Ancient marches in Damascus (updated)

Something very sobering and terrible is sinking in for Western journalists who are covering the uprising in the Middle East. They are beginning to wonder if the outcomes of these revolutions will automatically be good or, at least, “good” as defined in terms of civil liberties and human rights as they are promoted at, let’s say, the United Nations.

In other words, sadly, there may be isolated situations on this earth in which totalitarian governments do a better job of protecting the rights of religious and ethnic minorities (or sexual minorities, for that matter) than governments that represent unfettered majority rule.

This has, of course, been a minor theme running through the mainstream press coverage of the flight of Eastern Christians from Iraq and other nations in that region. Every now and then, the mainstream press also notes the plight of the Bahai’s in Iran. Gays in Iran? Every now and then.

In other words, could there be a dark side to the Twitter and Facebook revolutions in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere? Surely not. I mean, the Copts have been asking for it, right?

That was an extreme way of saying what I am trying to say.

Here is the key, for me, as we watch the unfolding events in Syria. This is a hard news story to tell, if you want a simplistic good side and a bad side. Yes, there are people who are crying out for justice. That theme is there. And they want an end to corruption. True. But many of the demonstrators have defined these terms in terms of an Islamic state — of one kind or another. What will the majority choose?

With that question in mind, read the following chunk of this current New York Times report from Syria:

“We want revenge, and we want blood,” said Abu Mohamed, a protester in Azra, a southern town that had the highest death toll Friday. “Blood for blood.”

The breadth of the protests — and people’s willingness to defy security forces who were deployed en masse — painted a picture of turmoil in one of the Arab world’s most authoritarian countries. In scenes unprecedented only weeks ago, protesters tore down pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and toppled statues of his father, Hafez, in two towns on the capital’s outskirts, according to witnesses and video footage.

But despite the bloodshed, which promised to unleash another day of unrest as the dead are buried Saturday, the scale of the protests, so far, seemed to fall short of the popular upheaval of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Organizers said the movement was still in its infancy, and the government, building on 40 years of institutional inertia, still commanded the loyalty of the military, economic elite and sizable minorities of Christian and heterodox Muslim sects who fear the state’s collapse.

Maybe I have missed something in earlier coverage, but I do not think that I have seen the rights of religious minorities mentioned this high in earlier reports on these recent revolutions.

So do these religious minorities (note the presence of Islamic minorities) have strong feelings of loyalty to the old regime? That is not what the story said. The story says that they feel what would come after the fall.

What comes next? The implication is majority rule. These bloody clashes with the government forces have been coming when? After Friday prayers. What do Friday prayers represent? The evidence is that the mosques represent majority will.

Here is why I bring this up. Today is Holy Saturday. At midnight tonight, Eastern and Western Christians will be marching through the streets of Damascus (as well as other cities and towns in the Middle East and around the world) as they begin the celebration of the greatest feast in Christianity — Pascha (or Easter in the West).

Will they march tonight? They have for centuries. What will happen in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere in the context of the current tensions? I do not know. But this is how the Times story ends:

In Homs, where major protests erupted this week, activists said security forces and plainclothes police officers flooded the city, setting up checkpoints and preventing all but a few dozen people from gathering. By afternoon, one resident said the streets were deserted, the silence punctuated every 15 minutes or so by gunfire.

“We closed the windows and the curtains and hid at home,” one woman said via Skype. “The gunfire was so loud and close.” She added, “God save us.”

My own parish is part of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, which has roots that go back to Damascus — for centuries the home of the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch. In the early hours of Pascha, we will pray for peace and justice in Damascus and the rest of the Middle East.

This year, I know, we will also pray for the safety of believers there. We will be praying for those that march in the streets once again, as they have marched for centuries, in the darkness that comes before dawn.

UPDATED: It appears that the government has, in effect, canceled Pascha, or a crucial part of it. Click here for the Washington Post story on this development.

IMAGE: The Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    there may be isolated situations on this earth in which totalitarian governments do a better job of protecting the rights of religious and ethnic minorities (or sexual minorities, for that matter) than governments that represent unfettered majority rule.

    I think this is an idea which has currency in some politicized media outlets.

    I think what is missing from a lot of coverage is historical perspective. We can easily go back to the case of the Yugoslavia breakup and the atrocities which followed. But there are many more historical examples which could inform media coverage.

    Another perspective should be kept in mind is that an absolute ruler can, through application of state terrorism, succeed in suppressing bigotry for a time. But sooner or later things will explode. There is a human cost of torturing those who love freedom and subjecting millions to a reign of fear that also needs to be reflected in stories.

    And finally what is almost totally missing is coverage of anyone planning for how to deal with revolutions that succeed but, to no surprise, are not walks in the park for everyone, especially religious minorities.

  • Dave

    Jerry, I think you’re missing Terry’s main point, which is (as usual) journalistic. I have actually heard some warnings, in the various PBS talking-heads lineups, of Islamist takeovers of current Arab rebellions, but it’s counterpoint at best. There’s scant sign the MSM have actually done this kind of third-domino-hence thinking, which means we lack a clear idea of whether the US State Dept, whom we count upon to think that way, has done it.

