SaudiLeaks Document: Did Saudi Arabia Barter in Christian Lives at the Vatican? Here’s the Full Translation

THE BELOW IS A COMPLETE TRANSLATION of the Saudi cable released by WikiLeaks, which came under scrutiny this week after WikiLeaks announced the following via Twitter on Monday with a link to the document: “Saudi to Vatican: Help us bring down Assad and we will spare the Christians.”

The initial tweet has since been deleted after controversy over whether the Arabic actually implies this, and was replaced by the following:

Whether WikiLeaks overstated the contents or not, the document at the very least reveals that the Saudi king (since 1964 also referred to as “prime minister”) took significant steps in April 2012 to do PR damage control concerning the Syrian opposition’s image.

In late March of 2012 the official Vatican news agency, Agenzia Fides, published a report citing “an ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians” by anti-government fighters in Homs based on Syrian Orthodox church sources—this report quickly made world headlines. It was further widely reported in international press that 90% of the large Christian population of Homs had been forcibly expelled and their homes confiscated by rebel fighters.

As Saudia Arabia was giving public political support to the opposition at this time, as well as clandestine military support to rebel fighters through a joint CIA program reported by the New York Times to have begun in early 2012, it seems the kingdom was fully aware that the Christian problem could turn world public opinion against the armed rebels—many of which were expressly sectarian in their ideology—and their external backers.

The WikiLeaks Saudi trove contains another revelatory cable, undated, which speaks of a desire to “with all known possible methods bring down the current regime in Syria.

Amman-based Albawaba News, which is one of the largest online news providers in the Middle East, published an English translation of the following relevant passage:

The kingdom took its firm position and there is no longer room to withdraw. There must be emphasis on the truth that the Syrian regime’s first goal, to bypass its current crisis, is the revenge of the countries that stand against it, and the kingdom and some of the Gulf countries are on top of the list. If we take into consideration the range of the cruelty of that regime, its inhumanity and its lack of hesitation to use any way to accomplish its goals, then there is a high degree of danger for the kingdom, making it crucial to aim — with all known possible methods — to bring down the current regime in Syria.

This “bring down the regime” document, alongside the below newly translated Saudi-Vatican document wherein it is clear that the Vatican was being urged by Saudi Arabia to publicly support the revolution in Syria, should give us cause for serious consideration of WikiLeaks’ summary assertion of the secretive document: “Help us bring down Assad and we will ensure Christians are spared from retaliation.”

Was the Saudi emissary sent on this high priority mission (presumably then permanent foreign minister Saud bin Faysal) employing a carrot-and-stick approach while subtly using the lives of Syrian Christians?

THE BELOW is the first English translation of the Saudi-Vatican document on the web, courtesy of a Levant Report team member who is a published scholar of Arabic and Middle East History.


 

(Secret and Urgent)

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Prime Minister

May God preserve him

I am honored to refer to Directive No. 24616 dated 15.5.1433 [= April 7, 2012] which contains approval for sending a delegation to meet with the foreign minister of the Vatican bearing a verbal message from me urging them to encourage the Christians to support the movement of the Syrian people and to reassure them that all parties who support the Syrian people are committed to the rights of minorities in Syria and, in the event of the fall of the Syrian regime, will not accept for them to be subjected to any acts of retribution.

I am pleased to present for your consideration that I delegated His Excellency Abassador Raed bin Khaled Grimly to meet with His Excellency the Minister of Foreign Affairs Archbishop Dominic Mamberti at the Vatican on Thursday, 20.5.1433 [= April 12, 2012] and he transmitted to His Excellency a verbal message regarding Syria, which has experienced an unacceptable and dangerous deterioration in its situation, that we affirm, along with the rest of the friends of the Syrian people, our complete commitment to the rights and freedoms of all members of the Syrian people of the various sects and ethnicities, that we absolutely will not accept for any elements of Syrian society to be subjected to acts of retribution, exclusion or marginalization and therefore we have continued to work to unite the Syrian opposition and to affirm its declared and reliable commitment to establish a regime that guarantees the rights, freedoms and equality of everyone without exception, and that we support a political solution and a peaceful transfer of authority but this requires the maximum possible pressure to be put on the regime to stop the killing, carry out its commitments, and be persuaded that it is not possible to achieve a military victory. For his part, His Excellency expressed his eagerness for continued communication between the two sides, affirming their expectation for development in relations based on what Your Highness has agreed […]


Note: the following page to the WikiLeaks document is not locatable or is unavailable, hence the text ends with the top page.

