SYRIA: Bridging the gap between Muslims and Christians

DEIR DAR MUSA, 17 October (IRIN) - Jesuit priest Paolo Dall'Oglio has been trying for 22 years to foster better understanding between Syria's Christian minority and the country's Muslim majority.

"Some Christians now feel persecuted by the Arabs," the Italian priest told IRIN at his base in Deir Dar Musa monastery, perched among rocky crags in the sun-bleached mountains north of Damascus.

"They feel the attraction of the West and many emigrate. They have a tendency to copy the West in some aspects of life, "he added.

But Dall'Oglio, who studies the Koran and says mass in Arabic, said that drawing closer to Europe and North America was not the solution .

"This creates a larger gap in local society because many Muslims react against this Westernism," he said.

"Many Muslim Arabs feel very bad about what they see as the aggression of the West - its cultural and financial pressure and its strategic power. So there's a situation of tension."

At Deir Dar Musa, a fortress-like building that clings to a rocky outcrop in sun-bleached mountains overlooking the Syrian desert, Father Dall'Oglio and his colleagues in the religious Community of Saint Moses the Abyssinian, are trying to bridge this gap.

The monastery says mass in Arabic and its church has carpets, like a mosque, for the congregation to sit on, instead of the wooden pews characteristic of most Roman Catholic churches .

The monks study and pray from the Quran and the monastery regularly hosts and participates in interfaith meetings.

"We don't think the solution is to close ourselves off," said Dall'Oglio. "Instead the most important thing is to build a place of meeting. We build bridges through a meeting in which Christians do not just communicate with Muslims but also vice versa."

Christian insecurity

Christians make up about 10 percent of Syria's 18 million population , but the secular Ba'athist government of Bashar al-Assad ensures they are well represented in government and have access to jobs.

The fact that President Assad himself is from the Alawite Muslim group, another religious minority, provides some reassurance for Syrians Christians.

The overwhelming majority of the country's population are Sunni Muslims.

Professor Joshua Landis, who works at the University of Oklahoma's Department of International Studies and lives in Syria, says Christians feel more insecure than other minorities in Syria because they are thinly spread throughout the country. They do not have a regional stronghold where they are in the majority.

Landis says many Syrian Christians to fear that they would lose out if the government, dominated by the Ba'ath party since 1963, were to hold free and fair multi-party elections that might bring Islamic radicals to power.

"Christians are one of the more affluent groups and are largely concentrated in the cities," Landis said. "They don't have a region in which they are the majority, which would guarantee them representation in elections. And they don't believe that Muslims would necessarily vote for a Christian candidate."

However, Georgette Atiya, 55, a prominent Christian intellectual who ran unsuccessfully for parliament as an independent candidate two years ago, says this is not necessarily the case.

"I am a Christian woman yet I got a large number of votes from the Muslim quarter of Meedan in Damascus during the parliamentary election in 2003," she pointed out.

Atiya, a well-known writer and publisher, said she planned to have a second go at getting into parliament in the 2007 elections.

"Syrian Christians are not like Lebanese Christians who have political parties, militias and cantons. I am running a publishing house without raising any concern that I am Christian," she said.

Landis maintains that Syrian Christians benefit from having an Alawite president, since Assad often turns to Syria's minority groups for support in face of the occasionally restive Sunni majority.

Tension beneath the surface

And he warns that any deterioration in the country's economic situation could fuel Muslim resentment against the generally affluent Christian minority.

"On the surface people are getting along fine here," he added. "But if Syria does badly economically, the divides in its society will fester and we will see more of what happened in Qadmous in July."

Landis was referring to clashes between Alawites and Ismailis, who belong to two separate strands of Shia Islam in a provincial town in west-central Syria. Several Ismaili stores were burned in the disturbances.

Despite these concerns, many Syrian Christians say they get along fine with their Muslim neighbours.

Take Abu Fadi, who runs a liquor store in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma in Damascus.

