A Rooster after Midnight
Looking out at the hillside speckled with the light of homes I listened again and did hear the distinct call of a rooster. I thought roosters only crowed at dawn. But this world was new to me and, as I was soon to discover, most of my preconceived notions were up for grabs.
Most of what I thought I knew about Syria was conditioned by the western media. Anderson Cooper and Prof. Fouad Ajami kept me apprised of what was happening there. By my calculation, Syria was a police state on lock down in the throes of social upheaval. The Church, I thought, was caught in the middle as beleaguered protesters and government forces fought it out on the streets. Getting people to speak freely about the present situation would be nigh impossible. If the truth was to be found in Syria it would be as elusive as a butterfly. That’s what I thought and I was more than a bit apprehensive about making the trip but the adventure bug in me said ‘go’.
Two weeks earlier Metropolitan Philip asked me to join a delegation he was sending to see how the Church was affected by the latest turmoil. I immediately said ‘yes’. The Patriarchate is headquartered in Damascus and Christians have been there since the days of St. Paul. Representing over ten percent of the twenty three million people in Syria, Christianity is tightly woven into the historical, cultural and social fabric of the nation. Surely she had weathered greater storms, but how she was doing in this one was what I wanted to know. We were scheduled to meet with the Patriarch and I was anxious to hear what he would say. We were also going to meet the president.
I didn’t sleep much that night and got up very early to go out for a walk. We were only there for a few days and sleeping seemed like a waste of time, I wanted to see as much as I could. Damascus was slowly coming alive at 6:30 a.m. as busses rolled by filled with workers, trucks made their way into town loaded with produce or livestock and people walked down off that sparkling hill where the rooster crowed and made their way to the city and work. It all looked unexpectedly normal.
After breakfast we took a tour. Damascus is a big place and we crisscrossed it to get the lay of the land. Our guide pointed out monuments and important buildings, I had my camera ready as I looked for army trucks full of armed soldiers and police swat teams roaming the streets – the tell tale signs of a country under siege that I was used to seeing in Colombia, Mexico or Guatemala. I never saw an army truck in Damascus or on the highways we traveled as we went towns in the countryside. I only saw a handful of soldiers – MP’s – guarding the Defense Ministry and did get a candid photo – dare I say shot – of one as we drove by his post. As it turned out, he was looking straight at me. The only policemen I saw were trying to direct traffic around Damascus’s notorious rotaries. They were armed only with billy clubs.
I don’t know what ‘business as usual’ means in Damascus but that day I saw people going and coming from work, people shopping, streets lined with pedestrians, children laughing and playing in tow by their parents, families having picnics, stores and restaurants open and busy, people going in and out of churches and mosques, traffic crawling and speeding. All that went on until I returned to my hotel room well after one in the morning. As I crawled into bed, the rooster started to crow. If someone says that Syria is in a state of siege and a dangerous place to visit let them come to Damascus. I think there were more police, more sirens and more crime in Roslindale while I was away.
I never met a head of state and I sure didn’t know what to expect. I was the first one to walk toward his living room and was surprised when President Bashar Al Assad rounded the corner to greet me. With a firm handshake and welcoming smile he thanked me for coming to Syria and invited me to take a seat beside him as the rest of our eleven person delegation entered the room.
As we watched the Arab Spring dawn in Syria and followed reports of protests, civil unrest and violence we grew increasingly anxious for our Orthodox brothers and sisters. Our own Deacon Damaskinos and his family returned to Homs in August and I was not able to reach him until recently when I learned he had left home for the countryside because ‘the situation here in Homs is very bad’. We heard reports of Christians being harassed and of threatening slogans painted on the walls of churches. We heard conflicting stories about the nature of the protests and the role of outside agitators.
President Assad opened the conversation by admitting that mistakes had been made early on as local police found they were unprepared to confront the demonstrations. According to him, some protesters were armed and as tensions escalated shots were exchanged leading to the toll of casualties on both sides.
The president maintains that money and arms are smuggled into Syria from factions and countries interested in destabilizing his government. Jihadist groups, including Al Qaeda, have hijacked the demonstrations and armed gangs have instigated violent clashes with the police and army. Of the more than two thousand casualties, at least one quarter are government personal, he claimed. The clashes are confined to a few streets in a handful of cities and curbing the violence on both sides is his highest priority. Two members of our delegation visited Homs and confirmed that the violence there was in one neighborhood only and only on Friday afternoons. They also reported that the army was called in by the citizens to prevent the violence from spilling over into their neighborhoods.
