Tag Archives: George Sabra

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading

Non-Muslim Significance? The Danger of Oversimplification

It is true that Muslims are today a demographic majority in every country of the Middle East except Israel.  (Even there, however, Muslims would be nearly a majority, if Palestinians in the Palestinian Territories had the same citizenship rights as the Israeli settlers.)  But such a blanket statement obscures more than it reveals.  There is a vast difference between Iran, which is almost 100% Muslim, and Lebanon, where Muslims are less than two thirds of the population and the government is divided roughly evenly between Muslims and Christians (with the requirement that the president be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, among various other requirements).  Granted, the population of Iran is many times that of Lebanon, but the point is that the other countries in the region (including Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, all very populous) are between these two extremes.

Nor are all Muslims alike.  Differences between Sunni Muslims and Shiʿites are only the tip of the iceberg: at least four “legal schools” of Sunnis and several branches of Shiʿa Islam all have different requirements and regulations.  Fellow feeling between Sunnis and Shiʿites is a very recent development, and has not overcome sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq nor the regional rivalry between (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and (Shiʿite) Iran.  These differences are independent of the gradations between secularist and devout Muslims or between modernist and Salafi Islam.  Intra-Muslim diversity means that Muslims may feel more fellow feeling with certain non-Muslims than with other Muslims, and the demographic strength of Islam is more attenuated.  This also leads to greater differences between countries: Egypt has more Coptic Christians than Shiʿites, while Iraq is about two-thirds Shiʿites and one third Sunnis.

When the historical perspective is taken, the present overwhelming demographic dominance of Islam is seen as a relatively recent development in some parts of the Middle East.  The Middle East has been mostly ruled by Muslims since the seventh century, although the Byzantine Empire continued to rule most of what is today Turkey until the eleventh century, the Crusaders ruled parts of eastern Turkey, western Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel for a couple centuries, and most broadly but most briefly the non-Muslim Mongols under Hulegu and his successors conquered all of Iran, Iraq, most of Turkey, and (repeatedly but ephemerally) Syria. The religion of the rulers is frequently taken as characteristic of the religion of the land, and so the Middle East is often called the “land of Islam,” in Arabic dar al-Islam, or the “central Islamic lands.”  That this term doesn’t simply mean that Islam came from the Middle East is shown by the fact that the Middle East is never called, by parallel, the “land of Judaism” or the “land of Christianity,” though both also came from that region.  In French, the confusion between religion of the ruler and religion of the land is even starker: areas under Islamic ruler are simply labeled l’Islam.

But the religion of Muslim rulers should not be taken as determinative for the population as a whole.  Muslim rulers frequently employed non-Muslims to carry out bureaucratic work, at least into the fifteenth century in much of the Middle East, and later in Ottoman Constantinople.  With rising European interest in the Middle East, local Christians and Jews were often the translators and intermediaries between the newly arrived foreigners and the local Muslim rulers and populace.  Middle Eastern non-Muslims did not only attain prominence through European intervention, however: Faris al-Khoury was already in government before the French claimed Syria in 1920, and went on to become Prime Minister of Syria twice, though a (Greek Orthodox turned Presbyterian) Christian.  Tariq ʿAziz was the deputy Prime Minister of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and a Chaldean Catholic (a group of native Iraqi Christians who, beginning in the 16th C, started entering communion with the Roman papacy).  George Sabra, an active voice in the Syrian Civil War, has been president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition (the opposition group favored by the USA and Western Europe).  The history of the Middle East, even in the last century, cannot be told accurately without naming certain key non-Muslims.

Although these individuals are exceptional, they are not unique.  They are rare because they are at the highest echelons of government, where they were not selected because of but despite their non-Muslim religious affiliation.  Many more non-Muslims have been employed by Middle Eastern governments, both pre-modern and modern, at lower ranks.  And the broader population of non-Muslims, not employed by government, was a significant portion of many Middle Eastern countries into the twentieth century.  Before 1915 in eastern Anatolia and 1923 in western Anatolia, Christians were almost a fifth of the population (mostly Armenians and Syriac Christians in the east, Greeks in the west) in what would become the Republic of Turkey.  Such a proportion means that, depending on levels of integration, every Muslim would know not merely one but several Christians, and may need to do business with them.  Christianity in Iraq has dipped from 10% around the middle of the 20th C to less than 2% today.  We do not know when Muslims became even a bare majority of the population in Egypt or Syria, but it was certainly not before 1250.  That may seem like ancient history to many modern readers, but that means Islam spent at least six centuries as a ruling minority religion, almost half of the history of the “Islamic” Middle East to date, and both countries still have Christian minorities around 10% of the population, absent from parts of the countryside but certainly visible in all cities.