Permission is given to freely distribute the above translation with reference to LevantReport.com

A Marine in Syria: Silhouettes of Beauty and Coexistence before the Devastation

He who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is.    

—Talleyrand, via Bertolucci, from the 1964 film Prima della Rivoluzione

IRAQ, LIBYA, SYRIA… Countries ripped apart through sectarian and political violence in the aftermath of cataclysmic external interventions: American invasion and occupation in Iraq, NATO intervention in Libya, and international proxy war in Syria. Mere mention of these countries conjures images of sectarian driven atrocities and societal collapse into the abyss of a Hobbesian jungle. And now it is commonplace to just assume it’s always been so. Increasingly, one hears from all corners of public discourse the lazily constructed logic, “but they’ve always hated each other”… or “violence and conflict are endemic to the region.” But it was not always so — I found a place of beauty, peace, and coexistence in a Syria that is now almost never acknowledged, and which risks being forgotten about. But Syrians themselves will never forget…

Read the rest of “A Marine in Syria” at Medium.com

The Persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and What We Can Do About It

For more details go here.

Orthodox Church of Antioch: the West feigns empathy for a problem of its own making

There’s been renewed American media coverage and discussion of the Middle East’s Christian population as a result of Islamic State’s (ISIS) purging of Christians in Mosul. While this attention is good, the entire presentation and discussion of current threats to the region’s Christians continues to be driven by distorted assumptions, contributing to a false and dangerous narrative that will only exacerbate and prolong the persecution. This false narrative tends to assume that western countries are benevolent players in the region, standing up for the rights of native Christians and against Islamic extremism.

France’s recent declaration of amnesty and resettlement assistance for Iraqi Christians was met, in various Christian and conservative corners, with celebration and adulation. Why can’t the U.S. issue the same appeal as France? “Why not us?” …some commentators are asking. Yet this completely ignores the root of the real threat to the Middle East’s Christians. This week’s official statement by the Orthodox Church of Antioch speaks to the heart of the problem, and cuts through the false narrative:

In the midst of all destruction which is taking place in the Middle East and with the recent events like killings and displacements which affected Christians and others, and in the midst of the conflicts in Syria and the attack on Gaza, we hear some officials of Western governments giving  declarations from time to time or publishing some “studies” to express their unreal empathy with Christians of certain areas and showing their solidarity with them, describing their circumstances in a way that supports the logic of minorities. But the most recent of these declarations  is that of the French government regarding its readiness to accept the Iraqi Christians and granting them a political asylum, in addition to the study issued by the American Ministry of Foreign Affairs that describes the presence of the Christians in the Middle East as “a shadow of its former status”.

We, in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, would like to confirm that the difficult circumstances in the East do not justify  anybody’s attempt to misuse them as “Trojan Horse” to empty the East from its Christians, declaring  that what Christians are confronting in the East is similar to what is happening to religious or ethnic minorities in other places of the world. We believe that helping the  inhabitants of the East, Christians or Muslims, starts with  uprooting terrorism  from its homeland and  stop nourishing the movements of extremism and Takfirism (religious prejudice) , whose financial resources  are very well known as well as  the states and the governments that offer them  the ideological, logistic and military support through undeclared international alliances.

Some American Christians might be bewildered at such a harsh condemnation of France’s offer from the Orthodox Church, but some essential background information is necessary.