President Assad accused foreign media, including Arabic agencies of sensationalizing events for their own purposes. While addressing a group of journalists last week Hynes Mahoney, U.S. Public Affairs Officer in Damascus, said “There are mistakes by the Media… It`s the normal competition between agencies to be first. Some media outlets exaggerate their figures from social media sources like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to attract more viewers”.
According to President Assad, peaceful protests are permitted since ‘emergency measures’ were lifted last spring. He stressed his commitment to economic, political and social reform. He noted that recent reforms have introduced a free market economy, private banking, higher wages, and a self sustained agricultural sector. Political parties are free to organize and a national dialogue has begun to respond to the concerns of Syrian citizens. Local elections are scheduled for October and elections to Parliament are slated for February. Presidential elections are set for 2014.
As for the Christian minority, Assad stated that, “Syria is and always will be a secular state that guarantees freedom of religious expression to all citizens; we need the Christians in order to be a true secular society”. Similar sentiments were echoed by the religious leaders we met with.
We visited the Patriarchate and learned that Patriarch Ignatius ‘forgot’ we were coming and had left for Lebanon. After all, we were told, he’s ninety years old. When asked if he had an appointment secretary, I was told they don’t have such things there. So we met with two Patriarchal underlings, Bishops Luka and Mousa. I was very disappointed, it was kind of like having tickets for the David Letterman show only to find out when you got in that there was a guest host. In an effort to demonstrate their loyalty to the government, our bishops insisted they were Syrians first, then Christians. They see the stories in the foreign media as exaggerated and part of a broad conspiracy and fear who would take power if the government collapses. They encourage the President to continue his reforms. Bishop Luka said the current trouble was a result of the fact that “old scores need to be settled in the region and everyone has a stake”. They maintained that there are “no sectarian divisions or class warfare” in Syria and that the violence is perpetrated by armed gangs. There were, he said, threatening slogans painted on several churches and they should be a warning of the influence of radical elements among the protesters. In a reference to the Alawait Muslem minority, one slogan stated According to him there is a small group of organized Islamists armed and financed from abroad who want to see Syria become another Iraq.
We met with His Eminence Dr. Ahmad Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria who noted that 95% of the country supports the reforms and that “Syria without the Christians would not be Syria”. He said that the secular nature of the country must be maintained and that there was no room for a political philosophy based on one form of religious expression. “God resides in the heart of each person, Muslim or Christian, and that makes all people equal in God’s eyes”, he stated. The relations between Muslims and Christians in Syria, according to the Grand Mufti, have always been brotherly. The next day, he was going to Aleppo to visit the Orthodox Cathedral for the Feast of the Cross.
Tribal leaders from the eastern region representing seven million Bedouins told us their motto was ‘God, Syria and Bashar’. They feared another Iraq where religious factions plunged the country into civil war and Christians were persecuted. Over a quarter million Iraqi Christians found refuge in Syria following the American invasion and occupation. “No one will persecute Christians in our territory” one chief told me “our ancestors were Christians, we all have Christian blood, no one will harm them”, he said.
Opposition leaders we met, Michel Kilo and Michel Shamas, both Christian insisted they were interested in reform and not revolution. We met in the home of the Syrian writer SaadAllah Wannous. They represented the old guard of the intelligentsia in Syria and had earned their stripes by being jailed several times, I was glad to hear their perspective. They said that the opposition was fragmented into several groups and essentially leaderless. They also insisted that radical factions had taken advantage of the situation and their influence must be curbed before it’s too late. Mr. Kilo noted, “We want regime reform not regime change” noting there is nothing to take the governments place except chaos and civil war. “Grievances” he said, “can be addressed only through dialogue”. “The government can fix the problem if it addresses this as a crisis and not as a conspiracy”, said Kilo.
A few days in Syria helped prove the old adage that “not everything is as it appears to be” – that seems especially true for news reports. I stayed up that night to catch an early morning flight. The rooster crowed off and on. It could be anticipating a new bright dawn for Syria, I hope so.