Today a higher proportion of Middle Easterners are Muslim than at any point in the past, but the proportion has changed significantly even within the last century.  Nevertheless, Christians have continued to play a prominent, if subordinate, role in government.  And the divisions between different Christian and Muslim groups reduce the sense, within the Middle East, that “basically everyone agrees with me.”  People from the Middle East know there is religious diversity.  For westerners to regard the Middle East as “Islam + Israel” is negligently over-simplistic.

Found: Rumors and Suppositions of the Aleppo Bishops

There is still no solid news of the two metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo who were abducted on 22 April, the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox metropolitan Boulos Yaziji, but there are more rumors.  Al-Monitor yesterday published a long article on the subject translating and expanding an Arabic article published on 13 August by the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir (for an English translation of the original al-Safir article, see the blog Notes on Arab Orthodoxy).  The al-Monitor article especially is very detailed, but it is not at all clear what the sources of these details are.  The Lebanese Daily Star also published an article disputing most of those details and suggesting other ones.

If the play-by-play account of the abduction of the bishops by Chechen jihadis working for Abu Omar al-Shishani has any validity, it must have ultimately come from Fu’ad Eliya, the only passenger of the vehicle not abducted or killed, but it is not clear whether the al-Monitor journalist interviewed Eliya.  The detailed account is not in the al-Safir article, and the details disagree with what Hurriyet reported second-hand from Eliya back in May.  Particularly curious is the al-Monitor article’s unsourced reference to “the small message written in Greek and sent by Bishop Yazigi to a friend in Greece and to his brother Yohanna. The message, written in Greek, said, ‘We are being held by al-Qaeda.'”  Where did that information come from?  In light of the obscurity of the information’s provenance, these details must be regarded as unreliable.

Particularly interesting to me was the last portion of the al-Monitor article, which quoted various people who have made pronouncements in the past about the fate of the bishops, including George Sabra, all saying that there is no real knowledge about their fate.  That still seems to be the end of it.

For those feeling that the saga of the kidnapped bishops has dragged on with no real resolution, that is just a microcosm of the Syrian Civil War in total.  Meanwhile, although we still hope the victims will be able to say with Mark Twain, “the report of my death was an exaggeration,” that seems decreasingly likely.

The Difference Between Pragmatism and Loyalty

The most important thing to read on Syria this week is not the news that the regime drove rebels out of the Khalid bin al-Walid Mosque in Homs, but rather this opinion piece by Thorsten Janus and Helle Malmvig in the Christian Science Monitor.  But their proposal depends upon the distinction between pragmatical allegiance and belief-based loyalty.  This crucial distinction affects the Syrian Civil War on both sides, and it deserves to be unpacked more explicitly.

The idea is simple: not everyone who declares allegiance to someone agrees with everything that person espouses.  This is true of political parties.  Cold War-era American propaganda pitted the “godless Communists” in the USSR against the “Christian nation” of the USA, so I was surprised to learn, while visiting the Indian state of Kerala, that the local Communist party has many members drawn from the large South Indian community of St. Thomas Christians.  Indeed, the current president of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, is a Christian member of one of Syria’s Communist parties.  The conflict between Christianity and Communism is very real in some quarters (as Russian Orthodox priests will tell you) and not in others, and depends widely on what those two terms are understood to mean in various locales.  Not everyone who votes for a Communist party candidate has drunk deeply of doctrinaire Leninism or Maoism (although some have, to be sure).  Some simply see the Communist option as better than any available alternative.

This distinction between pragmatic acceptance and doctrinaire loyalty plays out on both sides of the Syrian Civil War.  On the rebel side, international observers have been alarmed at the increasing influence of jihadi extremism, usually linked to al-Qa’idaFree Syrian Army commanders have complained of soldiers defecting to Jabhat al-Nusra, and cited the lack of ammunition held by the FSA compared to the free-flowing arms of the jihadi Jabhat al-Nusra as an explanation for this trend.  In other words, as Salim Idris has grown increasingly frustrated at the failure of western nations to provide his Free Syrian Army with weaponry, the more extreme groups have plenty of weaponry from international sources supporting their jihad against the infidel Syrian regime.  The idea is that many of those fighting for jihadi groups do not necessarily agree with the ideology, but are willing to tolerate it for the sake of getting what they desire more, which is the weaponry to fight against the regime.  This is precisely the argument made by Mouaz Mustafa, the head of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, according to an interview with him two weeks ago, as to why the US should get more involved with the Syrian Civil War.  On his view, providing weapons with secular strings attached will not only contribute to deposing President Bashar al-Assad, but will also diminish the appeal of jihadi groups, because they will no longer have the advantage of greater resources.

