Easter is of particular importance to Christians in Syria, but the recent unrest means their traditional celebrations will be curtailed.
In the recent unrest, Syria’s Christian population will be unable to celebrate Easter as they have for the last two millennia. Even in Aleppo – Syria’s second city, which remains strongly pro government – public gatherings are viewed as highly sensitive. Christians make up 4% to 6% of the country’s population, but the traditional Good Friday pilgrimage of seven churches – a ritual in the old Christian quarters – will not take place this year. This is in the interests of national security, considering that greatest instability tends to take place on Fridays, as people leave the mosque after morning prayer.
In addition, last Sunday saw the coincidence of Palm Sunday and Syrian Independence Day, celebrated on 17 March each year. Both events are a commemoration of triumphant liberation: the first fulfilling the prophecy of the Hebrew scriptures; the latter the emancipation from colonial rule.
“Unlike in the west where Christmas is the most celebrated event of the Christian calendar, in the Middle East greater prominence is given to Easter,” explains Ann Jeanette Søndbø, a specialist in Syrian theology. For the Syrian Orthodox – the oldest indigenous Christian community in Syria – she adds, “this is not some theatrical re-enactment. Rather, it is the immanent emotion of being party to Jesus’s arrival in the holy city”.
During the service, people congregate in the streets as close as they can to the overflowing churches. Syrian Orthodox are very concerned with physical presence and the material connection of the congregation. Søndbø recalls how after the service, people returned to the streets to ceremonially burn the palm leaves in preparation for the next year’s Ash Wednesday. “Besides the large bonfire, the crowd is physically united through the act of extending the light of one’s candle to those of fellow worshippers. In addition to the couple of thousand people around each church, candles are taken home to share the ceremony with those would could not be present.”
In contrast, this year’s celebrations were limited to the confines of the church. The liturgy – central to Orthodox spirituality – was shorter. The sermon included an official address on the subject of unity and security of the nation, a subject of added relevance on Syrian Independence Day.
Church officials are keen to stress that prudence in no way equates to a deterioration of relations between Christians and the state. “Of course we are all sad to have to limit our celebrations,” says the archbishop, “but we hope that this will not last long. We consulted the government, but this was our decision. Nobody imposed it upon us. We are worried and adapting our celebrations shows that we feel whatever happens today also affects us.”
As the Greater Syria (64BC – AD193) was the birthplace of Jesus Christ, Christians have a special relationship to the Syrian territory. They have, therefore, long been part of the fabric of Syrian society. In the modern period, some, such as the Syrian Orthodox Antun Saadeh, played influential roles in the independence movement. Since the 40s, they have often identified strongly with the nation, and in turn the Republic has offered them protection and accommodation.
Considering the sacrifices that must now be made by the Christian community, Malfonito Farida – teacher of theology and most renowned women in the Syrian Orthodox church – thinks back to the protests of the early 80s: “Occasionally our community comes under pressure,” she reflects. “We are a people who remember our history; all good and all bad that has been done to us, we remember … We live this fear in our body and soul.”
“Christians of this area are one people. We see from the circumstances of those in neighbouring countries that we will only be victims of such happenings.”
Fear for the future of the community and frustration due to reduced celebrations may be natural reactions, but Archbishop Mor Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, of the Syrian Orthodox advises that “this is a time to reflect upon our situation. If I were to say I am not worried, I would not be truthful. Yet I am worried first and foremost as a citizen; not as a Christian.” He adds: “The question today is not between religions.”