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