On the other side, religious minorities in Syria have by and large not participated in the rebellion, and in many cases have actively supported the regime.  This is equally true of ‘Alawites, other Shi’ites, and various Christian groups.  This does not mean that they approve of everything which the Syrian Army is doing; it merely means they regard the regime’s side of the Civil War to be more likely to hold a future for them.  They have reason to be alarmed.  Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt have increased progressively since the 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, escalating again after the ouster of Muhammad Mursi because his supporters blame the religious minority for the coup.  When two months ago a Syrian rebel commander filmed himself cutting open a killed ‘Alawite soldier’s corpse, removing an internal organ, and biting into it while spewing threats against all ‘Alawites, he made clear to the ‘Alawites that they have no future in a post-Assad Syria.  That has been the message many Syrian Christians have taken from the abduction and murder of Christian clergy by rebel forces.  Fearing a sectarian cleansing of all non-Sunnis, most religious minorities in Syria see no choice but to support the regime.

The Syrian rebels have done very little to convince religious minorities that a post-Assad Syria will be better for them, or that the occasional vague assurances of minority rights in the future Syria will be enacted.  The one-sided portrayal of the Syrian Civil War by the US government, lionizing the rebels and demonizing the regime, has left many Syrian non-Sunnis feeling that America has betrayed its principles of democratic pluralism and minority rights.  This is where the proposal of Janus and Malmvig could be so important.  If the US and the US-backed rebels could somehow convince non-Sunni minorities that they will be allowed to continue breathing in a post-Assad Syria, then their support for the regime might be less unshakeable.  Janus and Malmvig are banking on the fact that the minorities themselves do not want violence, and probably do not like Assad, so an option which assures their future safety would be very welcome to them.  It is an interesting proposal.

The question is whether that assurance could be given in any credible way.  Would Shi’ites and Arabic Christians trust themselves to an American or UN peacekeeping force?  Or would they suspect the force would fail to prevent them from falling victim to violence by other segments of society?  If the Free Syrian Army declared an amnesty for all ‘Alawites, would any ‘Alawites entrust themselves to the mercies of a force whose commanders have promised to purge all supporters of the regime?  Or would they not rather continue to support the regime, distrusting promises of safety from some rebels while others call for their blood?

With regime forces gaining ground in Homs, many non-Sunni minorities may be feeling that they have chosen the winning side.  But if additional arms flows to Syrian rebel forces again reverse the tide of this long-running civil war, as has happened in the past, then the minorities may feel that their backs are against the wall and they have no choice but to live or die with the regime.  The real importance of the minorities will be seen in their potential as stalemate-breakers.  When two armies are very closely matched, even a small force can shift the course of battle.  This was clearly demonstrated in May when Hezbollah, with fewer than 2,000 soldiers, joined the Syrian Army against the rebels, each of which has over 100,000 soldiers, and yet it is precisely from May that regime forces have begun to gain ground against rebel forces.  If the rebels continue to scare non-Sunni religious minorities with threats of vengeance and extermination, they will simply make it all the harder to defeat the regime.  On the other hand, if the rebels address concerns of non-Sunni rights for example by punishing violence targeting religious minorities in rebel-held territory and providing special protection to religious buildings of other groups, then they might gain ground by undercutting Assad’s support.  The civil war in Syria may be won or lost by the allegiances of non-Sunni religious minorities, whose primary motivation will not be ideology but a pragmatic calculus how to survive the war and its aftermath.

Found: Syria’s Other Secularist Opposition

First let me say that I know there is bigger news about Syria today, such as US Senator John McCain‘s surprise visit to the Free Syrian Army and the European Union’s decision to end the arms embargo against Syria.  I am not yet commenting on those, as I wait to learn more about what each development will mean.  I also have yet to post regarding the effectiveness of drone attacks, as I still intend to do.

But what caught my eye earlier today was a small article from the Chinese government news agency Xinhua, which reported that Hasan ‘Abd al-‘Azim, the leader of the Syrian secularist opposition group the National Coordinating Body, promised to participate “positively” in the US-Russia backed “Geneva 2” negotiations to seek a political end to the bloodshed in Syria, widely expected to occur some time in June.

Wait a sec, you say?  The Syrian opposition is divided between jihadis (such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Islamic Front, Ghuraba al-Sham, and the Muhajireen Brigade) on the one hand, and the secularists in the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army on the other, right?

Well, yes, I mean, well, sort of.  The Syrian National Council brings together secularists like George Sabra and non-jihadi but distinctly non-secularist politicians such as past president Burhan Ghalioun, who was criticized for being “too close to the Muslim Brotherhood.”  The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (هيئة التنسيق الوطنية لقوى التغيير الديمقراطي, often known as the “National Coordination Committee” or NCC), on the other hand, is a coalition of secularist opposition parties which is not recognized by the Syrian National Coalition, many of whose members suspect that they are a front for regime sympathizers or double agents working for the Assad regime.  It is true that the Assad government is secularist as well, and the NCC did not formally call for Assad’s removal until September 2012.  On the other hand, the NCC is now calling for Assad’s removal, which puts them more squarely with the rest of the opposition, despite the suspicions of other opposition groups.  They have rarely been noticed by Western media outlets, which have tended to focus on the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition, perhaps viewing them by analogy with Libya’s National Transition Council.

