03/15/2012, 00.00
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Christians in a divided country, after a year of revolt

by Nabil Hourani*
With Iran delivering medical aid and Saudi Arabia and Qatar willing to arm the rebels, Syria appears to be breaking up. A witness to the events, a Catholic priest describes the situation of communal hatred and fear but also the action of Christians and Muslims, working together to help the victims. The country's Churches are divided between blind support for Assad and non-violent opposition in favour of the rule of law and a state where Christians and Muslims are equal before the law.

Damascus (AsiaNews) - On 15 March 2011, the streets in Damascus were filled with people demanding the changes that the 'Arab spring' was bringing to North Africa and the Middle East. A few days later, people took to the streets of Deraa to protest against the use of torture and the killing of children, guilty of writing anti-Assad graffiti on walls. Since then, the confrontation has turned nasty pitting the armed forces against civilians in various Syrian cities, culminating in the month-long siege of the city of Homs.

After a year of protests, Syria has thus become deeply divided and is now on the brink of a civil war. Even the opposition is divided among military deserters, political groups based outside the country and those based inside. The Assad regime is pursuing its cruel plans against everyone whilst offering changes through a constitutional referendum and new elections. For their part, the dead continue to pile up, at least 8,500 so far according to the United Nations. Thousands of Syrians have also fled into neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon.

Syria's crisis has become an international affair and the country is now a playground for various powers not particularly interested in the needs of the Syrian population. Iran remains a staunch ally of the Assad regime, and has provided it with "medical aid" through the Syrian Red Crescent. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are interested in regime change to contain Iranian influence. For this reason, they are willing to arm the rebels. The Security Council of the United Nations is divided with Russia and China backing Assad to counter US influence in the region.

Christians, who have often been too afraid to stand up to the regime, now are afraid that once it falls it will be replaced by a Muslim fundamentalist government. Yet, many of them, without taking up arms, want a non-violent transformation of Syrian society. The story that follows shows that the divisions and wounds in Syrian society are the new field for the Church's mission in Syria. For safety reasons, the author of this story writes under a pseudonym.

Syria is going through a critically important phase of its history. Because of difficult political, social and economic circumstances, living conditions are hard for ordinary people. Without exception, the country's crisis affects everyone. Although in different ways, everyone has been negatively impacted irrespective of his or her religious, communal, cultural and ethnic affiliations. Everyone in Syria has experienced suffering, uncertainty and fear.

The tragedy is unfolding at great speed. The growing violence has become in some cases, like in Homs, religious, sectarian and communal. The territory is being divided. For instance, Sunni-dominated Old Homs with its substantial number of Christians is now under the control of the Free Syrian Army, whilst Alawi neighbourhoods like Zahra or Nouza remain under the rule of the regular army.

All this has increased the level of violence and reinforced the historical hatred between these two communities. A spirit of revenge is sweeping aside any desire for coexistence, dialogue and tolerance. These values continue to lose ground, creating a vacuum that is hard to manage, especially along the fault lines.

Compared to Homs, Hama, Idlib or even the outskirts of Damascus, things are quieter inside the capital or in Alep.

Some anti-regime demonstrations have been held from time to time, but security forces have easily dispersed participants before they could reach the more symbolically charged squares. The regime does not want a Syrian Tahrir Square.

Yet, in spite of the apparent calm, fear and anxiety are intense. What unites all Syrians, in every city, town and village, is indeed fear.

Assad's referendum on 26 February could have provided a good opportunity to unite the nation and start a dialogue. However, it was conducted at a time when some cities were being shelled, under siege. In any event, I did not vote.

What is unacceptable from a moral and human point of view is the regime preventing the distribution of humanitarian aid in the affected areas.

Like their fellow Syrians, Christians are at the mercy of the only certain thing, uncertainty. Without a doubt, the future is uncertain.

A majority of Christians have been manipulated by a regime that claims that it alone can guarantee their future, something that is obviously untrue.

The only guarantee for all Syrians, not only for christians, is a state based on the rule of law, one that is fair and just to all its citizens, based on their equality before the law, whatever their religious affiliation.

Driven by fear, most Christians and clergy have chosen to support the regime unconditionally (and blindly). From this point of view, the Church hierarchy could lose much of its original evangelical spirit.

Yet, most Christians have organised and taken part in peaceful demonstrations. Whether they are in the clergy or are members of the laity, Christians have joined their Muslim brothers and sisters in providing humanitarian aid to all Syrians who are suffering.

I do not know what the future has in store. I am certain however that the country has entered a vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence. As Mgr Claverie (martyred in Algeria in the 1990s) noted, a fault line runs across the country and crucifies the humanity of all Syrians.

I believe the Church is well placed to fulfil adequately its vocation of unfailing hope and help those who suffer.

*Catholic priest in Syria


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