First and foremost, it must be remembered that the Islamist groups that have been, for at least the past two years, targeting Christians for kidnapping, extortion, and murder, are funded, armed, trained, and politically supported by Western and NATO powers and their Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Above left: Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, in northern Syria in May 2013 with rebel “Free” Syrian Army Colonel Abdul-Jabbar who at that time was head of the western backed and funded Aleppo Military Council (video here). Above right: “Free” Syrian Army Colonel Abdul-Jabbar with ISIS Emir Abu Jandal after their forces jointly capture Menagh Military Airbase in Aleppo province, August 2013 (video here and here). [Photo and commentary courtesy of Orontes:Syrian Christians in a Time of Conflict]

As I detailed last February, the terrorist coalition that attacked the Christian towns of Maaloula and Saidnaya included not just the “bad Islamists” like Al-Nusra (in Washington’s rhetoric), but “Free Syrian Army” units as well, which are directly supported by Washington, even the point of receiving US government paid salaries. As for groups like Nusra (a transplant of Al-Qaeda in Iraq), Islamic Front, and ISIS, these are funded out of Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait -all allies of the West and Washington.

When Middle Eastern Christian leaders frequently speak of the “West’s silence” when it comes to the systematic razing of churches, they aren’t just pointing to a failure to speak out, but are highlighting the actual complicity of Western policy-makers.

The Christian city of Saidnaya has been under constant rebel threat over the past year. US and Saudi backed rebels have promised to cleanse the region of its 2000-year-old Christian presence.

The Christian city of Saidnaya has been under constant rebel threat over the past year. US and Saudi backed rebels have promised to cleanse the region of its 2000-year-old Christian presence.

France itself led the way in getting the EU to lift an arms embargo on Syria, for the express purpose of allowing weapons/money to flow to Islamist rebel groups (the very groups now persecuting Christians). Now that these very groups (that France itself has given some degree of material support to) are cleansing Eastern Syria/Iraq of its ancient Christian population, France presents itself as the benevolent “good guy” ready to receive Christians with outstretched arms. The Patriarchate of Antioch certainly understands that refugees need help, but is ultimately calling out France (and others in the West) for its contradictory and hypocritical policies. Instead, the Patriarchate says that France should be “helping the people of the Levant, Christians and Muslims… by uprooting terrorism from their land and stop nurturing the takfiri groups.”

Downtown Damascus

Downtown Damascus

It’s further important to understand that the Christians of the Middle East present a real problem for Western policy makers. Christians have been integrally linked to nationalist Arab politics of the 20th century.  They are not, like many in the West assume, a mere forgotten minority on the sidelines, but are key parts of Levantine societies (esp. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine). Go to any major city in the near East and you’re likely to find large, ancient churches dominating the skyline alongside Muslim minarets. Middle East Christians have consistently voiced that any future political solution to the region must involve the input of the region’s sizeable and influential Christians.

Father of Arab nationalism Constantin Zureiq, an Antiochian Orthodox Christian (Wikimedia Commons)

Father of Arab nationalism Constantin Zureiq, an Antiochian Orthodox Christian

Sadly, “western solutions” to Middle East problems have sought to completely sideline the Christian component in these societies. This is partly because it has long been official Western policy to actively fight against Arab nationalism (a movement founded by Orthodox Christians like Constantin Zureiq and Michel Aflaq). More recently it’s been the policy of the West to woo the region away from pluralistic secular nationalism (represented by the Ba’ath for example), and to instead impose ethno-religious statelets, which spells trouble for the Christians. Western planners have made no room for Middle East Christians in their schemes.

One potential map of the Middle East, created by retired Col. Ralph Peters, envisions a future division according to Shia, Sunni, Kurdish regions, with absolutely no place for Christians, who will be “cleansed” through genocide or forced immigration. One article Peters wrote was called “Blood Borders” because he admitted that minorities would have to be killed off for his map to make sense! (Yes, as in well-known FOX News contributor Ralph Peters).

While some might understandably benefit by France’s latest offer, and this is good for those individuals and families who have already suffered enough, the Patriarchate has a firm understanding of the current and future designs of Western policy makers. Ethno-religious sectarianism was not a shaping reality for 20th century Arab nationalist movements, but is the long-term strategic plan of Saudi Arabia. Through the help of its closest ally, the United States, along with other western countries, the logic of sectarianism is being implemented, and there are few who understand the nature of the game.

muslim-christian-division-2

 

Damascus and Baghdad: A Marine’s Syrian Education

My article written for Foreign Policy Journal (6/26/14).