Why is China picking up on the NCC?  While the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition are calling for foreign military aid, the NCC rejects external military intervention.  This accords very well with China’s (and Russia’s) repudiation of “foreign meddling” in Syria, seen in their repeated UN Security Council veto of any UN military action in Syria, and this mutual interest in “non-interference” explains why the NCC has received diplomatic support from both China and Russia.  If China and Russia cannot have the Assad regime, the NCC is their opposition of choice.

The NCC also used to have a number of Kurdish member parties, but those parties have withdrawn to form the Kurdish National Council, which is separatist as well as secularist and leftist.  The KNC is arguing that the part of Syria where Kurds form the majority (in the northeast of the country) should be given full Kurdish autonomy, while the SNC and NCC both are pushing for maintaining Syria’s current borders.

With so many opposition groups to choose from, the Geneva 2 meeting may end up with every foreign country having its preferred Syrian opposition coalition.

Who is George Sabra? (part 4)

The final installment of the series on George Sabra in Qatar’s al-Watan newspaper was published on Saturday, 17 November, 2012 (Arabic text here).  As acting president of the Syrian National Coalition he recently called upon the Free Syrian Army to save Qusayr from being recaptured by the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies.  Meanwhile, the Syrian National Coalition is meeting in Istanbul to decide on its response to the US-Russian-backed call for peace talks with the regime, which it has previously rejected in calling for the ousting of the regime as a precondition for talks, and to choose the next president to succeed Mu’adh al-Khatib, since Sabra’s position is only acting (temporary) president of the Coalition.

Here is my English translation of the al-Watan article:

Tales of George Sabra (4)

by Ahmad Mansur

George Sabra continues his tales, saying, “During the period when I was arrested after the outbreak of the revolution in Syria – and I have been arrested twice, once for a month and once for two months, as I have already indicated – the prison was full of all parts of Syrian society, accused of participating in the revolution, and the majority of them were ordinary people.  And because we do not mingle with the ordinary people in normal life, we are ignorant of the valuable metal in them, and I was taken by surprise with the level of morality, humanity, and courage, and the bravery and valor which belonged to these ordinary people among the uneducated.  And I was taken by surprise with their humane character when they find someone to lead and direct them.

“Our number in the ward was three hundred and fifty prisoners, and we had one bathroom.  You can imagine that with this number of prisoners using one bathroom, they were standing in a long line and registering their names so that they could get a turn simply to wash their faces or to go to the bathroom.  And the ward’s capacity was only a few dozen people, so we were stuck together and could hardly move from the force of the overcrowding.  And I was like them when I wanted to go to the bathroom, I would completely surprise those who were ahead of me, and one of them would shout, ‘Make way for the professor, you guys!”  Then they all with generosity and agreement and preference were allowing me to bypass the queue, and all of them offer me respect and appreciation.  And I still remember that in my life I never thought that three hundred and fifty people could exist in this narrow space and use one bathroom.  And despite this they were accommodating one another.

“I remember that when I was convicted this past September, 2011, on the charge of trying to found an Islamic emirate in Qatana, and I am actually a Christian from the Communist Party, my family was attending the trial from the beginning of the day until its end, and they observed the presence of three people who were attending the court in a continual manner.  At first they believed they were from the security forces belonging to the regime.  Then my brother asked them after one of the sessions, ‘Do you have someone inside being tried?’  They said to him, ‘Yes, Mr. George Sabra.’  Then he said to them, ‘Do you know Mr. George?’  They said to him, ‘We know him, but he does not know us.’  So he said to them, ‘I am his brother.’  So they insisted on taking my brother with them to their homes, and they were from a nearby village named Kanakir, and all of them were Sunni Muslims.

“I remember that when I came out of prison, there came women all wearing the veil and with them were men all bearded, and they insisted to me that they should take me to their homes.  This revolution has embodied the national unity in Syria in a deep and unprecedented way.  It is true that the ‘Alawites have made a deep and large problem between them and Syrian society, but the rest of the sectors of the people and specifically the Muslims and the Christians have held together in what they share in an unprecedented way.  Just as the churches have been a target for bombing and destruction from the ‘Alawite regime, so the mosques have likewise been a target.  It has demolished dozens of mosques and churches which reflect the historical, cultural, religious, and social identity of Syrian society for thousands of years, and it is as if the regime is not only killing people and terrifying them, but it is also wiping out the historical and social identity of Syria and its people.  This is one of the greatest crimes in history.”

