At stake, a Damascus bond – Why fate of uprising will have a bearing on many Indians


Much more is at stake for the people of India than for their government in New Delhi in the current uprising against Syria’s Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party and the country’s President, Bashar al Assad.

If Assad is overwhelmed by the ongoing rebellion against him, it may be the end of multiple strands of centuries-long people-to-people contacts between Syria and India, going by the experience of the Arab Spring in Egypt or the American-imposed “liberation” of Iraq from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Damascus is to a large chunk of Christians in Kerala what the Vatican is to Catholics all over the world: this chunk of Malayali Christians owe their allegiance to the Orthodox Church of Antioch, which traces its origins to apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

They use Syriac as their language of liturgy. Syriac is to Syrians what Sanskrit is to Indians or Latin to Italians. One branch of this Church’s followers in Kerala, who returned to the Vatican’s embrace at one turn in the evolution of Christianity in Kerala, also uses Syriac for their religious service and is, therefore, formally acknowledged as a minority within the Catholic church by the Pope.

The patriarch of the Orthodox church once sat in Antioch, now in Turkey, but has been in Damascus since the 15th century when the rise of the Ottoman empire forced the church to move his Holy See.

Ignatius IV, the 92 year-old patriarch of Syria’s Orthodox Church of Antioch, recalled to this correspondent in a long meeting here his visit to Calcutta many years ago for an assembly of The World Council of Churches. He is successor to Saint Peter, who was the first bishop of Antioch.

At the Calcutta meeting, Ignatius IV, whose formal title is Patriarche d’Antioche et de tout ’orient, was elected president of the Council, a fellowship of nearly 350 churches in 110 countries and claiming to represent 560 million Christians worldwide.

Christians here belong to four different churches, but the one headed by Ignatius IV has an active following of 1 million people in Syria, 400,000 in Lebanon and a sizeable flock in Turkey. Ignatius IV is unsure of his precise following in Kerala, where repeated splits have divided loyalties more on account of local community politics than by reasons of theology.

An aura of authority flowing from the patriarch’s advanced age and his long experience in spirituality have worked as a calming influence on Syria’s Christians, who make up between 10 and 12 per cent of the country’s population. In numbers, they equal another minority, the Alawites who control the government and count Assad as one of them.

In the privacy of his church, Ignatius IV lets his guard down and is fearful for his flock. Egypt’s Coptic Christians have lost many followers of their minority community to sectarian violence in that country after the Arab Spring saw longtime President Hosni Mubarak step down from office. In Iraq, murderous attacks on church services of minority Christians have routinely claimed lives since the George W. Bush-led invasion in 2003 overthrew Saddam Hussein’s secular regime in Baghdad.

With such straight talk from the patriarch, it is perhaps not surprising that his Holy See is on this city’s Straight Street, which oozes history. This street figures in the New Testament in connection with Saint Paul’s conversion to Christianity. It is believed in Christian tradition that Judas lived in its neighbourhood.

But the history of Straight Street is not confined to Biblical times. Bang opposite the patriarchate is the Roman gate of the Sun, one of several imposing gates into Damascus whose central arch is a reminder of what this city has always represented at the crossroads of history.

Ignatius IV frankly admitted that Syria’s Christians are worked up over a Constitution that has just been adopted in a nation-wide referendum: under Article 3 of the new statute, it is mandatory that the country’s head of state must be a Muslim.

At the spacious compound here, which is the seat of the patriarch, several followers of Ignatius IV said they have been let down by this Article in the new Constitution which excludes them from seeking the presidency of the country where they were born and brought up.

The new Constitution was approved in a referendum last weekend and immediately signed into statute by Assad. Many Christians said the new law is an attempt to put the clock back. In 1973, the current President’s father and predecessor, Hafez al Assad, dropped all references to Islam as the state religion in a draft Constitution he unveiled.

“If this is what happens when the Opposition is nowhere near gaining power, we fear for what will happen if they ever unseat the present government. We have no doubt that we will be persecuted by a regime that comes to power by overthrowing President Assad,” a worshipper said.

The patriarch, typically, is more hurt than angry about the statutory exclusion of his flock from the highest office in Syria. “We were on this land 700 years before the Muslims arrived,” Ignatius IV emphasised. “We are the original inhabitants of this land.” He was speaking about the time when what is now Syria, Turkey and several of their neighbours all belonged to the Byzantine empire.

After 11 months of the current uprising against Assad’s government, neither Ignatius IV nor, for that matter, anyone else in Syria knows what the future holds for the country. But the patriarch says for certain that “this is not Egypt, this will not be another Lebanon”, an allusion to Lebanon’s fratricidal civil war in the 1970s which saw the country, whose capital was once referred to as “Paris of the East”, reduced to rubble.

Is that bravado? Is that pious hope? “No,” says the patriarch. “I lived in Lebanon for 27 years,” a reference to the time when he founded the University of Balamand and served as its dean. “We have 12 churches in Syria and we are building four more. We run three secondary schools and operate hospitals which are open not just for Christians, but for everybody. We live in peace with Shias, Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds, everyone. We go to their festivals and they come to ours.”

Those engaged in crafting Assad’s strategy against the Opposition said the President was persuaded not to drop the controversial Article 3 as a concession to hardline Islamists. They spoke on condition of anonymity in order to be frank about the thinking in the President’s inner circle and said: “On how many fronts can the President battle at once? He hoped that by reserving the top job for a Muslim, he could wean some Muslims away from the Opposition.”

The new Constitution prohibits the President from having a foreign wife and presidential candidates should have lived in Syria continuously for 10 years. The latter provision is ostensibly meant to prevent Syrian exiles from Europe and the US from seeking the highest office if Assad has to make way for a successor from the Opposition.

The former provision is somewhat puzzling. Although Assad’s wife, Asma, is an ethnic Syrian and a citizen of her country, she is widely believed to have dual British nationality, having been born, brought up and educated at King’s College in London.

She, the daughter of a Harley Street cardiologist, and her husband met when Assad was studying in the UK to be an ophthalmologist. The two married only after Assad became President in 2000. Last year, Vogue carried an article on Asma Assad, cheekily titled “Desert Rose”. The piece has now been deleted from the magazine’s website.