By Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent
Good Friday and other Easter processions and festivals have been cancelled across Syria as street unrest boils over into violence.
The country’s Christian population has been forced to abandon its usually colourful and exuberant commemorations because of the number of “martyrs” who have died and the “bad situation”, a senior church official told The Daily Telegraph.
The whole country is braced for a wave of protests on Friday, despite an announcement that President Bashir al-Assad had signed a decree lifting the 48-year state of emergency, a key demand.
Government promises of reform combined with violence by armed plain-clothes security forces have only served to bolster the opposition, who are planning more demonstrations after regular Muslim Friday prayers.
But today these will clash with Good Friday services, which would normally see processions and public gatherings by Syria’s Christian minority, estimated at between 1-2 million, or around five per cent of the population.
“We are not receiving official congratulations,” Bishop Philoxenos Mattias, Assistant to the Syriac Orthodox Church Patriarchate in Damascus, the country’s biggest Christian denomination, said.
“All of the Syrian churches have decided this together because of the bad situation and because of the martyrs who have died in recent days, out of respect for them.”
He said services would still take place inside the churches, but all street processions and public music performances had been cancelled. “We decided to postpone them till next year,” he added.
Normally streets in the Christian quarters of Damascus and other cities would see parades by uniformed marching bands and choirboys and even re-enactments of the Crucifixion.
One nun, speaking from her monastery but asking not to be identified, said Christians were afraid even to come to church.
“They do not feel safe,” she said. “There aren’t going to be any celebrations, but just prayers inside church. On Palm Sunday we cancelled the celebrations too.
“Things are not good here – how can we celebrate? People are very sad. We cannot celebrate because of all the martyrs who have lost their lives and because of all the destruction that has taken place. We are only going to pray.”
The decision by the churches was said to have been taken in consultation with the authorities but not on their insistence.
The official churches of Syria tend to be very pro-government. They regard its aggressive secular agenda as a key reason for the lack of anti-church violence by Muslim fundamentalist groups of the sort that has decimated Christian populations in neighbouring Iraq and seen widespread emigration elsewhere in the region.
Whether those feelings are shared by younger members is less clear.
Christian imagery was posted on the “Syrian Revolution 2011” Facebook page, calling for united Good Friday protests.
President Assad finally signed the decree lifting the state of emergency, imposed when the Baath party under his father Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1963, yesterday afternoon, following a month of demonstrations in which more than 200 people have been killed.
State television announced that demonstrations were legal “in line with the constitution” though they had to be licensed by the interior ministry. The state security court, which tried dissidents, was also abolished.
But opposition figures said the change was “useless” without other reforms such as an independent judiciary and accountability for the security forces, and there were signs that both protesters and security forces were preparing for more confrontations today, including in Homs, where at least 20 protesters were killed in clashes last weekend.