I asked George Sabra about the strangest thing which happened to him during his time in prison, and he said, “The prison was full of ordinary young men, and I had discovered the inherent metal of these people.  When one of them learned that my charge was the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Qatana although I am a Christian, he was in a state of confusion.  And when he had been around me in the prison he frequently approached me and his astonishment was continual that I was not a Muslim.  And twenty days into our knowing each other, he came with the simplicity and boldness and good-heartedness of ordinary people, and he said to me, ‘Sir, I am amazed.  How I could have been with you twenty days and not been able to bring you into Islam, so that you would become a Muslim?’  So I laughed and said to him, ‘You remain Muslim and I will remain Christian so that this national revolution may continue in which the whole people has risen up.’  Our relationship remained good and we did not stop laughing.  And when they summoned me to release me after international and internal pressure, the young man came up to me in a hurry and said, ‘Reasonable master George, you are about to leave prison before our Lord should guide you to arise and pray two rak’as!’  [Ed. note: a rak’a is a ritual prostration in Islamic prayer.]

“These are the hearts of the Syrians, whom everyone used to believe that the injustice which has been inflicted upon them for decades had killed in them courage, valor, self-sacrifice, and the fight for freedom.

The End.

In this final installment, there are some very important details.  He paints a picture of the naturally noble Syrian people which has, one and all, risen up against the tyrant.  It is certainly true that the Syrian Civil War is the greatest uprising in Syria against the Assad regime.  Sabra is at pains to present a Syrian people united in virtue, and specifically united across the sectarian lines which are being emphasized by jihadi rebel groups and Syrian state media.  This non-sectarian paradise is no doubt conjured for the benefit of potential Western backers, for whom a sectarian civil war is a grim specter.  The reference to the destruction of historical monuments, even before the minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque fell late last month, is also probably intended to evoke Western outrage against the regime.

Nevertheless, these accounts do not necessary reflect well on Sabra himself, as they reveal his classism and lack of prior connection with “ordinary uneducated people.”  Sabra also engages in his own sectarianism, blaming the ‘Alawites as a whole rather than the Assad regime (indeed, labeling it “the ‘Alawite regime”) for any sectarian tensions.  It is true that most ‘Alawites have sided with Bashar al-Assad, but a pre-revolution fear of post-revolution sectarian reprisals from other sectors of Syrian society is no doubt part of the calculus for many of them.  Rather than attempting to woo the ‘Alawites away from Assad, Sabra here seems content to emphasize the ‘Alawite-Sunni Muslim sectarian divide in order to downplay the Muslim-Christian divide which is rather more dangerous to him personally.

Nor does he quite succeed in dispelling all fears of Muslim-Christian sectarian hostility.  There is no reason to doubt the stories he tells of being the recipient of kindness and hospitality from Sunni Muslims, but his final anecdote about the “confused” Muslim in prison with him was probably a relatively tense moment, despite or perhaps indicated by the report of laughter.  Sabra as a non-Muslim could not respond with any negative statement about Islam in order to explain his allegiance to a different religion without jeopardizing his politics and perhaps his physical safety, depending on the views of the other people in the room.  Notice that he entirely dodges the issue by postponing any changes of religion until after the revolution is successful.  He was probably not as entirely at ease as his narration presents it.

I hope this series of articles on George Sabra has supplemented the scant data available in English online with additional information, in his own words, indicating his character, some of his background, and his contentions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  This additional information will, I hope, allow non-Arabic readers to form a more accurate and nuanced picture of the Syrian Christian who is currently president of two of the more important rebel organizations in the Syrian Civil War, both the Syrian National Council and the Syrian National Coalition.

Found Again: Rumor of Abducted Bishops’ Good Health

Yesterday the Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar reported that, according to ‘Abd al-Ahad Steifo of the Syrian National Coalition, the Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji and Metropolitan Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim are in good health after being abducted a month ago.  The original Arabic article is here, and an English translation was posted here.  The Lebanese Daily Star reported the same: Syria opposition says kidnapped bishops ‘in good health’.

Evidently ‘Abd al-Ahad Steifo and the Syrian National Coalition have not had any direct contact with either the bishops or their kidnappers, so it is unclear on what basis Steifo made the announcement of the bishops’ health.  He was even uncertain when the doctor reputedly saw them, indicating that his informant was not the doctor himself.  Steifo was, however, quoted as acknowledging that abductions have occurred on all sides in the civil war: “These kidnappings are sometimes carried out by criminal gangs… other times by the regime (of President Bashar al-Assad) and sometimes by the brigades of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army, who use kidnappings as a way to exchange prisoners.”  At the time of the kidnapping Steifo had ruled out any opposition group according to CNN, but according to the Daily Star two weeks ago, George Sabra told Amin Gemayel of the Lebanese Kataeb (or Phalange) Party the bishops were being held by “a rebel group” without specifying which.  A month after the kidnappings, it is still the case that nothing is clear.

I very much hope that this report his correct, and that the abducted bishops of Aleppo will be released safely and soon.  But in the absence of additional details, the reports of “good health” sound like bland reassurances.

