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.
The ruling party actively protects Christians from attempts to Islamicize Syrian law. Christians can organize their own civil courts, rather than follow Shariah law. And last summer, the government froze legislative proposals that would have restricted certain inter-faith marriages while allowing Muslim men to claim Christian brides without their consent. Additionally, churches receive free electricity and water, and pastors — like teachers — get tax-free allowances to buy cars.
The Grand Mufti of Damascus is also a supporter of cross-faith goodwill. He often cites a line in the Quran that says, “We have made you nations and tribes, that you may know one another,” as the necessity for dialogue among Christians and Muslims, Strickert wrote.
“Syrian Christians themselves argue that they are in the best situation in the region,” added McCallum. They maintain a relatively high standing in society, she said, holding positions in the ruling party, businesses and universities, as well as among opposition groups.
Iraqi Christians are a different story. Few attended the Bab Touma festivities, despite estimates that about 350,000 Iraqi Christian refugees now live in Syria. Like their Palestinian and Iraqi Muslim counterparts, they remain largely outside mainstream Syrian society.
“Many are living at a significantly lower social level than other Christians since they are living off of savings, crowded often into small apartments, and seeing Syria as only a temporary refuge,” explained Strickert.
Still, life here for them is undeniably safer than in Iraq. And Syria’s importance for Christians extends beyond its status as a refuge of relative tolerance. In 2001, Pope John Paul II chose Damascus’ historic Umayyad Mosque — which supposedly contains the head of John the Baptist — for his first visit to a Muslim house of worship.
In Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city with a 10-percent Christian population including about 100,000 Armenians, an international conference of religious leaders in 1997 signed an agreement to eventually unify Catholic and Orthodox Easter, of which the simultaneous holiday this year and next is a direct result, wrote Strickert. The Easter festivities were as much a display of unity as they were of devotion. Orthodox and Catholics visited each other’s churches indiscriminately, said Ghissa, the choir director.
I asked the choir director whether the crowd of 2,000-plus for the Passion play will be even larger next year.
“Inshah-Allah,” he replied in Arabic — God-willing.