FP JOURNAL– Last week, Sami Ramadani undertook the urgent task of giving Western audiences a history lesson on the supposed entrenched sectarian violence of modern Iraq. His The Sectarian Myth of Iraq, written for The Guardian, sends a message rarely acknowledged in the English speaking world: “We coexisted peacefully for centuries, and need neither brutal dictators nor western intervention.”

He explodes the illusion that Iraq and the Middle East in general is but a cauldron of historically rooted Shia-Sunni sectarian animosities, and that the current crisis is reducible to the region’s supposedly incurable religious violence—a mentality that has become a truism in the media and foreign policy establishment. This misperception spills over into common American discourse as the simplistic “Arabs hate each other,” or “this is a centuries old religious conflict.” But Ramadani’s point is proven by his wealth of historical references; his conclusions further run counter to everything Americans have been told about Iraqi society:

The most serious sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq’s modern history followed the 2003 US-led occupation, which faced massive popular opposition and resistance. The US had its own divide-and-rule policy, promoting Iraqi organisations founded on religion, ethnicity, nationality or sect rather than politics. Many senior officers in the newly formed Iraqi army came from these organisations and Saddam’s army. This was exacerbated three years ago, when sectarian groups in Syria were backed by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Many in American government and media have been asking over the past week: “How do we keep getting the Middle East so wrong?” There are many avenues of approach to this question, but perhaps the simplest and most basic, confirmed in my own experience, is that Americans continue to see the region according to simplistic stereotypes, caricatures, and orientalist abstractions. American assumptions never line up with Eastern realities, yet our power combined with ignorance continues to sow disaster. It might help for American policymakers to simply travel to those places they are intent on changing, and to live among the common populace for an extended period –doing so would likely shatter many illusions.

I served in the Marine Corps during the first years of the Iraq War and was a 9/11 first responder while stationed at Headquarters Battalion Quantico 2000-2004. I thought I knew something about Iraq upon the start of our new “war on terror”: Arab culture, with its intrinsic primal religious passions and resulting sectarian divisions, must be brought to heel under Western values of pluralism, secularism, and equality if peace and stability are to ever have a chance. This was a guiding assumption among the many Marine officers, active and retired, that I conversed with during my years at Quantico. Iraqis and Middle Easterners were, for us, abstractions that fit neatly into categories learned about by viewing a C-span lecture, or perhaps in a college class or two: there are Sunnis, Shia, some dissident sects, they all mistrust each other, and they all want theocratic states with their group in charge.

My first visit to the region as a civilian desiring to study Arabic in 2004, after completion of active duty military service, began a process of undoing every assumption I’d ever imbibed concerning Middle East culture, politics, and conflict. An initial visit to Syria from Lebanon was the start of something that my Marine buddies could hardly conceive of: Damascus became my second home through frequent travel and lengthy stays from 2004 to 2010, and was my place of true education on the real life and people of the region. While my fellow servicemen were just across Syria’s border settling in to the impossible task of occupying a country they had no understanding of, I was able view a semblance of Iraq as it once was through the prism of highly stable Ba’athist Syria.

During my first weeks in Damascus, I was pleasantly shocked at just how wrong my simplistic ideas about region were. I expected to find a society full of veiled women, mosques on every street corner, religious police looking over shoulders, rabid anti-American sentiment preached to angry crowds, persecuted Christians and crumbling hidden churches, prudish separation of the sexes, and so on. I quickly realized during my first few days and nights in Damascus, that Syria was a far cry from my previous imaginings, which were probably more reflective of Saudi Arabian life and culture.

What I actually found was mostly unveiled women wearing European fashions and sporting bright makeup – many of them wearing blue jeans and tight clothes. I saw groups of teenage boys and girls mingling in trendy cafes late into the night, displaying expensive cell phones. There were plenty of mosques, but almost every neighborhood had a large church or two with crosses figured prominently in the Damascus skyline. As I walked near the Old City, I was surprised to find entire streets lined with large stone and marble churches. At night, all of the crosses atop these churches were lit up, outlined with blue fluorescent lighting, visible for miles; and in some parts of the Damascus skyline these blue crosses even outnumbered the green-lit minarets of mosques. Historic synagogues were also accessible and well-kept in the small Jewish quarter of Old City Damascus and in the famous National Museum.

