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 Dec 23 2009 


Economic downturn hits Syrian Christmas

Phil Sands, Foreign Correspondent

A tailor sleeps in his shop in the Christian quarter of Damascus. Christians make up 10 per cent of Syria’s population. Phil Sands / The National

DAMASCUS // An economic downturn and fears over increasing Islamic radicalism have dampened this year’s festive atmosphere for Syrian Christians.

In the week running up to Christmas Day, merchants in Christian majority sections of Damascus complained that business was worse than at any time in the last decade.

“There are no customers, no one has any money this year,” said Parda Stefano, owner of a chocolate shop on Kasa Street. “In a normal year it’s all we can do to keep up with demand. This year, there is no demand, no one is buying.”

Mr Stefano said his profits in the last two weeks had been lower than during any previous Christmas since he opened the store, opposite the “Cross” Greek Orthodox church, 15 years ago.

“Typically customers buy the highest quality, most expensive chocolates at Christmas because it’s a one-off occasion. Those who have come in this year have taken small amounts of lower quality sweets. There is just no money around.”

Shops, houses and churches in this corner of Damascus, near the famous Old City area of Bab Touma, have put up western-style decorations — flashing lights, Santas and stockings — but most Christmas products seem to be piled up and unsold in local shops.

“Business is bad this year,” said Abu Milad, the owner of a store selling Christmas gifts inside the Christian quarter of the old city, on a main thoroughfare popular with tourists.

“My takings are 70 per cent down on last year. It’s not a small drop. I’ll cover my costs if I’m lucky.

“It’s the same everywhere, this isn’t something that is specific to Syria or to Christians. We’re just feeling the effects of the global economic downturn.”

Christians make up an estimated 10 per cent of Syria’s population, with a disproportionate presence among the wealthier, professional tier of society.

The national economy was sheltered from the worst fallout of the global financial crisis and is predicted to continue its growth this year. Yet many Syrians are struggling to cope with a difficult financial situation. Last month’s Eid celebrations for Muslims were, according to anecdotal reports, also characterised by lower spending than normal.


Syria claims the most diverse Christian community in the Middle East, with the northern city of Aleppo boasting a baffling mosaic of 12 different sects of Catholics, Orthodox, Protestant and Nestorian Christians.

While Jerusalem may be more typically associated with Christianity, some of its holiest sites are in Aleppo and Damascus.

Syria’s Muslims and Christians are proud of their record of peaceful coexistence, a contrast to that of neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon. Christian residents of Aleppo are quick to point out they sided with the city’s Muslim inhabitants to fight against invading Europeans during the crusades.


The Syrian authorities also frequently tout their secular credentials and legal safeguards for the rights of the country’s Christian minority. That record has, however, this year been tarnished by a highly controversial piece of legislation called the personal status law.

Early drafts included clauses that made unflattering references to non-Muslims and that cancelled traditional Christian inheritance rules ensuring women and men have equal rights to family estates. Islamic laws in Syria assign men a greater proportion of inheritances than women and, under the proposals, Christians were supposed to adopt the same practice.


“The personal status law was so extreme and so conservative it could have been drawn up in Tora Bora in Afghanistan,” said Meshal Shammas, a Syrian lawyer who opposed the plans. A joint campaign — by Christians, Muslims and leading secular figures — resulted in the draft laws being hastily dropped by the authorities.

By that time, however, the damage was in large part done. That the law even reached the proposal stage was seen as a worrying sign by Syrian moderates and, in particular, set alarm bells ringing among Christians, who say they have witnessed a creeping rise in conservative Islamic sentiments here.


Mr Shammas, a Christian and father of three daughters under the age of 20, said his family felt increasingly obliged to conform to Muslim norms. “My children tell me they feel restricted in expressing their characters and their religion publicly,” he said. “They look at photos from Syria in the 1920s and see the women were freer then to dress as they wanted to.

“Today, more people are calling for girls to wear hijabs and my daughters’ friends wear them so they feel they must dress very conservatively in order to fit in.


“Religious men are now controlling the street. Ride anywhere in a service taxi today and you’ll hear Quran recitals on the radio instead of Fayrouz [a famous Egyptian singer].”

Recent fatwas — Islamic guidance — issued by influential Egyptian clerics Yusif Qardari and Ramadan Qattan also did not pass unnoticed by Syria’s Christians. The fatwas reportedly urged Muslims not to take part in Christian holy days and warned it was inappropriate for Muslims to even offer good wishes to Christians at Christmas.


While such edicts may not have a wide constituency, Syria’s Christian community see them as ominous indications they are far from universally welcomed in the Middle East.

“All of these signals make me feel sad, more than anything,” said Mr Shammas. “The Islam I grew up surrounded by here in Syria was tolerant, and Muslims in the Middle East understood the holy Quran properly as being a message of tolerance.


“Nowadays there seem to be more and more radical sentiments and as they get louder, they are pushing Christians to leave the region. Christians find it harder to see a good future for themselves in the Middle East, which is a terrible shame because this is our home.”

The National

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