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

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