Pontiff's presence in Syria stirs sectarian tensions

After completing a historic visit to Syria today, the pope goes to Malta.

Officials traveling with Pope John Paul II in Syria have told reporters that the historic visit to a mosque was actually proposed by Syrian officials. And in the Arab world, it's noted, Syria is one of the few nations that doesn't designate Islam as the state religion.

But there are elements within Syria's Muslim community here who see the pope's visit this week as a threat. And some see it as a political misstep by Syria's new president that might be used to challenge his leadership.

Now, a controversy aroused by the pope's debut visit to a mosque is threatening to sully Syria's religious harmony.

Muslims heard prayer leaders fume that the pope was insulting Islam by sporting a crucifix on his vestments, when the Koran says Jesus never died on the Cross. "History teaches us that Western pilgrimages have covert political motives," says Dr. Bouti, Syria's foremost Sunni imam.

In addition to gripes about the pontiff's costume, the standard bearers of conservative Islam attacked the pope for his insistence on praying at the tomb of St. John the Baptist, which lies beneath the pillar of the mosque. Leading imams feared it was a wily first step to re-Christianize the mosque, which was a Christian church until the 8th century.

"Would the pope let Muslims give the call to prayer from St. Peter's? Should he not warn his followers of the threat to Christianity?" asks Sheikh Al Hout, as a plainclothes policeman with a Kalashnikov monitors his Amara mosque in Damascus, which has a reputation for fundamentalism.

In Friday sermons on the eve of the papal visit, some Muslim leaders likened the pontiff to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose stroll last September onto Jerusalem's Al Aqsa compound to emphasize Jewish claims to the Temple Mount provoked the Palestinian intifada.

Others asked why the pope had chosen to make his first mosque appearance in Syria - a country whose leaders belong to the heterodox Alawite sect and are snubbed by Sunnis as non-Muslim.

The growing Sunni dissent could pose a new challenge to 34-year-old President Bashar al-Assad as he struggles to maintain the hold of his Alawite sect over Syria after his father's death last June. For 20 years, no one has dared test the waters of Syria's latent sectarian divide.

In 1982, President Hafez al-Assad crushed the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood with a month-long massacre, killing 20,000 Sunnis in their heartland of Hama. Mr. Assad then established a pecking order, which Sunnis say reduced them to a fourth estate, and ensured that the minority Alawites reigned supreme. Sunnis say other religious minorities were co-opted to form a bulwark against them. They had ruled Syria largely uninterrupted for the previous 1,400 years.

The row over the pope's visit is proving fertile ground to sow the seeds of Sunni revenge. "Now we have three sectarian coastal states on the Eastern Mediterranean," says a preacher once jailed on suspicion of Brotherhood sympathies. "With Western help, Israel, Lebanon, and Alawite-led Syria have all combined to break Sunni dominance."

After two decades nursing its wounds, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in exile took the papal arrival as its cue for a call to political action.

"The time has gone when one party claims it is the homeland," it said in a statement issued from London on the eve of the visit. "The utmost that any political group can do is to take its place on the national map according to the size it is given by its actual popularity through the free and honest ballot boxes."

Religious minorities see the Brotherhood's call for democracy and a lifting of 40 years of martial law as an attempt to re-establish the majority rule of Sunnis.

Out of earshot of myriad informers, Sunni preachers denounce Christians as key collaborators in the Alawites' stranglehold on power.

A recent who's who of Syria, circulated by a Sunni sheikh, excluded Christians altogether. And to deflect accusations of papal-led Western expansionism, Christians have taken to making public confessions of loyalty.

"It is wrong to see Christians as neo-Crusaders," says Samer Laham, general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches in Damascus. "We are not the children of the Crusades, we are the children of the original church of the East, and were here before Islam."

Under Assad, Christian tolerance was unparalleled in the Middle East. Fifty years ago, the oriental churches held their Easter Passion parades tucked inconspicuously inside churches. Today, hundreds of thousands of Christians take to the central streets of Damascus during Easter pageants. At night, fluorescent purple crosses dominate the Damascus skyline.

By contrast, Iraq has gassed Christian villages, Egypt witnessed pogroms against Christian communities, Lebanon's Maronite Christians have fought civil wars, and Saudi Arabia has banned any Christian public worship.

"Syria is the best country in the Middle East to be a Christian," says Stephen Griffiths, head of the Anglican Church in Syria. Although there are only 1.3 million Christians - about 10 percent of the population - more people attend church here than in England.

After 10 months in office, the young President Assad is aware of Sunni resentment and is doing much to appease it. Unlike his father, he married a Sunni and chose a Sunni mosque to make his first public outing.

But the more he concedes, the more Sunnis demand. Hard-liners say his marriage to a Sunni is illegitimate, and they want a Muslim for president, not an Alawite.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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