Catherine Field: Troubles a test for land of religious diversity

scczen_ap110326105948_460×2301.JPGIn Iraq and Lebanon, religions that once lived in peace have fought bloody wars, and now the rising tensions in neighbouring Syria have stoked the question whether a third country in the Middle East could fall victim to sectarian violence.

The idea seems fanciful if you visit the Qalamoun Mountains, which overlook the Damascene plain. There, on a crag, sits the convent of Our Lady of Seydnaya, one of a flock of chapels, convents and monasteries that have existed in this arid region since the founding days of Christianity.

Our Lady of Seydnaya was built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian, who had a vision of the Virgin Mary while hunting and harkened to a voice ordering him to build a church on the spot. Inside one of the chapels is an icon of Mary which, devotees say, oozes miraculous oil. It has drawn crusader knights, pilgrims and tourists to this day.

Just north of Seydnaya is Ma’loula, one of the last towns where people speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. According to legend, God gouged a deep gorge through its mountain to save a Christian hermit of great beauty and virtue, Saint Thecla, from a would-be rapist.

Dug into a flank of the gorge, Thecla’s shrine is one of the most popular in the Middle East.

Across this region, schisms have left their mark in Islam and Christianity, like the sun and the wind etching their memory in the desert stones.

Syria counts at least 11 branches of Christianity, from tiny sects that were forged when Christians were enslaved to major groups who follow the Greek branch of Christianity and those who follow its Latin branch. There are Nestorians, Monophysites and Monothelites; Armenian and Greek Orthodox Catholics and Latin Catholics, as well as Chaldean Catholics who belong to neither. Depending on the church where you worship, the liturgy is said in any number of ancient languages such as Armenian, Greek, Aramaic or Syriac, and Arabic or French.

Among Muslim sects, the majority branch is Sunni, which claims three-quarters of Syria’s population. But there are also Shias, who come to worship at the shrine of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad in the ancient mosque of Umayyad Damascus – a place that also claims to house the head of John the Baptist. And there are Alawites, a Shia sect which comprises around one in eight of the country’s population and traces its roots before the Prophet Muhammad and whose celebrations include Christmas, Easter and the Epiphany.

Add to the mix a sprinkle of Jews and Druze, another Muslim offshoot, and you have a country that has one of the most remarkable variations in religion in the world, where ancient churches sit side-by-side with mosques – and for now without a problem. But some observers say sectarian tensions bubble just beneath the surface, a legacy of the post-World War I division of the Middle East after the break-up of the Ottoman empire, when crudely drawn national borders slashed through natural ties of clan and religion.

“I haven’t yet come across one spark of national feeling: it is all sects and hatreds and religions,” wrote the British explorer and writer Freya Stark of the Syria governed under the so-called French Mandate. A master in playing one group off against the other, France gave its favours to the Alawites, who swiftly rose from being poor and despised to dominate in the military, politics and the economy.

The country has been in the hands of this clan’s most prominent family, the Assads, for more than four decades. Part of the revolt against the regime stems from resentment against the Alawites, characterised as “Little Christians” who have concentrated the country’s wealth in their own hands.

“Sectarian tensions do really exist but they are controlled by the regime,” said a diplomat. “The tensions are mainly between the Sunni Muslims on one hand and the others, such as Christians of all kinds and other Muslim sects.”

But Rime Allaf, a Syrian analyst at the London thinktank Chatham House, cautions against comparing Syria with Yugoslavia, as a state whose hidden fault lines will crack open if the monolithic government is swept away.

“There are Christian sects in Syria and there are different kinds of Muslims,” she said.

“Conviviality predates the coming to power of this regime.

“They are not madly in love with one another, but they are certainly not going to kill each other or fall into ethnic strife, especially having seen Lebanon on one side and Iraq on the other.”

By Catherine Field | Email Catherine