More surprising than the presence of prominent brightly lit churches, was the number of restaurant bars and alcohol kiosks clustered around the many city squares. One could get two varieties of Syrian-made beer, or a few international selections like Heineken or Amstel, with relative ease. The older central neighborhoods, as well as the more upscale modern suburbs, had a common theme: endless numbers of restaurants filled with carefree Syrians, partying late into the night with poker cards, boisterous discussion, alcohol, hookah smoke, cigarettes, and elaborate oriental pastries and desserts. I got to know local Syrians while frequenting random restaurants during my first few weeks in Damascus. I came into contact with people representative of Syria’s ethnically and religiously diverse capital city: Christians, Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Armenians, Palestinians, and a number of Arab atheists. The characterization of Syrian city life that increasingly came to my mind during my first, and many subsequent visits and extended stays, was of Syria as a consciously pluralistic and secular society.

Syrian cities (and government organizations) are very much like Iraq before the war: neighborhoods are mixed, and people don’t identify themselves primarily along sectarian lines; “I am Syrian” or “I am Iraqi” is typically as far as you’ll get with “identity” type discourse. In fact, it is generally considered rude to even inquire of a person’s particular religious or ethnic background in daily conversation (much as it is in most parts of the world). The secularist, pluralist, and “Syrian first” attitude, more palpably experienced in urban centers, was a far cry from the simple caricature of “passionate, sectarian, conservative Islamic society” I’d been given while in the Marines and by American culture in general.

I certainly witnessed plenty of examples of Islamic conservatism in Syrian public life, but it was the secular and pluralistic (represented in the diverse population living side by side) aspect that always seemed to dominate, whether I was in Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, or coastal areas like Tartus. Syria’s committed secular identify was confirmed to me more than ever when I first traveled the freeway that wraps around Mt. Qasyoon—the small mountain against which the Damascus urban center is nestled. My speeding taxi passed a couple of expansive foreign car dealerships, but most prominent were a seeming myriad number of windowless entertainment venues, structured like residential mansions, lining both sides of the road. My taxi driver laughed at my perplexed expression and informed me that this was “brothel row” (my translation)—a place where guys go to drink and have their pick of East European, Syrian, and Iraqi women.

When I later got to know a group of Syrian Christian guys—enough to where I could ask potentially awkward or embarrassing questions—they confirmed, with some degree of shame, that all big cities in Syria have their seedy underbellies (“like your Nevada,” my friend Michel said). Places like brothels and “pick-up bars” were allowed to operate in public, but didn’t necessarily advertise what they were about. It was explained to me that while the Syrian government was deeply authoritarian in some respects, it generally allowed (and enforced) openness in social and religious areas unparalleled anywhere in the Middle East. I was told by many Syrians and Iraqis that Iraqi society had been little different from Syria prior to U.S. occupation. Most blamed the Americans and Western powers for the religious nature of Iraq’s resulting civil war, and the ultra-conservative path of the competing sects.

Syrian Ba’ath society, like pre-invasion Iraq, was never ideal; yet, it certainly escapes the many false stereotypes that have come to define the American outlook on the region. Baghdad was very much like Damascus prior to the American invasion: Iraqi nationalism, regardless of sectarian creed, was the organizing principle of the secular Ba’ath state. It is a tragic shame that those U.S. personnel sent to occupy Iraq never got to experience the country before the 2003 invasion. They would have learned the important reality: “We coexisted peacefully for centuries, and need neither brutal dictators nor western intervention.”

New Eastern Outlook: “The West’s War on Middle East Christians” by Ulson Gunnar

New Eastern Outlook (4/27/14) – TIME Magazine’s article, “Christians and Tyrants: Why the Middle East’s Persecuted Minority is Making Unholy Choices,” is an attempt to explain to impressionable Western audiences why Christians (and other minorities) have stalwartly backed both the military-led government in Egypt and the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria for now over 3 years.