  • Charles Collins

    Okay, what I am about to say is a minor quibble have little to do with the subject at hand(and one I have made before).

    But, Terry, every year you keep saying something along the lines of “Pascha (or Easter in the West)”. Well, that is just a silly thing to say. It is not “Easter in the West”. The liturgical language of the West is Latin, and Easter is actually Pascha – the exact same word – in Latin.

    It is Pasqua in Italian (the seat of the papacy), Pascua in Spanish (the language of the plurality of Western Christians), and similar words in all Romance languages. Yes, some Germanic languages, like English, used different words not related to Passover, but “the West” did not.

    The fact is, Eastern Orthodox who immigrated to the United States (and England) chose not to translate Pascha into English. It is a linguistic anomaly that does not affect most of the world, where Western and Eastern Christians live side by side, and use the same word for Easter.

    But your constant “In the East we do not call it Easter, like you do in the West” is just wrong. And for someone running a site dedicated to accuaracy in religious reporting, its a silly thing to keep saying, year after year.

  • Julia

    What Charles said.

  • Roberto

    What Charles and Julia said. As I type this, I am looking forward to hearing Victimae Paschali Laudes sung at my parish in about 2 hours.

  • Chris Jones

    What Charles, Julia, and Roberto said. The words for the feast of the Resurrection in several Western European languages are: Pasg (Welsh), Casc (Irish), Pâques (French), Pascua (Italian), Pasqua (Catalan), Pasen (Dutch), Paske (Danish), Pääsiäinen (Finnish), Páskar (Icelandic), Påske (Norwegian), Påsk (Swedish).

    As against this, there are a few Western languages that use words that do not appear to be cognate with the Greek “Pascha”: English, of course, and German (Ostern), Hungarian (Húsvét), Lithuanian (Velykos), and Latvian (Lieldienas (which literally means “Big Day”)). But there are several bona fide “Eastern” languages which also use words other than some form of “Pascha”: Georgian (Aghdgoma), Bulgarian (Velikden), Serbian (Uskrs), and Macedonian (Veligden).

    Most European languages, West or East, use a cognate of “Pascha”; a few European languages do not, but no more in the West than in the East.

  • Caro

    Hear, hear to what Charles etc. said.

  • J

    Our society, including it’s religious institutions, tend to encourage belief that people and events are either good or evil. The reality, to me, is that nothing is purely good or evil. When violence begins, we have to justify the violence as a fight of good against evil, which inspires a similar response from opponents.

    Our violence in Iraq no doubt removed a brutal dictator, but at a cost, both in Iraq lives and perhaps in Middle East security since Iran now has the upper hand in a majority ruled Iraq. Our violence has lead to the deterioration of the Christian community in Iraq, an unintended consequence, by taking the lid off Hussein kept on sectarian tensions. But was the intervention right or wrong, when all the pluses and minuses are added up? I struggle not to judge at this point…and I must continue not to judge conclusively. My leaning is against the side of violence, but sometimes violence may be the right answer.

    I appreciate your post because you have realized the complexity of the Syrian situation. Democracy may or may not be a winner at the end of the day; minority ethnic and religious groups may or may not be winners. We must seek to understand the concerns of the protestors, and the reasons for the government’s violence. Good journalism will present both the “good” and “evil” possibilities in both. The truth is seldom as tidy and neat as we may wish.

  • tmatt

    Julia, Charles et al:

    Sorry, you are all wrong at the level of NEWSPAPERS.

    Are all of your headlines this morning referring to Pascha activities?

    Of course not. Pascha is, in the context of public speech in the American media, a word associated with the churches of the East. Easter is the word USED IN PUBLIC in the West.

    I know all that you said and it’s fine for discussions on Catholic blogs. Have fun.

    Now back to newspapers and public language.

    I’m headed back to church for the Agape Vespers of Easter Day. What is THAT called in the West?

  • Roberto

    The Washington Post has a similar article on the plight of Syria’s Christians. It does a pretty good job of describing how any there are in Syria (about 10% of the population, roughly the same as in Egypt)and why they are concerned.

    The under-told story is how American Christians simply didn’t and still don’t see these Middle Eastern Christians. They supported the invasion of Iraq without once thinking about the impact on Iraqi Christians — I can say that because I was at “ground zero” of the Christian drum beat to war.

    Lawrence Kaplan in the New Republic has done God’s work in documenting their plight but part of his story — American missionaries following in the wake of invasion forces — was too hot a potato for American Christian leaders to pick up. (Actually, they understand what the problem was.)

  • Roberto

    Now back to newspapers and public language.

    Public language: Felices Pascuas, Bona Pasqua, Buona Pasqua, Joyeuses Pâques, Maligayang pasko ng pagkabuhay.

