The Question: Is Christmas a bigger event in your country than it was ten years ago? Is this a sign of Westernization or just commercialization?
I come from a particular country that is non-Christian, but where Christmas has been—and hopefully forever will be—a national holiday, celebrated freely by Christians and respected universally by Syrian Muslims. Bigger celebrations of Christmas—in my book—do not mean Westernization. Christmas came from over here after all, from the East.
I would like to repeat a story—familiar to many of my Syrian readers—that undoubtedly must be retold today, given my American audience. A few years ago, I had the good fortune of meeting the Hollywood actor Sean Connery at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus while he was visiting His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East. Connery asked the Patriarch about the Christian community in Syria, and whether any prominent Christian had ever reached a senior government post in Syria’s modern history. The list was a long one, longer than what Connery expected.
The first name that automatically comes to the mind of any Syrian is the late Faris al-Khury, who became minister, prime minister, and speaker of parliament in Syria in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. He helped co-found the Syrian University, translated its curriculum from Ottoman Turkish into Arabic, became Dean of the Faculty of Law, co-founded and headed the Lawyer’s Syndicate, founded the Syrian Ministry of Finance, and co-wrote the Syrian Constitution. He co-headed both the anti-Ottoman and anti-French nationalist movements in Syria. He was a poet, a writer, a mathematician, an academic, an attorney, and a first-class nationalist. When Faris Bey headed Syria’s delegation to the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945, a U.S. diplomat remarked, after Khury delivered his eloquent speech: “It is impossible for a country with men like these to be occupied!”
To best illustrate the religious co-existence that existed during Khury’s era, one must remember that when Khury became prime minister in 1945, there was no Ministry of Awkaf, religious endowments, in Syria. Its duties were handled by the Prime Minister’s Office. A parliamentary bloc opposed to Khury’s National Bloc in Parliament opposed his appointment, saying that it was absurd for a Christian to administer the affairs of the Muslim community in Syria. Surprisingly, the Muslim bloc, headed by Sheikh Abd al-Hamid al-Tabba, vetoed the refusal, saying: “We, the Muslim bloc in Parliament, entrust Faris Bey al-Khury with our Awkaf more so than we entrust ourselves.”
Khury was a Christian who had memorized the Holy Quran, and imposed himself through knowledge and charisma on all Syrians – Muslims, Christians, or Jews. Before being anything else, he was a dedicated Syrian nationalist who loved Syria and the Syrians for all that they stood for, and often repeated that the Syrians will not die and no authority should allow them to die or be insulted. He had unbelievable faith in the people of Syria.
It was widespread humor among Syrians saying that had Khury’s name been “Huri” or “Juri” (denoting a playful change with the Arabic transliteration of his name) he certainly would have been elected president.
A small trivia story that many people do not know is that a Christian named Sa’id Ishak did in fact assume presidential duties in Syria, for a very short transition period in December 1951, after the resignation of President Hashim al-Atasi and his replacement with the military regime of General Adib al-Shishakli.
Other famed Christian Syrians who wrote Syria’s modern history include Tawfiq Shamiyya and Mikhael Ilyan, two several-time ministers and deputies in the 1930s and 1940s; Hrant Manolian, better known as Hrant Bey, the courageous Armenian officer who headed and modernized the Syrian gendarmerie after Syria achieved independence from France in 1946; Hanna Malek, the Attorney General of Syria in the 1950s; Michel Aflaq, the founder of the Baath Party; and General Yusuf Shakkur, the Chief-of-Staff during the Arab-Israeli War of 1973.
Of course, there are also giants in the field of literature, diplomacy, and arts. One name that immediately comes to mind is Dr Constantine Zurayk, the president of Damascus University and philosopher of Arab nationalism, who headed the American University of Beirut (AUB) and almost single-handedly revolutionized higher education in Syria. Syrians also have the journalist Habib Kahaleh of the famed "al-Mudhik al-Mubki" (That Which Makes You Laugh and Cry), the novelists Hanna Mina and Colette Khury (who is currently presidential advisor on cultural affairs), the philosopher Dr Antune Makdasi, and the diplomat and academic, Dr George Toemeh.
These people were not appointed by accident, nor did they achieve prominence because they were Christians. They happened to be good and able Syrians, with talent, experience, skill, and character. They were Syrian nationalists.
These men and women gave Syria abundantly with no reservations, and took nothing in return except pride in being good Syrians. I have befriended Syrian Christians and am proud to have been educated by them since childhood. I know them well. They are highly patriotic, sober, hard-working, honest and law-abiding citizens who are good with languages, clean, knowledgeable, and generally well-educated. As far as my encounters with them go, they are very good citizens – and although Westernized in dress, speech, and indulgences, these people are all Oriental to the bone. Not surprisingly, they are the Christians of the East.
As the Syrians celebrate Christmas this year, it is safe to hail the Christian community of Syria, and remind them that we stand united against Islamic fundamentalism and those who work to breach the harmony that has existed between us, for thousands of years. Such fundamentalists are many. Only if they prevail would we be prevented from celebrating Christmas in Damascus.
The greatest symbol of this harmony was the historic visit made by the late Pope John Paul II to Syria in 2001. Driving his popemobile through the narrow streets of old Damascus, he waved to the assembled crowds that were chanting, "We love you, John Paul II." They were a combination of Muslims and Christians.
Earlier, at a mass held at a football stadium in Damascus, he addressed the thousands assembled in French, saying: "In this holy land, Christians, Muslims and Jews are called to work together with confidence and boldness and to work to bring about without delay the day when the legal rights of all peoples are respected and they can live in peace and mutual understanding.”
He went to the Qunaytra village, the principal town in the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967, and said: "We pray to you for the peoples of the Middle East. Help them to break down the walls of hostility and division and to build together a world of justice and solidarity. Lord, you create new heavens and a new earth. To you we entrust the young people of these lands."
Probably most striking in the Pope's speech, which is remembered by the Syrians today, are these remarks: "In a special way we pray for the leaders of this noble land of Syria. Grant them wisdom, farsightedness and perseverance; may they never yield to discouragement in their challenging task of building the lasting peace for which their people yearn."
That is exactly what we Syrians need: to write off 2007, and welcome 2008 with “wisdom, farsightedness, and perseverance.” John Paul II signed off in Quntaytra with the same words that the Middle Easterners, and Syrians in particular, bid him farewell in 2005: "Salam! Salam! Salam! Amen!”
So, yes – the Syrians are showing bigger celebrations on Christmas, because they are returning to their roots, not because they are becoming Westernized.
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