Church of Notre Dame, DAMASCUS — Church officials in Damascus advanced the hour of the traditional Christmas Eve midnight service to 6 pm because few Damascenes’ venture out past sunset these days. The reasons include ubiquitous checkpoints, security fears, and the fact that there are few taxis and no buses around; plus, most shops and cafes close early and the thuds and whining of artillery and bomb blasts from this ancient city’s suburbs tend to sound more menacing at night.
But that does not mean that Notre Dame and other churches in Damascus were not overflowing with Christians and Muslims for Christmas Eve service, which has become an ecumenical event in this secular country where Syrian and Palestinian refugees of both faiths attended from Yarmouk camp and elsewhere. One Palestinian friend, who had been turned away at the Lebanese border at Maznaa just three days earlier, explained that his family was celebrating “both the birth of Jesus Christ and the birth of the state of Palestine”, referencing last month’s 130 to 8 UN General Assembly vote.
A bizarre Lebanese politically motivated assault on this well-established Syrian-Palestinian-Muslim-Christian sisterhood caused unnecessary angst and in some cases unconscionable needless hardships during Christmas week. Some Lebanese politicians, apparently experiencing a memory lapse which made them forget how during the 2006 Israeli aggression, Syrians helped Lebanese refugees decide there were votes to be had in next year’s elections if they bashed the Syrian and Palestinians fleeing for their lives and seeking temporary refuge in brotherly Lebanon.
This observer distinctly recalls in mid-July 2006 crossing paths in the Internet supplied Business Center, at the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus, with an international team from the World Food Program. Led by some New Zealanders, the WFP team invited me to join them as they made a survey of Damascus “refugee camps” for Lebanese who were arriving by the thousands fleeing the Zionist aggression. There were long lines at the Mazaa and other border points.
It was an impressive sight. The Syrian government and the Syrian people, as well as private Syrian NGOs, to their eternal credit, gave vast and, in many cases, life-saving aid to the Lebanese, asking nothing in return. The aid we witnessed being distributed throughout Damascus and surrounding areas included food, cash, clothing, medical aid, schooling, and housing. Refuge was provided in public spaces, mosques, churches, private homes, and government buildings of all types, as well as in cheap hotels near the Omayyad Mosque (formerly the Basilica of Saint John the Baptist) and the Old City. Rarely, as it was reported by the UN at the time, had one country had done so much to help so many caught in crisis.
In a Machiavellian political move designed to create sectarian tensions in Lebanon, and to cause more spillover from the Syrian crisis next door, one Lebanese Minister, and several like-minded politicians, called for closing the every Lebanese borders to Syrian and Palestinian refugees, fleeing for their lives. In a recent speech he gave on Lebanese Wine Day, reportedly after sampling a few glasses, the Minister declared: “When we say we don’t want Syrian and Palestinian refugees, it is because they take our place.” He added: “Don’t we not have enough Palestinians in Lebanon to let the rest of the refugee camps come to Lebanon too?”
The minister in question, is perhaps best known for “marrying up” politically and for his $ 1.3 million Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Coupe, which he brags can reach a top speed of 253 mph around Mount Lebanon, where he likes to drive it, despite that it can drive at high speeds for only 12 minutes before all the fuel is gone. He explains to his neighbors that power is transmitted to the pavement via four-wheel-drive and a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission.
He is also known for his average intellect and this week won a prize from Lebanese political analyst Imani Hamad, contributor to Now Lebanon, for topping the list for the “Dumbest political statements made in 2012.” His prize winning statement was:
“A decision was made by a former prime minister that Beirut is allotted electricity for 21 hours. This is not acceptable. Beirut has to have the same amount of electricity as other areas [and] that means only 12 hours.” Ms. Haddad explained the logic of the Minister, who has been roundly criticized this year for not solving or lessening Lebanon’s electricity problems. Wrote she: “The Ministers logic? Why solve the problem when you can create another?”
According to Lebanese journalist, Qassem Qassem, writing in Al Akbar this week, “The Minister perhaps does not realize that the refugees did not come out of their volition to Lebanon’s camps, which are nothing but ghettoes thanks to his racist ‘patriotism’ and that of his ilk.”
Perhaps as a student, the Minister was absent from school the day when his teacher in his sectarian school was explaining that the monks of St. Maron, who founded the Church in Antioch by the Orontes River, were persecuted by the Monophysites but given sanctuary by the Syrians, including many Muslims.
The Progressive Socialist Party, led by Walid Jumblatt, and PSP member, Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour, insist that Lebanon will not close its borders to Syrian or Palestinians refugees fleeing violence in Syria. Minsiter Faour also said that he agreed with Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon, Ashraf Dabbour, on a plan to facilitate the return of Palestinians fleeing from the Yarmouk camp in Damascus as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Dabbour said that there is a consensus among Palestinians in Lebanon to reject new refugee camps in the country, adding that all the Palestinians coming from Syria would return as soon as the crisis ends in the country.
This holiday season many in Yarmouk camp, despite their latest ordeal, are thinking of and praying for the quarter millions of their countrymen in Lebanon, who like themselves are still waiting to return to Palestine.
Several times over the past month, this observer has heard from Palestinian refugees in Syria of their dismay at seeing the living conditions their countrymen are forced to endure in Lebanon, partly due the laws forbidding them the right to work or to own a home. No country has treated Palestinian refugees as well as Syria and no government, save the Zionist regime still occupying Palestine, has treated them worse than Lebanon. Several academic and NGO studies over the past three decades have documented this fact.
It is a 90 minute drive from Lebanon to Straight Street in Damascus, much less in a Buggati Veyron 16.4. It was on Straight Street here in Damascus where in the year 34 C.E., the blind Paul of Tsarus is said to have regained his eyesight and devoted his life to helping those in need.
May the Minister, who appears to have lost his moral sight for the needs of others, come here to Damascus this Christmas season and walk along Straight Street and among the alleys of Yarmouk camp, to learn, perhaps experience an epiphany, and thereby regain his sight and moral compass.
And in the name of the one whose birth and message and spirit are celebrated this season, may the Minister and his political allies cease sectarian incitements seeking cheap political advantage in this troubled region. And instead open his vacant real estate properties this Christmas to those for whom there is no room at the inn.