Syrian churches cancel Good Friday rituals

DAMASCUS, Syria, April 22 (UPI) — Churches across Syria canceled outdoor Good Friday services as the country braced for “Great Friday” protests that organizers vowed would be the biggest yet.

“All of the Syrian churches have decided this together because of the bad situation and because of the martyrs who have died in recent days, out of respect for them,” Bishop Philoxenos Mattias, assistant to the Syriac Orthodox Church patriarchate in Damascus told The Daily Telegraph of London.

Services for the Christian minorities, estimated at about 2 million people, will still take place inside the churches, but all street processions and public music performances have been canceled, he told the newspaper.

“We decided to postpone them till next year,” he said.

Normally, streets in the Christian quarters of Damascus and other cities would see parades by uniformed marching bands and choirboys, and even re-enactments of the crucifixion of Jesus.

“Things are not good here — how can we celebrate?” a nun speaking from a monastery who asked not to be identified told the newspaper “People are very sad. We cannot celebrate because of all the martyrs who have lost their lives and because of all the destruction that has taken place. We are only going to pray.”

The Good Friday services coincide this year with massive pro-democracy protests planned in the capital, Damascus, and several other key cities after Islam’s Jumu’ah Friday prayer.

The protests come a day after embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad overturned Syria’s half-century-old emergency law, in a bid to defuse the popular protests rattling the country for more than a month.

Even as he signed decrees repealing harsh emergency rule in place since 1963 and granting citizens the right to protest peacefully with government approval, Syrian police officers, soldiers and military vehicles amassed in Damascus and Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, residents told The New York Times.

Homs, an industrial center with 1.5 million people, is where a government crackdown this week dispersed one of the largest gatherings since demonstrations began last month.

Army units also took up positions in and around the city of Daraa in southwestern Syria near the Jordanian border, where the protests first erupted in March, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Organizers have looked to Friday’s demonstrations as possibly being the moment when the pro-democracy movement might build the critical mass reached in Egypt and Tunisia, the Times said.

They also saw them as a litmus test to see if Assad’s government would live by the decrees he signed.

The unrest poses the gravest threat to Assad’s rule since he succeeded his father, Hafez Assad, 11 years ago.

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