There are two must-read articles on Syria out this week, both containing strong religion-news angles concerning the implosion of Bashir al-Assad’s police state.
The London daily The Independent does a nice job in illustrating the ambivalence Syrian Christians have for the regime and the revolt, while the German weekly Die Zeit offers a fascinating view of life inside Syria.
I have found it hard to follow the events in Syria. Most media outlets have been banned from the country, while those operating from inside the tent have been subject to various degrees of censorship. The press reports have been contradictory at times, and a few reports appear to have been dictated by Baghdad Bob's Syrian cousin. Would that be Damascus Dave?
Western governments appear to be equally at sea, and are relying on their intelligence services (I hope) and the media as their eyes and ears. The reports are often hard to distinguish. On Aug 31 the British Foreign Office released a Q&A that stated: “... security forces have killed at least seven people in southern and central Syria on Tuesday 30 August when they opened fire at worshipers emerging from mosques after early prayers marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.”
An Aug 30 story in the New York Times reported: “Security forces killed at least seven people in southern and central Syria when they opened fire at worshipers emerging from mosques after early prayers marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.”
In the back of my head I heard Dick Enberg's voice saying "Oh my!" after I read that.
Actually, the disputes we are witnessing are not political but religious. Surprise.
Britain, the US and France are pushing for harsher sanctions against Syria’s President al-Assad, who is believed to have ordered the torture and death of protesters. But on the streets there seems to be no real evidence of anti-government sentiment.
Even the poorest areas of the Syrian city of Homs – which, as a gathering place for people heading into the city center on demonstrations, saw major unrest – now seems quiet and secure.
People on the streets told RT that most of the disturbances in the city are based on religious differences, not politics. People say they are not against the government, neither are they in pursuit of any political ends.
Most of the controversy in Homs arises from differences between the Alawi and Sunni Muslims.
Now how about that. Al-Assad is "believed to have ordered the torture and death of protestors" ... the disturbances are "based on religious differences, not politics." ... People are "not against the government ..."
This sort of hollow reporting takes me back to my youth. Once upon a time I had a subscription to Soviet Life. I could look forward each month to a jam-packed issue of glossy photo-stories featuring happy peasants playing their balalaikas, dancing in their brightly colored smocks, polishing their tractors ... building socialism for the worker's state. But that's enough fun for now.
Turning to the good stuff, however: The report in The Independent that ran under the headline, "Life after Assad looks ominous for Syria's Christian minority" offers some telling snapshots of religious-minority concerns in Syria. The bottom line: Life in Syria is bad, but it could be worse.
There is also, he admits, a fear that Islam might usurp the secular -- albeit repressive -- brand of Baathist socialist rule in Syria.
"Right now Christians can celebrate Easter. They can wear whatever they want. They can go to the church in safety and they can drink if they want to.
"They are afraid they will lose all this if the regime falls down."
I wished there had been more space to develop this story, filling out the pro/con voices of Christians speaking about the regime. But at close to 600 words that is about as good as it gets these days in the British press for foreign religion stories.
With a circulation of almost 500,000 the Hamburg-based weekly Die Zeit is the largest German language news weekly. It has translated on its web site Wolfgang Bauer's powerful and important 4800-word story, "Die Nato soll uns helfen!" as "Nato must help us."
Living with a Christian family in Homs, Bauer reports on a city whose 2 million inhabitants are waging war against the Assad regime. He tells of nightly gun battles and artillery tracer shells lighting up the skies, midnight secret police arrests, hospitals turned into execution centers, schools converted into prisons, and mass demonstrations of upwards of half a million people protesting against the regime.
Television and social media has fueled the revolt Die Zeit reports. What started as a local protest against a corrupt mayor grew into an uprising against the state and cries for freedom as Syrians watch events unfold in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Religion is a factor, Die Zeit reports, but not in the way RT describes.
The city threatens to explode under the enormous pressure and tension. Almost half the residents are Sunnis, 20 percent are Alawites while the rest are Christians, Yazidi and Zaidi. The cracks between the communities are widening each day. The Syrian regime is deeply suspicious of Homs ever since it rose up in revolt against the Assad family during a 1982 insurgency by the militant Muslim Brotherhood drawn from the majority Sunni community. In response, the government tried to weaken the influence of the dominant Sunnis in Homs. It built villages around the city for families from Assad’s Alawite minority, which commands power in the government and military. The Sunnis felt encircled and threatened. Since the outbreak of the current unrest, most of the Alawites have fled from the downtown area in Homs. In the suburbs, Alawite gangs have destroyed Sunni businesses. There have been reports of deaths. The Alawites have secured the streets leading to their residential areas with checkpoints. Their street barricades aren’t manned by the military, but by Alawite civilians who now fear being massacred in a Syria without Assad. Homs now resembles Beirut in the 1980s, divided along ethnic and religious lines where it’s too dangerous for people to travel in a particular direction because they will be shot if they do so.
I'm disappointed, but not surprised that the religious angle of the Syrian revolution has not had greater play.
Even Al Jazeera has been all over the place, on this point. Banned from entering Syria, the Qatar-based network's reports have been uneven. In an account of the Paris meeting of the opposition, Al Jazeera omitted to mention the religious issues at play. Yet in a report on Syrian refugees in Turkey printed the next day, it covered the clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria. It has also seen one of its key editors quit after he charged the network's management had abandoned its neutrality in its Syrian coverage.
Keep your eye on this channel (GetReligion), as I am confident that in the weeks to come, religion will play an important role in shaping Syria's future. I just don't know if it will be good or bad. And I don't know how much solid coverage we'll see in the mainstream press.