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Syrian Christians unite for Easter

Orthodox and Catholics counter Islamic resurgence with jubilant expressions of their own devotion.

DAMASCUS, Syria — Thousands of Syrian Christians crowded into the narrow streets of Damascus’ Old Town for weeklong Easter festivities that culminated Sunday.

Easter is always popular in Syria, where the secular government permits its approximately 1.5 million Christians to vocally celebrate their holidays. But with Orthodox and Catholic Easters coinciding this year — which happens every few years — the din of drumbeats was even louder, as every church in Damascus simultaneously announced the resurrection.

The exultant nature of the holiday this year could also be a reaction to the post-9/11 Islamic resurgence, according to Fiona McCallum, a research fellow at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. As more Muslims grow beards and adopt the hijab, she suggested that Christians — still a minority among Syria's 21 million people, the majority of whom are Muslim — may be responding with their own, more fervent expressions of faith.

Throughout the week, Christian families dressed in new clothes and strolled the Christian neighborhood, Bab Touma, visiting churches and stopping occasionally to buy rosaries and stuffed rabbits from card tables set up along the roadsides. Young people marched in brass bands, wearing scout uniforms with lapels bearing the crests of their churches.

On Thursday night, the courtyard of the Greek Catholic cathedral resembled a rock concert. At least 2,000 people gathered to watch a Passion play, in which Jesus’ crucifixion is re-enacted. Vendors sold cotton candy and popcorn outside the gates. Attendees included many Muslims, said Ghissa, the church’s choir director.

“They’re curious to see how we celebrate,” he explained. “And why not? We all [Christians and Muslims] get along well in Syria.”

At least on the surface, this seems to be true. Inside a pub in the Christian Quarter recently, two friends, one Muslim and one Christian, joked about using each other’s faiths to double their number of holiday celebrations.

“Damascus especially is a mixed city and people are likely to have friends from other religious groups,” said McCallum, who studies the political role of Christian communities in the Middle East.

Christians in Syria also enjoy more rights than those in other Middle East countries, wrote Fred Strickert, a professor of religion at Wartburg College in Iowa, by email. Every Christmas, President Bashar al-Assad meets with representatives from the various Christian denominations in Syria. Al-Assad is an Alawite, a minority Muslim sect in a predominately Sunni country, so catering to non-fundamentalist minority religious groups helps prevent the opposition from consolidating.