Christians at relative ease in Syria

April 22, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

MALULA, Syria -- The yellowish cliffs here are pocked with rectangular holes, the cave-homes of ancient Christians. In a small shop at a cliff base, Sleman Waken sends his son, Fadi, scurrying on an errand, speaking in a strange tongue that sounds vaguely Hebrew.

"It is Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke," said the shop owner as he made a lunch of bread and hard yogurt. "We speak it because we are proud of it. It was the language of our ancestors."

In Syria, a country with ancient claims to leadership of the greater Arab world, Christians live and thrive.

Syria is a country of political repression. But while the Christian minorities in other Middle East countries suffer attack by Muslim fundamentalists, government repression and social isolation, Syria's Christian community practices its rites openly and securely.

"There is no difference between Christian and Muslim here," said Habib Francis, 33, cutting wood in Malula, a town of 5,000 north of Damascus. "We join in celebration of good times, and we share in the bad times."

But persistent bad times in Syria's economy, and the fear that religious protection will end with the current regime, have caused Syrians to join the swell of Christians leaving the very land where their religion was born.

An estimated 850,000 Christians live in Syria, about 9 percent of the population. Christians were 14 percent of the population when Syria won its independence in 1943. Those demographics take life in the eagerness of Garo Barushein, a young Armenian Christian in Aleppo, to leave.

"Sure, I'd go to America or Europe. Every young person wants to go," he said, lounging in an Armenian social club.

"If a young man says he wants to leave, I cannot say no," concluded the Rev. Farez Freijate, a Greek Catholic priest. He had a parish in Damascus and then moved to oversee a dark, moody monastery in Malula.

"I have spoken out for 10 years against immigration," he said. "Syria without Christians would be a different Syria. Nobody wants that."

But "because of the economy, it is very difficult now for a young man to start a family here," he conceded. "Everything is expensive. For the young Christian -- or young Muslim-- the big grace that God can give him is a visa to the U.S. or Canada or Europe."

Such departures have come in waves. In the 1960s and 1970s, Christians saw Muslim Brotherhood attacks on the Syrian government as a good reason to leave. In the 1970s and 1980s Christians fled the rigid, state-controlled economy, inflation and set wages.

Statistics vary widely, but Christians in Syria now report that the exodus has temporarily slowed as the economies of the West soured and visas became harder to get. Religious liberties here are a temptation to stay.

'We are not persecuted'

"We are not persecuted," said Syrian Catholic Archbishop Joseph Mounayer. "The government leaves your religion for yourself. Don't interfere with politics, and you can do your services in your church."

In many cities, new churches have sprouted. Christian services are held with church doors trustingly open to the streets. Christian women move with anonymity amid Syria's Western dress; in many other Arab countries, they stand out as a result of the growing use of the veil among Muslims.

"On Palm Sunday, I had a procession in the streets for two hours," said Isidore Battikha, archbishop of Syria's Greek Catholic Church. "I couldn't do that in Rome," where he previously served in the Vatican. "The Italians would complain about traffic problems."

Because the regime of Syrian President Hafez el Assad is based in a minority, it has offered generous protection to the minority Christians. Mr. Assad and many of his inner circle are Alawites, a small Muslim sect that has been viewed with suspicion and occasionally open rebellion by the fundamentalists of the majority Sunni Muslims.

"The government feels an obligation to protect minorities," said Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Souren Kataroyan. "With the government, we have very warm relations."

One of the major sects of Christians is made up of Armenians. They came to Syria in waves after the Turkish genocide of World War I killed an estimated 1 1/2 million of them. They stayed because they were welcomed.

"The Syrians treated us well. They received us well," said Antraniq Malkien, 71, a retired railroad man, as he collected tickets at an Armenian social club in Aleppo, where many Armenians settled.

The Armenians in Aleppo have their own schools, churches, soccer clubs, orchestras, Boy Scout troops and newspapers. Most speak Armenian in their homes and Arabic in public. They mix easily with the Muslim majority, a fact of which even Muslims seem proud.

"Look at that stereo shop. It's owned by an Armenian. The shop next door is a Muslim," said Rashdie Saladeh, a Muslim. "Look, there's a Christian church, and a mosque right next to it. When they pray on the same day, they come out in the street and shake hands."

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