"I have been running this shop for four years and haven't run into any problems because I am selling alcohol," he said." Even in the holy Muslim month of Ramadan I keep working."

Fadi says the fact that Christians in Syria are not segregated in separate districts, the way they are in Lebanon, helps promote a sense of unity in the country.

"In Syria we don't have separate quarters. Even in Bab Touma, a Christian majority area, there are Muslims who live here. We don't feel we are a minority." Fadi said. "We are Syrians first and Christians second."

Mixing it up

But Dima Fayyad, a 25-year-old nun at Deir Mar Musa, is concerned that despite this superficial harmony, Muslims and Christians do not mix socially a great deal socially because in Syria most socialising is done through the family.

"Actually Christians and Muslims don't know too much about each other - everyone is generally happy just dealing with their own religion," she said.

"We have this catch of the family religion. The religion we are born in is our context and we have to stay in the family's (religious) community."

Nizar Mansour, a 15-year-old Christian who attends a private school in Damascus, says he has friends from both communities.

But occasionally he and his Christian friends do feel isolated from their Muslim classmates.

"We can tell that someone is Muslim or Christian when the Christians leave the class during a lesson on Islam - I would prefer it if all religious education in schools was cancelled," Nizar said.

He admits that he is uneasy discussing religion with his friends and prefers to avoid the topic.

"I don't discuss with my friends about the difference between Islam and Christianity because if the sheikhs and the bishops can't find a common background for dialogue, how can my friends and I?" he asked.

Mixed marriages between Christians and Muslims are generally discouraged by families on both sides of the religious divide and often ead to social tension.

Attiya , the writer and publisher, recalled that the first time she really felt like a Christian was "when I fell in love with a Muslim boy."

The same problem is now looming in Nizar Mansour 's family.

His 20-year-old brother Fadi is studying at a university in northern Lebanon, where his girlfriend is a Syrian Sunni Muslim.

"I spend all my time with her and wish to get married to her, but our society and our two families will oppose our marriage," Fadi said. "According to (the rules of) our society it is banned for Christians and Muslims marry."

He isn't optimistic that things will work out.

"I would want to take my children to church and she wishes to take them to a mosque," Fadi said. "I feel it will be impossible for us to get married."

Muslims feel rejected

Many Muslims in Syria accuse local Christians of keeping too much to themselves and of looking down on their Islamic neighbours.

Ramiz Sammeir, a 29-year-old student at Damascus University, comes from the predominantly Christian town of Jdeide Artoz, 10 km west of the capital.

There, he complains, he is made to feel an unwelcome outsider.

"In the town, if any Christian girl knows that I am a Muslim she refuses to talk to me," Sammeir said.

"If any Muslim woman wearing a hijab [headscarf] comes to visit my family, our neighbours will suddenly be very nosey and ask about the woman who came to visit us," he added. "Muslims and Christians should respect each other and live in a complete co-existence - this is a Muslim majority country."

Sammeir said he used to pay his Christian friends a special visit at Christmas and Easter. But they never paid him a return visit on Muslim holy days such as Eid al Addah or Eid al Fitr, so now he doesn't bother going to see them any more.

The young man said his family now feels so ill at ease in Jdeide Artoz, that they are thinking of selling up and moving to a Muslim neighbourhood.

Most young Syrians - Christians and Muslims - insist however that there is real solidarity between the country's different communities.

Back at Deir Mar Musa, Father Dall'Oglio and his colleagues are trying to chip away at the walls of mistrust by finding common ground between the two religions.

"We have a relationship of friendship and love with Christians - we are all one people in this country," said Ahmed Ismail, a 25-year-old man from an entirely Muslim village who was visiting the 1,500 year-old monastery with a group of friends and family .

It was the first that any of them had been to a Christian religious site. But Ismail and his party were among a steady stream of Syrians of all religious backgrounds visiting Deir Dar Musa, which Dall'Oglio has been restoring since 1991.

"It's true," Ismail said. "Both sides need to know more about each other."

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