While we tend to think of Syria as a Muslim country where the Sunnis and Shiites are shooting at each other and the Alawites, it has also had a Christian presence. In fact, on my last trip there, I walked down the Biblical Street called Straight and came to the place where Saul went after being struck blind and received his sight restored as well as becoming the Apostle Paul. The ancient cobblestone streets feel like they did a thousand years ago.
On Good Friday, Syrian Christians gathered at the Zaytoun Church as well as St. Paul’s Franciscan Church, both in Damascus. As in other parts of the world, they preserved the rituals of observance of the high holy days. The majority of the Syrian Christians (about 10 percent of the population) are Eastern Orthodox and will celebrate Easter on May 5. At one time Christians were a highly visible segment of the population and a Christian was even a prime minister of the country. Usually Easter is the major holiday for Syrian Christians, but not so this year.
Today in Syrian, there are no parades with bands and loud bounding drums. Inside an iron gate, the worshipers gather in a tight circle and silently enter the church where they huddle in the dark and hope will prove an adequate shelter from the bombs. When they pause in their singing, they can hear guns firing not far away. Their hope is that in a year the war will be over, but it not, they predict that all Christians will be gone. Christians have been perceived as a wealthy group which makes them a target for the rebels. The issue is that they will be kidnapped and become targets for financially opportunists.
Christians do not have a unanimous opinion about who is to blame for the war. Many have supported the Assad regime because its policy in the past has tended to protect the Christian minority. Their tendency is to blame Russia and Iran for the continued struggle. The Christians blame sectarianism on the influence of Saudi Arabia and the intrusion of foreign fighters. To some extent, they are caught in the middle and the cross fire.
If Christian flee the country, a valuable history and root system will be lost. Because their traditions go back through the centuries, they constitute an important link with the past. Who knows what might be hidden in some obscure corner of Zaytoun Church?
But the war goes on. The rebels just seized an important air defense base in Southern Lebanon. Brig. General Mohammed Nour Ezzedeen Khallouf, responsible for supplies and logistics, defected and is now on the rebels side in the war. France and Britain are urging European Union nations to arm the opposition and have probably already begun doing so. In the midst of Easter celebrations, the war continues.
Let us hope that these Syrian Christians don’t have to spend another holiday in hiding.