Christians wary on Easter (sort of) in Syria

Every religion writer has experienced those awkward moments each year when an editor walks over to your desk and says, "Hey, it's almost Easter (or Passover, of Christmas, or Ramadan, or ...) and we have to have some Easter stories. What do you have going on that we can call an Easter story?"

The key is timing. The newspaper wants something -- with glorious art! -- that can run on the morning of said holy day or even before. Of course, how do you cover the real Easter/Christmas/Passover/Ramadan/etc. stories, and get glorious art, when they haven't happened yet? Technicalities.

So you start trying to find ways to link big stuff in the news, subjects your editor will care about, with the holiday in question.

That's what I sensed, the other day, when I read that New York Times story that ran under the headline: "A Wary Easter Weekend for Christians in Syria."

When I read that, I thought to myself: "Wait a minute! Don't the Times editors realize that, for most Christians in Syria, this isn't Easter?"

I mean, on Sunday, a Protestant loved one of mine who lives in the Middle East wished online friends and family a blessed Easter, then noted that they would celebrate the most important holy day in the Christian calendar in early May, with most Eastern Christians in their region. He said that, even though he is an evangelical Protestant and Protestants follow the modern Gregorian calendar that, this year, put Easter on March 31. The Eastern Churches, following the older Julian calendar, will celebrate Easter/Pascha on May 5.

So what happened? It was like there was an editor in the Times newsroom saying, "Oh, it's almost Easter. And Syria is really in the news. What will Easter be like in Syria this year?"

Great idea for a story, by the way. As a religious liberty and human rights guy, I'm not knocking the idea for this news feature.

Thus, the story opened:

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Torches flickered outside the church. Little girls wore their sparkly Easter best. Children bearing lanterns filed out through the heavy gilt doors, as worshipers carried an icon of Jesus and a cross covered with carnations.

But the Good Friday procession at St. Kyrillos Church here in Syria’s capital did not follow the route it had taken for generations. No drums or trumpets announced its presence. The marchers made a tight circle inside the iron-gated courtyard, then headed back into the church, a hedge against the mortar shells like the one that hit a hospital across the street recently. At pauses in their singing, gunfire rattled, not more than a few blocks away.

Easter weekend is usually the year’s most festive for Syria’s Christians, but this year, it is infused with grave uncertainty. Christians here say they primarily fear the general chaos enveloping the country as the war enters its third year. But like members of Syria’s other religious minorities, many Christians also fear what they see as the rise of extremists among the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

This is all perfectly valid material. However, it still left me thinking, "What kind of church is this St. Kyrillos (insert the rest of the name here) Church?" You see, that's a pretty important piece of the story to leave out, especially in the historic lands of Eastern Christianity.

The story goes on. Then, finally, toward the end of the story readers are told:

Syria has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and one of the largest in the Middle East -- about 10 percent of the population. (Most Syrian Christians are Eastern Orthodox and will celebrate Easter on May 5.) Christians have long been prominent among the country’s elite, and before the Baath Party coup that led to Assad family rule, a Christian, Fares al-Khoury, served as prime minister.

Once again, there is the key question: Who are the Christians being profiled in this particular story? If most of the Christians in Syria are not celebrating Easter at this time, then why write this perfectly valid story at this unusual time?

I was especially curious after reading this passage:

“The Christians in Syria are the only ones left in the region,” said Bashar Ilias, a theological student and social worker who distributes church donations to people displaced by the fighting. “If they leave, Christianity will lose its roots.”

Unlike some Christian factions in Lebanon, which claim to be descended from the ancient Phoenicians, Syria’s Christians generally pride themselves on their Arab heritage and see themselves an integral part of the region.

Most church services are in Arabic; Arabic inscriptions are carved on the marble walls of ornate churches. At St. Kyrillos Church in the Qassaa neighborhood on Friday, a haunting melody seemed to meld with the sweet, waxy smell of votive candles: the song “Ya Habibi,” Mary’s lament for Jesus, beloved throughout the Arab world as a classic in the repertory of the Lebanese diva Fairouz.

That sure doesn't sound like a mainline Protestant or evangelical congregation. It might be Catholic, but many of the Catholic churches in the area would be part of branches loyal to Rome, while using many rites and traditions from Eastern Christian traditions. Surely some of them would be on the old calendar with their Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers.

So I has glad that the editors put into print the fact that this story was oddly timed. Here's hoping that someone assigns a follow-up in early May -- when most of the Christians in Syria will actually be celebrating Easter. Alas, I would assume that radical Islamists who want to do them harm are well aware of the actual date for this Christian holy day in their region.

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