Peace groups seek tolerance in Syria

Syria has no Mahatma Gandhi to confront communal conflict with a hunger strike but Syria does have Gandhian peacemakers seeking to reconcile the country’s warring factions. 

Volunteers for Musalaha, a group whose name means “reconciliation”, are trying to promote tolerance, rapprochement and coexistence across the country. The organisation, comprised individuals from all walks of life and communities, attempts to broker local peace accords in violent areas, provides humanitarian relief to all needy people, and works to free prisoners and abductees.  Musalaha proclaims itself to be non-political and cultivates working relationships with all sides. For this reason it is seen as an “opposition group” by both the government and rebels bent on a military solution. 

Last week, 16 international activists from North and South America, Europe, and Australia came to Damascus in a mission to support Musalaha.  The team was led by Irish Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire, who won the prize for her campaign against communalism in Northern Ireland. She also took part in one of the Free Gaza movement’s successful 2008 voyages to break Israel’s siege and blockade of the Palestinian coastal strip but was detained during a subsequent attempt when Israel’s navy hijacked the vessel on which she was sailing.

Free prisoners

While the mission received virtually no international publicity, the Syrian media gave the visit great play as it was the first by multinationals to Damascus since the unrest began 26 months ago. In response to a plea by Maguire and her team, the government agreed to free 70 political prisoners. 

A second group calling itself the Forum for National Harmony meets at Maktab Anbar, a grand Damascene mansion inside the walled Old City. Now a museum and the headquarters of the local environmental protection committee, the elegant mansion was built in 1865 by the father Shukri Quwatli, the first president of independent Syria. The forum was established a year ago when fighting between gangs of pro- and anti-government youths threatened to transform the Old City into a battleground. 

Father Gabriel, a Christian priest who has been involved in the forum’s efforts from the outset, told Deccan Herald that the gunmen were separated and an area covering 12 blocks was declared a fighting-free zone. “This spread to the whole of the Old City. Now we don’t have problems between us,” although mortars occasionally strike the Old City and gunmen have staged attacks on civilians at Bab Touma at the entrance to the Christian quarter and near the eighth century Omayyad Mosque.  

Father Gabriel remarked, "Our area is representative of the whole of Syria." Forum members believe that if the Old City holds firm, the country can survive. Rafiq Lutfe, another activist, observed “You know, we Syrians never used to consider a person’s sect or ethnicity. We felt ashamed to ask.” The conflict has destroyed this communal cohesion. 

Rafiq Mardini, an agricultural engineer from Aleppo now residing in Damascus, has been involved in reconciling divided families as well as negotiations for the freeing of hostages and abductees.

About the same time the forum was established, the domestic opposition group, Building the Syrian State, headed by Louay Hussein, a former political prisoner, began holding seminars and workshops for young Damascenes with the aim of halting social disintegration and inculcating democratic values. 

According to workshop director, Anas Joudeh at least one pro-government militiaman has been converted to peacemaking after attending several meetings. He had joined the militia seeking revenge against rebels who killed his best friend.

If Syria is to survive as a country while the conflict rages and once violence ends, organisations and political groupings like these must succeed in their efforts to achieve reconciliation and rapprochement among communities, clans, families, and individuals.Syria is a land of 18 communities, including Sunnis, Shias, Ismails, Alawites, a range of Christian denominations, Druze, Circassians (from the Caucasus), Palestinians, Kurds, and ethnic Turks. In many areas in Syria itself and in exile in neighbouring countries homeless members of these communities have been thrown together.  Since they must continue to interact and mingle peacefully, they must be morally and psychologically vaccinated against infection by sectarian antagonisms and ethnic separatism. If this does not happen, the social sinews that once held Syria together will break and the country will be split in to warring fiefdoms dominated by radical fundamentalist or communal warlords.

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