TIME implies in title alone, that they’ve erred or compromised themselves by doing so. But as we will soon see, nothing could be further from the truth, and the support these minorities exhibit for their respective protectors now is a result of protection offered to them by secular leaders against foreign-backed sectarian extremists for decades.

TIME’s Tall Tale 

TIME begins by describing the overrunning of the Syrian town of Raqqa. It claims that the Islamic State of Iaq and Greater Syria (ISIS aka Al Qaeda in Iraq ‘AQI,’ a US designated terrorist organization) overpowered “more moderate rebel brigades,” and subsequently subjected Christians to persecution under their rule.

Some 3,000 Christians fled, leaving only small number behind to be beheaded, flogged, and otherwise abused, tortured, and systematically exterminated. TIME claims Al Qaeda has even disavowed ISIS for its extreme violence, perhaps hoping readers don’t realize ISIS is in fact Al Qaeda, and that Al Qaeda’s other brands in Syria, including the al-Nusra front, is similarly abusing other minorities across Syria, including most recently in Kessab in the north, with NATO backing.

TIME then goes on to expand its deceptive narrative to include Christians across the Middle East, admitting that under Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, despite “nightmarish human-rights abuses” they “tended to protect Christian minorities and kept much of the region relatively stable.” The deception here is obvious. The so-called “human rights abuses” TIME refers to was in fact the long struggle Iraq, Egypt, and many other nations across the Middle East and North Africa fought against sectarian extremists, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood and the proto-Al Qaeda militant groups it spawned.

TIME claims that while most Christians have fled in the wake of Western meddling and the resulting chaos, those that have remained are “supporting authoritarian regimes in exchange for protection.”

In regards to this TIME claims, “…the Coptic Pope has tactically supported military dictatorship for decades and recently backed the leader of last year’s coup, former field marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, for May’s presidential election. In Syria church leaders have tolerated 40 years of Assad family rule for fear of an Islamist alternative. Such self-preservation puts Christian leaders in the camp of strongmen who frequently use violence against their own people. In backing these authoritarian regimes, those leaders and their supporters have failed to help their countries develop into states where justice, the rule of law and tolerance are applied evenly, not just to the ruling sect and its allies.”

Deconstructing the West’s Assault on Christians and other Minorities 

“Strongmen who frequently use violence against their own people…” TIME claims.

Which people? Surely not the Alawites, Christians, Armenians, Druze, Coptics, Jews, or secular communities. So who? And why?

TIME never says, but the answer is painfully clear. These “strongmen” are using violence against sectarian extremists, heavily armed, well funded, and backed by the enemies of the states’ over which these “strongmen” rule. TIME’s obtuse narrative represents a larger pattern of deceit executed across the entirety of the West’s political landscape. They create violent opposition groups to infiltrate and destabilize nations they seek regime-change within, then spin the predictable and inevitable security operations launched to confront them as “violence used against their own people.” Such tactics were used in Libya, Syria, and now being spun end-over-end in Ukraine.

TIME, through quoting an “anonymous Christian” who left his sect because of its “support for Assad,” claims that, “if Syrian’s Christians had sided with the revolution in the fist place, standing , like Jesus, in solidarity with all those oppressed by the regime I don’t think we would be in this situation today.”

This is, however, factually absurd. It was decided, long before the “revolution” began, that sectarian extremists would be the armed “fist” leading regime-change engineered not by the Syrian people, but by the enemies of the Syrian state, namely the United States, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Israel. This was revealed by veteran journalist Seymour Hersh in a prophetic and quite lengthy 2007 report titled, “The Redirection” published by the New Yorker.

That TIME even admits in their most recent article that “the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria,” “seized Raqqa in May 2013 from more moderate rebel brigades,” tells readers that despite the United States and its allies funding and arming these “more moderate rebel brigades” with billions of dollars over the last three years, somehow ISIS is being paid and armed even better by “someone else.” Who is that, if the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and many others are busy funding and arming “moderates?”

The answer exposes both the lies of TIME Magazine and the larger lies regarding the narrative and agenda TIME is contributing toward.

