In Damascus, Christians briefly ignore war for Good Friday

By Reuters Staff
April 21, 2014

(Debris lie inside a damaged church in Mar Bacchus Sarkis monastery, in Maloula village, northeast of Damascus, after soldiers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad took control of it from rebel fighters, April 14, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri )

The sound of battles echoes from the outskirts of the capital as Christians in Damascus celebrated the Easter weekend, briefly ignoring the conflict for the yearly ritual.

At the gates of Saint George Syrian Orthodox Church – just a few minutes walk from a school where a mortar attack killed several children and injured dozens earlier this week – incense was burning as several uniformed and armed men stood patrol before Good Friday evening services. They joked with each other and did not check ID cards or handbags as people entered.

Inside the ancient city walls of the Old City where the church is located, the cobbled streets bustled with evening shoppers and diners, a rare sight reminiscent of pre-war Damascus.

However, a traditional procession that usually sees hundreds of worshippers follow an effigy of Jesus on the cross accompanied by drums and a church band was cancelled.

Christians, many belonging to ancient denominations found only in Syria, form about 10 percent of the country’s population. Most fear the rising power of Islamist groups within the rebel movement fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, although many are also wary of the authorities.

Only a small percentage of Christians have taken up arms on either side of a civil war that broadly pits minorities, in particular Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, against the Sunni Muslim majority.

Two Armenian Syrian women chatted with others in the courtyard of the church. Asked if they felt optimistic about the events in Syria, they launched into a short debate.

“No, I don’t feel good at all. I’m sad and I’m here to join Christ in his pain,” said Rula Khoury.

(The identity of the correspondent in Damascus has been withheld for security reasons)

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