Syria — June 2009

Sociopolitical Situation

Lebanon’s first ambassador to Syria, Michel Khoury, took up his post in Damascus in April. This is the latest sign of improving relations between the two neighbors after years of tension. In December, Syria opened an embassy in Beirut and named Ali Abdul Karim as its ambassador. The exchange of embassies by both countries sealed the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two countries for the first time since they gained independence from France in the 1940’s.

In 2008, Syria emerged from its international isolation, but its human rights record remains very poor. Authorities arrested political and human rights activists, censored websites, detained bloggers and imposed travel bans. Emergency rule, imposed in 1963, remains in effect and Syria’s multiple security agencies continue to detain people without proper arrest warrants. The Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), which is an exceptional court, has sentenced 75 people in 2008, mostly Islamists, to long prison terms. Syrian Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic minority who number around 10 percent of the total population, continue to claim they are victims of discrimination.

Moreover, Syrian authorities continue to restrict freedom of expression; an independent press remains nonexistent.

It is worth noting that, on 19 May, the Syrian authorities released the Syrian human rights activist Michel Kilo after completing his full prison term for charges of “inciting sectarian conflict, harming the dignity of the state and shaking national sentiment.” Kilo was arrested three years ago for his involvement in the Beirut-Damascus, Damascus-Beirut declaration, which called for improving relations between Syria and Lebanon. The declaration was signed by several hundred intellectuals from both states. His arrest came two days after the declaration was issued.

Economically, the economy of Syria grew moderately over the last few years, about 5 percent between 2001 and 2008. The Syrian government controls prices of many basic commodities and food items by substantially subsidizing them. These subsidies are draining the government’s financial capabilities as the population swells in size and fluctuating prices of subsidized items drain reserves.Currently, Syria is suffering from decreasing oil production, from its all time high of 600,000 barrels per day in the mid 1990’s to 364,700 (b.p.d.) in 2008. Combined with rising domestic energy demands, Syria could become a net oil importer within a decade. Currently, oil revenue accounts for 29.2 percent of the government’s total revenue.

Syria has initiated a series of economic reforms to ignite its economy and to attract foreign capital. The goals of the reforms are to transfer the financial system from a state-controlled to a free market economy. The Syrian authorities realize the urgent need for changes in the economic policy framework if Syria is to maintain and accelerate its economic growth.

Religious situation

Archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be the largest ancient Christian church in Syria. The remains of the building, thought to date back some 1,500 years, were found in Palmyra, some 220 km northeast of Damascus in central Syria.

Meanwhile, the Christians of Syria remain confident in the positive role played by the Syrian regime to protect their important Christian heritage in the land where St. Paul converted to Christianity. Even more, it seems that new Christian communities are flourishing in Syria with the support of the secular governing regime; on many occasions the government has provided land donations for the construction of new churches and spiritual centers.

Funding activities

Providing support to Iraqi Christian refugees in Syria remains a major need in the country, especially as their social, economic and medical demands surpass the resources of Syria. In this regard, CNEWA continues to coordinate help for Iraqi families with the Chaldean Committee for Refugees and with the Good Shepherd Sisters in Damascus. These sisters are now following up on severe social cases — including domestic violence and the plight of single mothers — that are brought to their attention.

As for Syrian Christian communities, the local church remains very active in establishing new communities in the new residential areas outside the major cities. Support for the construction of new churches and establishing parish facilities, such as schools, social and pastoral centers, specialized centers for physically and mentally challenged people and other similar projects, remains vital.

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