Who is George Sabra? (part 3)

The third installment of the Qatari al-Watan‘s series on George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition, was published on November 15, 2012 (Arabic here).  Here is my translation:

Tales of George Sabra (3)

by Ahmad Mansur

George Sabra finishes his stories by saying, “Here let me say that Qatana in the month of May, 2011, departed from the control of the authority and came into the control of the rebels, and there no longer remained in it police or guard or party men or the army.  The regime wanted its people at that time to commit stupid errors so that the army would come in and level it upon the heads of whoever was in it, but the people had sufficient awareness of the administration of the city.  When I said to the youths, ‘We are the owners of the revolution, and our language is the language of the Qur’an, and not the language of abuse and insults, therefore you must clean the walls of the city from abuses and insults to the Alawites.’  The next day the city’s youths got up and cleaned the walls of the city from the insults.”

George Sabra asked me while he was speaking, “Do you know, Ahmad, what is the thing that amazes me with this revolution?”  I said, “What is it?”  He said, “For nearly forty years, the generations have been raised on the view of the Avant-Garde (a newspaper linked to the ruling Ba’ath Party), one view and one organization, namely the Ba’ath Party, and one man who was sanctified, namely Hafez al-Assad.  And despite all that we have found before our eyes an astonishing generation which takes their lives in their hands and goes out to destroy the idol whose worship they tried to impose upon the people throughout forty years. 

“Indeed, I have not forgotten my Muslim neighbor who had four children, and in the demonstrations at the beginning of the revolution I heard her say to her four children when they were wanting to go out together to one demonstration, ‘I hope you will not all go out to one demonstration.  Let each pair of you go out with someone, so that all four of you won’t die in one day.’  The greatness of that woman makes me cry, for she certainly knew that her four children would die, but she desired that the fall of the blow upon her would be light.

“And there is another story which a young man named Muhammad al-Hariri from Dar’a recounted to me.  He told me that he was at work when the first demonstration broke out against the regime in the city of Dar’a.  She said to him, ‘Where are you?’  He said to her, ‘I am at work.’  She replied to him saying, ‘What work do you have that you must return to immediately?  All of your brothers have gone out to the demonstration and you have to catch up with them and participate with them.’

“People have witnessed perhaps dozens of demonstrations in which children participated with their fathers and mothers.  All went out bare-chested before tanks and guns and aircraft, seeking freedom and the fall of this corrupt regime which has brought down woes upon Syria and the Syrians.  The metal intrinsic to this people has appeared out of this revolution, so that the solidarity and compassion between people in this revolution has no limit.

“And here I will mention that at the beginning of the revolution one of the Christian clergy met me and said to me, ‘The Christians are afraid.’  I said to him, ‘What will remove the fear from the souls of the Christians, joining the revolution and society and union with the people, or joining a failing regime?  We Christians must join the revolution and the people.’ 

“And I remember that when I came out of prison on May 10, 2011, after they arrested me the first time, Easter had been in the middle of April, after which I found that the priest had ordered a guard of youths for the church to protect it from attack against it.  So I went and said to him, ‘From whom are you protecting it?  It is the Muslims who built this church!’  And that’s a fact, for at the building of the church of Qatana in 1998, a delegation of the church went to ‘Awad ‘Amura, the owner of one of the largest aluminum companies, to purchase aluminum for the doors and windows of the Church.  The bill was huge, so the company employees asked the delegation, ‘Is this quantity of aluminum for a housing project?’  They said, ‘No, it’s for the church.’  And the owner of the company vowed, and he was a Muslim, that he would not take a single penny and that all of the aluminum would be a donation to the church.  As for the contractors and builders, they were all from the Muslims. 

“Indeed, Syria has lived according to pluralism and religious toleration for many centuries, and I remember when I came out of prison the last time and went back to my house, I found young men standing around my house.  So I went out and asked them if they wanted something.  They said, ‘Master George, we are from the youths of the revolution and we are responsible for guarding your house around the clock.  We take turns in guarding without your knowing.’  I said to them, ‘Who made you responsible for this?’  They said, ‘We made ourselves responsible, and no one else assigned us.'”

He will finish on Saturday.

Whether I finish translating the last installment of al-Watan’s series on George Sabra from last November by Saturday remains to be seen.  In the meantime, it is interesting here how Sabra presents himself as reigning in sectarianism against the Alawites and answering the concerns of his fellow Christians as voiced by a priest.  It is especially interesting that he rejected sectarianism by saying, as a Christian, “our language is that of the Qur’an.”  Also interesting is the presentation of the pre-revolution days as, on the one hand, a period of intense Ba’athist brainwashing through periodicals like the Avant-Garde (الطلائع) in support of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, and on the other, a haven of diversity and religious toleration.  Undoubtedly, Sabra blames all that is wrong with Syria before 2011 on the Ba’ath party and the al-Assad regime, while the Muslim-Christian cooperation is presented as “how Syria has lived for many centuries”.

In the paragraph about Muhammad al-Hariri from Dar’a, either the identity of his female interlocutor is omitted through an accidental omission, or the feminine pronouns are being used of “demonstration” (تظاهرة), surprisingly understood to be a collective noun for the protesters.  I have not come across this latter usage, so I have presumed the former, but it could be interpreted otherwise.

