Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 December 2011
Issue No. 1077
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A joyless Christmas in Damascus

Syria's Christians have cancelled Christmas celebrations this year, only marking the occasion with services for the victims of the security crackdown in the country

Leaders of Christian groups in northern Syria have announced that all Christmas and New Year's celebrations will be cancelled among their communities this year, the only events being those held in sympathy with the victims of the ongoing security crackdown in the country, Bassel Oudat reports.

They said the decision had been triggered by the current conditions in Syria and in sympathy with the families of the martyrs of the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. It was well-received in Christian circles across Syria, with various Christian groups calling on all Syrian churches to take up a similar position, and it was also well received among members of Syria's majority Muslim population.

The call by Christian leaders to cancel Christmas celebrations has been interpreted as a position of solidarity with the uprising and its goals, as well as a way of expressing the community's sympathy with demands for peaceful change in the country.

It may also be a way for Syrian Christians to identify themselves with the popular uprising and distance themselves from the al-Assad regime.

"Syria's Christians are an integral and inseparable part of the nation and its history," Suleiman Youssef, an Assyrian activist and researcher, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "They are also a fundamental part of the popular movement seeking to end the tyranny. Their decision to cancel Christmas celebrations expresses their desire for a plural, civic and democratic state."

"The statement by the Christian leaders is meant as a response to those who have accused Syria's Christians of supporting the Al-Assad regime. It is a response to statements by other Christian clerics who have declared their support for the Syrian regime and a message to their partners in the homeland, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, that Christians share the same circumstances with them and the same past and future."

There are around two million Christians in Syria, some eight per cent of the population, who come from a variety of ethnic origins, including Assyrian, Chaldean, Armenian, Kurdish, as well as Arab. Syria's Christians are divided into 12 denominations, and since the Christian community in Syria is diverse and not politically homogenous, it not possible to specify a single Christian position on the Syrian crisis.

Nevertheless, some commentators say that the country's Christian community, though sympathetic to the ongoing uprising, may also be wary of it even if this does not extend to wishing to see the al-Assad regime remain in power. What the Christian communities would most like to see, such commentators say, is reassurance from the majority Muslim population about their role in any post-Assad political system.

"The campaign scaring the Christians about the future has not been able to match the facts on the ground," said Fayez Sara, a member of the opposition. "Christians in Syria are integrated into society, and they have long played a pivotal role on the path to national and liberation."

"Some of them are participating in the movement for change, while reaffirming their Syrian identity. They share the opposition's vision of a civic and democratic state in Syria that would guarantee equality and participation for all citizens, whatever their religious identity, under the rule of law."

At the beginning of the uprising, only a handful of Christians took part in the protests, though their position changed as the regime stepped up the violence used against the protesters.

"At first, our participation was limited because of fears of a backlash against the Syrian Christian community," said a spokesman for the Assyrian youth groups in Syria in an interview with the Weekly.

"This was accompanied by fear-mongering in the state media about minorities in Syria sharing the same fate as the Christians in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. However, later the barrier of fear came down, and we, as Christians, are willing to fight to achieve freedom in Syria and the creation of a secular, plural and democratic state."

As far as the majority Muslim population is concerned, most Muslims in Syria say that the regime's attempts to use the fear factor in dividing them from their Christian compatriots will fail, since both communities are integral parts of a common homeland.

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