  • Charles Collins

    I disagree. Newspapers are using the English-language word for the day of celebration. Which is Easter. Most Eastern Orthdox do not use this word, using the original Greek – but it is the same thing – its just a linguistic in English. So if an Orthodox Church and Catholic Church gets attacked on the same day in Lebanon on Easter (when celebrated on the same day in a given year). Is the reporter really supposed to say “two churches got attacked, one during Easter and one during Pascha” even though in Lebanon both Churches would use the same word? The fact that in every other language, you could say the equivalent of “Easter Attacks in Lebanon”, but the English-language press is somehow irresponsible if they don’t make the distinction?

    And again, Easter is not the word used in public in “the West”. Its the word used in public in English.

  • tmatt

    OK, so let’s say that a fire broke out at my parish at about 2 a.m. this morning in the midst of the great Pascha service and reporters arrived to cover the story.

    In the text of this story, would they need to define and explain the word “Pascha” since people would keep using it in direct quotes? Of course they would. They either do that or they ignore what people are saying. Some scribes, alas, go to terms such as “Greek Easter.”

    Now, a fire breaks out at the Catholic parish down the block. Or a Baptist church. Or a Methodist church, etc. etc.

    The same reporters interview lots of parishioners and they all say what? They talk about this event happening on Easter Sunday. Right?

    In the Lebanese example, the reporters would need to do the same work to make sure that the quotes are clear to the reader. It really depends on what the people say and the clarity of the translation.

    This is simply basic journalism.

    Now, this year is a bit more complex than normal because Pascha and Easter are on the same day. Normally Pascha stories are on a different date and that difference is part of the story. That makes it easier to define terms.

    The key is accuracy and respect for the words people are speaking and the rites they are describing.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    I would say that Pascha is the Greek word for Easter and that the Orthodox use the word and go on with the quotes. I think your issue, Terry, is what you define as “the West.” In ‘Murka, we calls it Easter. In other countries in what *I* would consider “the West,” not so much. And in the US, I’d draw the distinction between the Orthodox, who use the Greek/Latin word, and pretty much everybody else. Not a geographic thing. And not even far as I can tell, a theological issue. Even the difference in setting the date of Easter/Pascha is pretty irrelevant to anybody not in the middle of it. However you set the date, the vast majority of the theology celebrated is identical. Certainly those points that an outsider would consider key.

    As to your broader question: Real freedom requires the freedom to do badly. Overt acts of anti-Semitism skyrocketed in the former USSR when the Soviet Union fell. The USSR kept a lid on free expression against Jews along with all the other forms of free expression it squelched. (The institutional bias against Judaism was partly the bias against all religious expression and tended not to lean toward violence.) Many Jews emigrated to the US and elsewhere during those years exactly because the new freedoms were being abused.

    Does that mean freedom isn’t worth the risk — and the absolutely inevitable misuse? Do you let a dictator oppress all the Syrians because he was somewhat protective of Christians? Now *that’s* an argument that I’d love to see addressed in a MSM. Religious ghosts haunting that question throughout history…

  • Chris Jones


    Nobody is suggesting that American newspapers ought to be using the word “Pascha” in their headlines. If you had simply written “Pascha (called ‘Easter’ in English),” there would have been no quibble.

  • Mollie

    For what it’s worth, at my church we celebrated the 10am Festival Divine Service and called that service “The Resurrection of Our Lord.”

    Not Easter.

    On the other hand, last night we held the Easter Vigil …

  • dan

    Among the ‘heterodox Muslim sects’ who might fear the state’s collapse are the Alawi, from whose ranks the modern Syrian ruling class is drawn:

    I’ve yet to see a news report place the incidents in Syria within this context.

  • Jerry

    And, for what it’s worth, the oracle at Wikipedia declares:

    Notionally, the paschal full moon refers to the ecclesiastical full moon of the northern spring used in the determination of the date of Easter. The name “paschal” is derived from “Pascha”, a transliteration of the Greek word, which is itself a transliteration of the Hebrew pesach, both words meaning Passover.

    I actually learned that yesterday when I read a piece about why Easter was so late this year.

  • JWB

    Now I’m confused by what tmatt means by “Eastern and Western Christians … marching through the streets of Damascus.” Who are these “Western” Christians to be found in the streets of Damascus? The various Melkites and whatnot in communion with the Vatican who at least sometimes dislike being called “Uniates” and apparently sometimes prefer “Eastern Catholics”? The apparently extremely-tiny Latin Rite RC community (which has no bishop in Syria, just an vicar apostolic with an Italian-sounding name based in Aleppo, according to this: A little-known cadre of Aramaic-speaking Missouri-Synod Lutherans? Do the different kinds of Christians in Syria use different Arabic words to mean Easter/Pascha depending on their jurisdictional affiliation?

  • Julia

    I’m headed back to church for the Agape Vespers of Easter Day. What is THAT called in the West?

    TMatt: You are in the West; so I guess it’s called Agape Vespers of Easter Day “in the West” – in the US section of the West – like you said.