Who is George Sabra? (part 2)

The second installment of the Qatari al-Watan‘s series on George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition, was published on November 14, 2012 (Arabic here).  I thought it would be useful, even seven months later, to make this available to an English-speaking audience, in order to hear George Sabra in his own words.  Here is my translation:

Tales of George Sabra (2)

by Ahmad Mansur

George Sabra finishes the story of his escape from Syria across the border with Jordan, saying, “The crossing of the raised earthen embankment at the border, which represents the final stage of the journey of escape, was the divider between life and death.  It is possible that someone will die by a sniper’s bullet while he is crossing the embankment where he is exposed, and it is possible that he will pass it to the other side, so that life is ordained for him and he comes out into freedom.  And this is what tens of thousands of Syrians have done, among them women, children, the elderly, and whole families.  I clutched the end of my son’s clothes and hurried behind him, and I was counting my breaths.  And I felt that we were running with super-human energy to escape from death, and our leap to the other side of the earthen embankment was a new life for us.  I felt my body and my son’s body and said to him, ‘Are we still alive?’  Yes, we were still alive.

“This was the first time I left Syria since 1979, and I am sorry that I left it in this manner, fleeing from the hell of the regime, when I had been arrested twice since the outbreak of the revolution.  The first was after I participated in the first demonstration which broke out in Qatana, on April 10, 2011, and I was arrested right after it with dozens of the people of Qatana.  Fourteen other Christians were arrested with me who had participated in the demonstrations.

“I wish here to allude to the historical bond between Muslims and Christians in Syria.  So for us Christians, our culture is the Arabic Islamic one.  John of Damascus was the keeper of the treasury in the time of ‘Abd al-Malik bin Marwan and al-Walid bin ‘Abd al-Malik, and he was a Christian.  Similarly, the poet al-Akhtal al-Taghlibi was a Christian, and he was one of the companions of ‘Abd al-Malik bin Marwan also, and dozens of others.  And in the modern period Fares al-Khoury was the prime minister of Syria.  Just as there were Christian ministers here in Istanbul, and the Muslims appointed Fares al-Khoury the minister of endowments (wazir al-awqaf) in the process of independence. 

“I remember, when I was pursued by the regime in the period between 1984 and 1987 I was hidden in the houses of acquaintances and friends from among the Muslims.  And when I was sentenced to eight years in prison by the Supreme State Security Court in 1987 on the accusation of undermining the regime, I spent the time in Saydnaya Prison, including four years in solitary confinement when my relatives didn’t know anything about me.  And when they transferred me to the wards, I found in the prison some prisoners from the Muslim Brotherhood whose relatives didn’t know anything about them for fifteen years, and their relatives believed them to be among the dead!  When my wife was permitted to come to visit me after four years, I sent messages to their houses to let their relatives know that they were still living and well.  Some of the families were afraid and worried, and families sought for signs to prove that their sons were among the living and in the prison.  So we were sending them to them. 

“Some of the opposition at that time had the view of the Muslim Brotherhood that they were beasts with fangs and claws, and the Brotherhood was looking at the opposition, both Communists and others, as if they were immoral beasts!  When some of the Brotherhood were transferred from other prisons to us in Saydnaya Prison, they came half naked.  We were dividing our clothes and food with him, and we drew closer together to each other as humans, and we discovered that we are sons of one nation.  We are one, even if each of us has his opinions in the search for how to get out of the nation’s crisis.  But it was our human drawing near to each other at this stage which had a role in the mutual understanding which happened in what came afterward.  The Brotherhood discovered that we have values and that we do not resemble the image which was circulating about us.  And from our viewpoint we discovered the human and national aspects in them.

“And here I will mention one of the oddities which I will not forget, that when I was arrested for the second time after the revolution, in July 2011 in Qatana, and I passed two months in prison before they released me after pressures both internal and external, when I was prosecuted before the judges there were two charges of the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Qatana.  I said to them, ‘Have the Muslims died in Syria and not one of them is left, so that a Christian must lead them in the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Qatana?’  Indeed, this reflects the magnitude of the farce that this regime practices and the current corruption of the judiciary system that it arrests a Christian and prosecutes him on the charge of establishing an Islamic emirate in Qatana!”

He will finish tomorrow.

Again, “tomorrow” for the original may be next week before I get the translation done, but this account already reveals additional details of Sabra’s periods in prison.  He particularly credits the time in Saydnaya Military Prison with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, for enabling the cooperation between Islamists and secularists in the current revolution.  This is an important point and bears further examination.

The historical narrative is also interesting, especially the combination of ancient figures (John of Damascus, al-Akhtal) and the modern Fares al-Khoury.  As a minor detail, it was not the famous Christian theologian John of Damascus but his father who served the Umayyad caliphs as a civil servant in Damascus.  But this slip does not change the force of Sabra’s argument for historical cooperation between Muslims and Christians in Syria.  This is an argument he needs to make both to encourage Christian support for the Sunni rebels as opposed to the regime and to attempt to ensure a tolerable state for Christians in post-war Syria if the rebels win.

