Syrians of all faiths meet to express fear of sectarian violence

Inter-faith meeting prompts dialogue as people with different religious and political beliefs share concerns while the government¿s crackdown on pro-reform activists continues.

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DAMASCUS // A group of Syrians from different faiths and different political leanings have met every Sunday since anti-regime protests erupted in March to exorcise the fear that haunts them all.

"The paradox is, everyone is scared in Syria," says Rafa Nashed, a psychoanalyst and one of the organisers of the gatherings at a Jesuit home in the centre of Damascus.

"Why does the regime use violence and repression? Because it is scared of losing power. And the people who protest, do you think they are not scared? They are very scared, but they are still going."

The meetings always begin the same way: six of the 50 participants sit in the middle of a room to start off the debate.

This week, the topic would be religious fear.

"After the attack against the Rifai mosque, I began to fear for me and my children," says Fadi, who shifts uncomfortably in his chair, referring to when club-wielding security forces attacked a group of people leaving prayers at the Sunni mosque in west Damascus on August 27, according to a rights group.

One demonstrator was killed and 10 were wounded, including the imam of the mosque, Osama Al Rifai.

"Me, as an Alawite, I am scared of what might happen. There are many dangerous events that have a sectarian dimension in Syria," he adds.

"I was also scared that people with strong views would escalate the situation, but luckily that did not happen."

Syria is a multi-confessional country with a Sunni majority, a substantial Christian minority and Alawite Shiites, who rule the country.

A total of 473 people were killed during protests in the month of Ramadan, a rights group said yesterday. The death toll comprised 360 civilians and 113 members of the security forces and army, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The civilians included 25 people aged under 18, 14 women and 28 who died in detention or under torture, the observatory said, mainly in the region of Homs where government forces were reported to be conducting new operations yesterday. More than 2,200 people have been killed in the Syrian regime's crackdown on pro-democracy protests since mid-March, according to figures from the United Nations.

Back at the meeting, Maysan, a Druze, responds to Fadi's fear of confessional violence, arguing that Syrians "are aware of the risks of sectarian clashes".

"You assume in advance that people will take revenge, but it's not automatic. The protest movement is peaceful and refuses to embark on sectarian violence."

She adds: "I, however, am scared of foreign intervention - it will lead to the division of the country, much like it did in the former Yugoslavia."

Zaina, a Christian, hesitantly adds her view, telling the assembled participants that she sees the opposition to Bashar Al Assad's regime as "divided between those who are informed and aware of the issues, and another group, both more religious and less educated".

Alaa, also Christian, recounts his own experience as the room listens patiently.

"I was prejudiced through my education against Muslims, because my family had always said that we should not receive them at home," he tells the group.

"I used to support the regime, but after all these deaths, I have gone to protest."

The 20-something continues, speaking quickly, that he took to the streets in Duma, a suburb of Damascus, "and these men, who have been presented as scum, they helped me hide from the security forces. I was afraid to fall into their hands".

After Alaa speaks, the room falls silent for a minute, after which participants voice their fears in turn.

For Father Rami Elias, also a psychoanalyst and the head of the Jesuit house that hosts the weekly meetings, "it is not a question of politics, but of creating some space where people can discuss their fears, share them, and channel them so it does not lead to violence".

"Today, we took a big step because the group identified their fear by its name - fear of sectarianism," he adds. "But there is still much to be done."