anti-government protests.

In April H.H. Catholicos Aram I of Cilicia wrote to President Al-Assad supporting the reforms he initially promised and re-affirmed the commitment of the Armenian community in Syria to their country.

Then the Council of Bishops of the Christian Churches of Damascus, Syria, met on 16 June 2011 at the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East to discuss the current sad situation which is sweeping over Syria – ‘the country of civilizations and the cradle of heavenly religions’ they issued the following declaration:
“The Council of Bishops condemned the foreign interference in Syria, and asked the Syrian citizens to be united. They asked Almighty God to enlighten the minds of the people, feed love in their hearts, and spread security and peace all over the country. The Bishops continued their statement by saying: Today and more than ever before, we refer to prayer and fasting for the sake of the safety of Syria, the country of tolerance and coexistence. Our hope is that Syria will overcome this crisis to find itself in a better shape which may protect it from any danger that might threaten its existence, or divide it, or lead its citizens to seek refuge into other countries. Every drop of blood that is shed from any Syrian citizen, it is shed from the entire Syrian body. St. Paul refers to the body of Christ our Saviour when saying: ‘If one part of the body suffers, all the other parts suffer with it’ [1 Cor. 12:26]. At a time when our beloved country Syria is living in vigorous days, the Holy Church is living the time of ‘Pentecost’, which is the time of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, and the time of the foundation of the Church and launching the process of evangelization all over the universe in a spirit of love, peace, tolerance and acceptance of other. These spiritual and ethical values are an integral part of human principles. The event of Pentecost is not a historical moment of the past; rather it is a renewed occurrence. From it, we acquire our strength and faith, and in it we live, moves, and exist. Therefore, we call on all Christians in Syria and all other Syrian citizens who wish to join us, for a ‘day of fasting’ on Thursday 23 June 2011, where we will gather at 6:30 pm on that day at the Holy Cross Church in Kassa`a area, Damascus, to pray for peace which is a human, religious, and national responsibility. By this we deserve the blessing of being peacemakers which Our Lord Jesus Christ gave us in His saying: ‘Blessed are those who work for peace, God will call them his children’(Matt. 5:9)”

Glastonbury Review Issue: 120, July 2011


Tensions in Armenian-Georgian Church relations

H.H. Catholicos Karekin II of Etchmiadzin paid an official visit to the Georgian Orthodox Church in June 2011, the first visit of an Armenian Catholicos to Georgia since 1894. His visit was intended to improve relations between the Churches of the neighbouring Caucasus Republics, both Orthodox but one belonging to the Eastern Orthodox family and the other to the Oriental. There are some 171,00 Armenians living in Georgia, notably the province of Samtskhe‐Javakheti, which borders on Armenia and the old Armenian provinces of Turkey. Catholicios Karekin also sought the return of several ancient Armenian churches, which were closed in the 1930s under the Soviets but not returned after independence. Notable among these are the Soorp Narashan Church, built in the mid eleventh century, which is being used by the Georgia Orthodox Church as part of a policy of “Georgianisation” of Armenian Churches. Other churches (like the Karmir Anetaran Church, with its 40 metre high spire) have either been destroyed or allowed to fall into disrepair.

Despite attempts to appear cordial, Catholicos Karekin was unable to obtain any agreement or even the signing of the usual joint declaration with H.H. Catholicos-Patriarch Ilya II, who insisted that any agreement over the return of churches would need to have a quid pro quo for the buildings in Armenia which the Georgian Church claimed as theirs. The situation was not improved by Catholicos Ilya saying “Karekin is young and apparently lacks experience,” and observing, “He is intelligent but wants to do things quickly, which will not work. I told him that I have a 30-year experience and that staying calm is the best thing.” A few months earlier the Deputy Minister of Reintegration, Yelena Tevdoradze, had told an Armenian audience that the Armenian Apostolic Church “will never be granted an official status” and “will only be a so-called branch in Georgia …I repeat, we will not recognize the Church of Echmiadzin,”
However, less than a month later, on 5 July 2011 the Georgian parliament approved amendmentsto Georgia’s Civil Code granting legal status to “those faiths that are considered legal religions by member countries of the European Council” enabling them to register as full-fledged religious organizations. Previously, such groups were only able to register as charities or non-government organizations. The five religious minorities covered by these amendments were the Roman Catholic Church (0.8%), the Evangelical Baptists (0.1%), the Muslims (9.9%), the Jews (0.1%) and the Armenian Apostolic Church (3.9%).

Unfortunately this eirenic measure by the government was not well-received by some members of the Georgian Orthodox Church (83.9%), who are hostile to Armenians, both on religious and ethnic grounds. Thousands of people took to the streets of Tbilisi carrying Georgian icons and flags, to protest at the parliamentary resolution, which they viewed as pro-Armenian and complaining against “anti-Orthodox forces”. Catholicos Ilya II urged President Mikheil Saakashvili to veto the law and to organize additional discussions.

Protests were halted only after a strict order was given by the mayor of Tbilisi and, most importantly, certain revisions had been made by Georgian lawmakers in the Civil Code that essentially reduced the former broad powers granted to religious organizations. The Georgian Holy Synod, which met on 12 July, called for calm and urged parliament in future to discuss with the Patriarchate draft legislation related to religion so as “to avoid any possible complications.” President Mikheil Saakashvili attended a liturgy conducted by Catholicos Ilya II at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral the following day, publicly showing that church-state relations had improved.

Of the estimated more than 300 Armenian churches situated in the territory of Georgia only 40 of these are functioning churches. In the capital Tbilisi only two of six Armenian churches function, while two are in ruins and the other have been taken over by the Georgians. The Armenians, however, demands that they be returned. By having the status of a legal entity in public law it is feared that the Armenians will possess greater opportunities for settling property demands.

Vide: UN Country of Origin Report, Religious Minorities in Georgia (December 2006).

Glastonbury Review Issue: 120, July 2011