Who is George Sabra?

George Sabra (جورج صبرا) is current president of the Syrian National Council and current acting president of the Syrian National Coalition.

There is a profile of him at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

His English Wikipedia page is somewhat brief, indicating only his birthplace, education, and political party memberships.  The page about him in Arabic Wikipedia does not add additional information, other than to refer to a 2-month jail stint from July 20 to September 19, 2011.

The Qatari newspaper al-Watan (to be distinguished from the newspaper of that name in every other Arabic-speaking country) published a series of articles last November about George Sabra by Ahmad Mansur, shortly after he was elected president of the Syrian National Council.  The first of these articles (dated November 13, 2012) I have translated below (from the Arabic here).  I hope to add translations of the others as I have time.

Stories of George Sabra (1)

by Ahmad Mansur

When the Syrian National Council, during its meeting in Doha on last Friday evening, November 9, selected George Sabra as its president, I remembered sitting for a long time with George Sabra in the month of June 2012 on the shores of the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul, where the discussion went beyond some of the events that were going on in Syria to various topics, which revealed the personality of George Sabra as humorous and a connoisseur of life and open to humanity.  Despite my many visits to Istanbul, I nevertheless found that he was involved with everything in it and had come to relish the history of the city, its mosques, its churches, its palaces, and its buildings with the mentality of an artist and the eye of a poet.  He said to me, “I can call this city the ‘City of Color’ because the bright colors of the houses of Istanbul, especially the new houses built on the heights and elevated areas, give a distinctive character to this deeply historical city.”

George Sabra was born in the city of Qatana in Rif Dimashq in 1947.  He graduated from the College of Arts at the University of Damascus in 1971.  He joined the Syrian Communist Party in 1970 and became one of its leaders.  He was subjected to arrest and security prosecution a number of times between 1980 and 1984, at which point he disappeared inside the country for the space of three years.  He was elected a member of the Central Committee of the Syrian Communist Party in 1985, and in 1987 he was arrested and sentenced before the Supreme State Security Court in Damascus to eight years in prison, the end of them in the Saydnaya Military Prison.  He was released in 1995.  He represented the Communist Party in 2000 in the National Democratic Rally, then in the Damascus Declaration for Change in 2005.

He joined the Syrian revolution at its inception and acquired the role of a major player, so Syrian authorities arrested him on April 10, 2011, a few weeks after the outbreak of the revolution, and then released him after a month.  His arrest was repeated another time on July 20, 2011, when he spent two months in detention, and after international pressure the regime released him on September 19, 2011.  He made plans to flee, and he escaped as a refugee from Syria to Jordan on December 20, 2011, under cover of darkness, which was the first time he had left Syria since 1979.  He joined the Syrian National Council and became a spokesman for it.  Then last Friday he was elected its president.

When I asked him about the story of his escape, he said, “At that time smuggling operations were conducted by means of bribery, and the ‘sale of the road’ was by forces belonging to the regime.  ‘The sale of the road’ was understood to mean that they would leave the road to the rebels for a designated period in exchange for a designated sum, so that the rebels could use it for anything.  I kept moving with my son from place to place until we were 500 m away from the border, and here we were left to our fate, where snipers were watching the border and shooting at everyone that moves, whether man or woman or even a child.  And because whole families did not find an alternative to crossing in this manner, many have been martyred while trying to escape from this bloody regime ruling in Syria.  The snipers had killed a woman who tried to cross the border an hour before us.  But there were only two choices before us; there was no third option.  Either we would cross or we would die as martyrs.  Crossing the border at night consists of several stages.  The first stage was barbed wire, after it a deep trench, then barbed wire again, and after it a raised earthen embankment.  And the difficulty of the earthen embankment when you try to cross it, and it’s the final stage, is that you are exposed and an easy target for the snipers belonging to the bloody regime ruling in Syria.  And the width of this interval was about five hundred meters.  My son was running in front of me and I was behind him clutching his clothes.  We ran through the first stage, two hundred meters, passed the barbed wire, then leaped into the ditch.  My heart almost comes out of my chest from the force of the heartbeats and the fear.  I felt around for him and I felt around for myself, and I said to him, ‘Are we still alive, my son?’  He said, ‘Yes.’  We ran across the second stage, after which we passed the ditch and the barbed wire.  And every time I was feeling around for myself and feeling around for my child, and I would ask him, ‘Are we still alive?’  Then came the most dangerous stage, the crossing of the raised earthen embankment, on which hundreds have been martyred while trying to cross to freedom…” (Complete tomorrow.)

Sorry for the cliff-hanger.  It’s in the original.  I probably will not get the next installment translated by tomorrow, but I thought I’d post this for people who want to know a bit more about George Sabra.