Syria — June 2008

Sociopolitical Situation

At the end of March, the annual summit of the Arab League was held in Syria, which concluded with a failure to resolve any of the serious issues on the agenda. It did, however, succeed in making clear the political divisions in the Middle East. Several member states sent strong, if not embarrassing, messages to the summit’s host, Syria, whom they blame for the deadlock in Lebanon. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia did not send high level delegations and Lebanon chose not to attend at all in protest of what it claimed to be Syrian interference in its domestic political situation.

Only 11 heads of state, representing half of the league’s 22 members, attended the summit. The summit’s concluding declaration, agreed upon by consensus, achieved little progress and left all participating parties largely dissatisfied.

Israel and Syria began peace talks mediated by the Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At stake is the status of the occupied Golan Heights, the region that Israel seized during the Six Day War in 1967. Israel has tentatively agreed to return the Golan to Syria on the condition that Syria diminishes its close political alignment with Iran and ends its support of militant Palestinian groups. Critics in Israel accuse the Israeli prime minister of holding peace talks to deflect attention from the current police investigation into his alleged involvement in a corruption scandal.

In national news, Syrian President Bashar Assad managed to quell a wave of Kurdish riots that erupted throughout the country in mid-March, the country’s worst outbreak of ethno-sectarian violence in two decades. Although fueled by legitimate frustration in the Kurdish community, the riots are believed to have been organized, at least in part, by political elements in the community as a means to pressure the Assad regime in the face of heightened Syrian-U.S. tensions and recent Iraqi-Kurdish political gains.

Syria’s desperate economic situation continues to worsen; the country has been unable to achieve economic growth in pace with its population’s. President Bashar Assad initiated steps to strengthen the country’s private sector and introduced a certain degree of private banking, but these reforms have yet to improve significantly Syria’s economy.

Religious Situation

Over 700 Melkite Greek Catholic faithful from Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine and Jordan, including 13 bishops, 70 priests and 30 religious sisters, accompanied Gregory III, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, on his first visit to the Holy See as patriarch. This historic gesture of communion and solidarity proved a triumphant celebration of the full ecclesial communion between the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and the Church of Rome.

Assisting Iraqi Christian refugees in Syria remains as a priority among many church leaders. The vast majority of these refugees live in poverty and have suffered acts of violence against them or their immediate families.

Around 25 percent of the refugees are classified as “extremely vulnerable persons. ” The overwhelming majority depend on very low income that that they or their children earn from temporary, underpaid and part-time jobs. A social worker in Syria reported that poverty and unemployment has forced many refugee women to work as prostitutes to support themselves and their families.

The general feeling among Iraqi Christian refugees in Syria is that returning to Iraq is no longer a viable option.

In order to reduce their suffering, emigration procedures need to be accelerated so they may resettle permanently in countries of relative safety.

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