Sectarian tensions boil over into Syria

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In a town that lies about five miles southwest of Damascus, the twin minarets of a partially constructed Shiite mosque pierce the sky and its drab cinder blocks blend in with the surrounding winter dreariness.

But apart from its dull facade, the Iranian-funded Tomb of Sukaina stands out. Although the mosque contains what is believed to be the remains of a descendant of the prophet Muhammad revered by Shiites, it is located in an area that is home to ultraconservative Sunnis.

"They say it's the grave of Sukaina, but she's got about three in Syria," says Radwan, a bespectacled resident, in hushed tones. "It's for them, not for us," he says, referring to the Iranians. "There are no Shiites here, but maybe they want to create some."

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For more than four decades, Syria has been a fiercely secular state. Its majority-Sunni population is ruled by a minority Shiite sect, the Alawites, and governed by the Baathist Party. Until recently, modest public displays of faith were tolerated but not encouraged. Unlike most other Arab countries, for example, the state does not televise Muslim Friday prayers.

But Syria has seen a growing religiosity over the past few years. Spurred in large part by the civil war in Iraq to the east and rising Sunni-Shiite tensions in Lebanon to the west, Syrians are increasingly aware of their sectarian identities. In a region roiled by religious tensions, the country's majority Sunni population now views Syria's deepening relationship to Shiite Iran with creeping suspicion.

"Syrians are speaking of Shiitization," says Redwan Ziade, a political analyst and human rights activist in Damascus. "It's a very sensitive issue. There has been an increase in internal problems between Syrians based on sectarianism, but it won't come to the surface because there's no means for it to."

Whisperings of new Iranian-funded Shiite religious institutions abound, as do rumors that Iran is offering cash and other incentives to persuade Sunnis to convert.

In Syria, an officially secular, one-party state that doesn't tolerate political dissension, religious statistics are hard to come by. According to the CIA World Factbook, Sunnis constitute about 75 percent of the population, with Alawites, Druze, and Christians making up the bulk of the rest. It is commonly understood that Shiites make up 1 or 2 percent of Syrians.

"We hear there are some areas on the outskirts of Damascus, Aleppo ... where there have been conversions, but we can't be sure," says Ammar Qurabi, chairman of the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Syria. "There is no public opinion; there is public fear."

The Syrian regime is adept at quieting social disturbances, but it has opted instead to assuage Sunni worries. Regardless of whether the rumors are true, the Syrian state is working to allay concerns among Sunnis.

In the past year, the regime has loosened restrictions on everything from religious weddings, which once needed state security clearances, to allowing the first public celebration of the prophet Muhammad's birthday in decades – an event that earned even more fanfare than the normally extravagant Baath Party founding anniversaries.

Just a few months ago, the country's highest-ranking Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun, publicly downplayed concerns about Shiitization in a widely seen interview with Al Arabiya. While Mr. Hassoun said that the number of conversions was trivial, the fact that he even acknowledged Sunni concerns was significant.

The Syrian government is "trying to settle down these tensions between Sunni and Shiite that have spilled over from Iraq," says Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Damascus-based Institute for Current World Affairs and a consulting editor for Syria Today magazine.

Many Sunnis here appear to connect recent regional events with a broader anti-Sunni campaign. Some blame Shiites for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's humiliating hanging amid sectarian taunts. There is also a popular perception that the months-long push led by Lebanon's Shiite Hizbullah Party to oust the government there was motivated by anti-Sunni sentiments.

Yet during the 34-day war between Israel and the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hizbullah last summer, many Syrians proudly plastered posters of the group's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

"When they killed Saddam Hussein, who wasn't a practicing Sunni for a day in his life, suddenly the feeling in Syria shifted," says Mr. Qurabi. "They tore down Hassan Nasrallah's posters."

For many, the question now is whether the US can exploit Sunni misgivings to pry Syria away from Iran's influence, as recommended by the Baker-Hamilton report last year.

According to Mohammad Habash, an independent Sunni member of parliament and director of the Damascus Center for Islamic Studies, the Syrian regime's newfound religious tolerance was partly designed to offset possible internal divisions that could make Syria vulnerable to US manipulation.

"The gap between religion and state policies has become narrower because of the policy of the US administration that believes it has a chance, under the banner of democracy, to make changes," he says.

Indeed, Sunni Arab leaders like Jordan's King Abdullah have warned that Iran is establishing a "Shiite crescent" stretching from Iraq through Lebanon to Syria. Saudi Arabia's monarch, in a rare move, recently lashed out against attempts to convert Sunnis to Shiites. He didn't name Tehran, but the conservative kingdom has been trying to counter Iran's growing influence in the region.

"The area is like a tug of war," says Mr. Ziade, the political activist. "Ahmadinejad, who speaks like a demagogue about exporting the [Islamic] revolution, increases sectarian tensions everywhere, including here."

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