Read the complete article here…

Syrian Priest to LA Times: “The West is practicing a double standard: Would they let these militants into their countries to destroy everything?”

The rebels destroyed churches and icons all throughout Maaloula. Church leaders did a recent tour of the Christian city to survey the damage. Photo credit: Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. View more photos of Maaloula destruction here.

“In Syria’s capital, residents recall a sectarian tolerance gone by,”    Patrick J. McDonnell, LOS ANGELES TIMES

DAMASCUS, Syria — The thud of mortar shelling alternated with tolling church bells Friday as the Christians of this capital’s ancient Bab Touma district marked Good Friday amid extremely tight security.

The Easter Week processions that once featured tens of thousands walking the cobblestoned streets of the Old City now are confined to the close vicinity of churches. Soldiers and militiamen checked everyone coming and going on Friday; vehicular traffic was largely closed off as a precaution against car bombs.

Three years into its civil war, Syria is deeply wounded, its 23 million people in a state of shock at the magnitude of the destruction, incredulous that their nation, once known for its religious moderation and cultural tolerance, has become a sectarian killing ground.

Some express hope that major combat could be over by the end of the year, as President Bashar Assad has predicted. Others worry that the war could drag on for years, perhaps rivaling neighboring Lebanon’s 15-year sectarian conflict, which ended in 1990.

A wave of rebel mortar attacks that have struck Bab Touma and other districts of the capital in recent weeks has further eroded the muted optimism that was evident earlier this year. Authorities call the strikes on the government-controlled capital indiscriminate acts of desperation by opposition forces facing disarray and defeat in the battlefield.

Christian worshipers in Bab Touma were on edge Friday after a mortar attack this week that struck the yard of a nearby Christian school, killing a 10-year-old boy and injuring dozens of children. A banner hung on the neighborhood’s Roman-era stone gate memorialized the dead boy, Sinar Matanyos, as a “victim of the rotten crime they called revolution.”

At the other end of the Old City, at the landmark Umayyad Mosque, a shoemaker and grandfather who goes by the nickname Abu Bessam bemoaned the embittered state of his native land.

“We never thought about sectarianism; I never knew the word,” Abu Bessam, 71, said after Friday prayers, as others in the vast courtyard nodded in agreement. “We all used to live together and never care about sect or religion.”

Over and over, individual Syrians insist to visitors that they never knew the faith of their closest friends. Now, however, one’s sect has become a defining trait, something that can mean life or death, detention or freedom.

One young banker here says he lets his mostly Christian co-workers think he is a Christian, though he is in fact a Sunni Muslim. It eases suspicion, he explains. Similar stories abound.

“I used to go to cafes and sit with my friends — Sunnis, Christians, Alawites — it never mattered to me,” Abu Bessam said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I never even asked where people came from. Those days are gone.”

Many can’t bring themselves to point the finger at their fellow Syrians. Militants from across the globe imported this toxic view to Syria, they insist

“It wasn’t Syrians — it was the Saudis, the Chechens, the ones who cut people’s heads off,” said a baker in a Christian town in Homs province, running his fingers across his neck in a throat-slitting motion.

Still, many on each side blame the other for the enmity.

The uprising against Assad, a member of the minority Alawite Muslim sect, arose from the disaffected ranks of the nation’s Sunni majority, though many Sunnis remain aligned with the government and serve in the military. Alawites, Christians, Shiites, Druze and other minority groups have generally remained on the loyalist side, fearing that the rise of Sunni Islamist militants to power could threaten their existence in Syria.

Opposition activists say the Assad government fueled hatred in a bid to portray itself as a defender of Syria’s suddenly vulnerable minorities. It is an article of faith among many opposition advocates that the government somehow facilitated the rise of Al Qaeda-style militant rebel groups, though no definitive evidence exists for the allegation, and the government dismisses it as absurd.

In largely loyalist districts, residents inevitably blame “terrorists” and foreign backers, from Riyadh to Washington.

“The West is practicing a double standard: Would they let these militants into their countries to destroy everything?” asked Father Gabriel Daoud, one of a number of Syriac Orthodox priests presiding at traditional Good Friday Mass…

Read the full article here…