Ancient marches in Damascus (updated)

Something very sobering and terrible is sinking in for Western journalists who are covering the uprising in the Middle East. They are beginning to wonder if the outcomes of these revolutions will automatically be good or, at least, "good" as defined in terms of civil liberties and human rights as they are promoted at, let's say, the United Nations. In other words, sadly, there may be isolated situations on this earth in which totalitarian governments do a better job of protecting the rights of religious and ethnic minorities (or sexual minorities, for that matter) than governments that represent unfettered majority rule.

This has, of course, been a minor theme running through the mainstream press coverage of the flight of Eastern Christians from Iraq and other nations in that region. Every now and then, the mainstream press also notes the plight of the Bahai's in Iran. Gays in Iran? Every now and then.

In other words, could there be a dark side to the Twitter and Facebook revolutions in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere? Surely not. I mean, the Copts have been asking for it, right?

That was an extreme way of saying what I am trying to say.

Here is the key, for me, as we watch the unfolding events in Syria. This is a hard news story to tell, if you want a simplistic good side and a bad side. Yes, there are people who are crying out for justice. That theme is there. And they want an end to corruption. True. But many of the demonstrators have defined these terms in terms of an Islamic state -- of one kind or another. What will the majority choose?

With that question in mind, read the following chunk of this current New York Times report from Syria:

“We want revenge, and we want blood,” said Abu Mohamed, a protester in Azra, a southern town that had the highest death toll Friday. “Blood for blood.”

The breadth of the protests -- and people’s willingness to defy security forces who were deployed en masse -- painted a picture of turmoil in one of the Arab world’s most authoritarian countries. In scenes unprecedented only weeks ago, protesters tore down pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and toppled statues of his father, Hafez, in two towns on the capital’s outskirts, according to witnesses and video footage.

But despite the bloodshed, which promised to unleash another day of unrest as the dead are buried Saturday, the scale of the protests, so far, seemed to fall short of the popular upheaval of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Organizers said the movement was still in its infancy, and the government, building on 40 years of institutional inertia, still commanded the loyalty of the military, economic elite and sizable minorities of Christian and heterodox Muslim sects who fear the state’s collapse.

Maybe I have missed something in earlier coverage, but I do not think that I have seen the rights of religious minorities mentioned this high in earlier reports on these recent revolutions.

So do these religious minorities (note the presence of Islamic minorities) have strong feelings of loyalty to the old regime? That is not what the story said. The story says that they feel what would come after the fall.

What comes next? The implication is majority rule. These bloody clashes with the government forces have been coming when? After Friday prayers. What do Friday prayers represent? The evidence is that the mosques represent majority will.

Here is why I bring this up. Today is Holy Saturday. At midnight tonight, Eastern and Western Christians will be marching through the streets of Damascus (as well as other cities and towns in the Middle East and around the world) as they begin the celebration of the greatest feast in Christianity -- Pascha (or Easter in the West).

Will they march tonight? They have for centuries. What will happen in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere in the context of the current tensions? I do not know. But this is how the Times story ends:

In Homs, where major protests erupted this week, activists said security forces and plainclothes police officers flooded the city, setting up checkpoints and preventing all but a few dozen people from gathering. By afternoon, one resident said the streets were deserted, the silence punctuated every 15 minutes or so by gunfire.

“We closed the windows and the curtains and hid at home,” one woman said via Skype. “The gunfire was so loud and close.” She added, “God save us.”

My own parish is part of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, which has roots that go back to Damascus -- for centuries the home of the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch. In the early hours of Pascha, we will pray for peace and justice in Damascus and the rest of the Middle East.

This year, I know, we will also pray for the safety of believers there. We will be praying for those that march in the streets once again, as they have marched for centuries, in the darkness that comes before dawn.

UPDATED: It appears that the government has, in effect, canceled Pascha, or a crucial part of it. Click here for the Washington Post story on this development.

IMAGE: The Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus.

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