Damascus (Fides Service) - On the occasion of Christmas 2004, Fides asked for a contribution with regard to celebrations in Syria from His Beatitude Gregorios III Laham, Greek Melchite Patriarch of Antioch and the East from Alexandria to Jerusalem.
“The solemn celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ is carefully prepared in all our parishes at the spiritual and liturgical level, (with “Christmas Lent”, which corresponds to Latin Advent when priests give special homilies), and at the exterior level.
Young members of fraternities take an active part in this preparation. On the occasion of festivities our organisations for solidarity double efforts to provide assistance and care for the poor, the elderly, children poor families, making home visits and distributing useful gifts of food and other necessities.
There is only one Catholic television channel in the Middle East “Telelumiere” or “Noursat”, which broadcasts from Lebanon and has viewers in Syria and other Middle East countries. In the weeks leading up to Christmas television offers many programmes in preparation for the holiday.
The feast of Christmas is characterised with illuminations and decorations on churches and Christian homes in cities and in villages where Christians are the majority. Visitors to Damascus see windows and balconies alight with decorations. People are free to decorate as they wish, there is no restriction on the part of the civil authorities but, although the Constitution affirms the nation’s “confessional neutrality” , the government does not contribute towards Christmas decorations.
Christmas Mass is well attended by the people in our Greek Melchite patriarchal Cathedral of the Dormition in Damascus and on parishes, Orthodox and Catholic all over Syria. The only Christians in Syria who do not keep Christmas on 25 is the Armenian Apostolic Church which celebrates Christmas according to its own tradition on 6 January.
Christmas celebrations are broadcast live by national radio. Television is present at all Christmas celebrations. On the evening of the 25 December, news programmes usually start with a Christmas address on behalf of the President, delivered by a member of the government to the Bishop of Damascus and in other cities by the provincial governor.
Every year, a few days before Christmas, we organise a half day retreat for bishops, priests, deacons and religious of the different Churches present in the capital. This year for the first time all the Catholic and Orthodox Churches gathered at the Dormition Cathedral on 18 December for Prayers and Hymns. Among those present, the city’s three Patriarchs: Greek Orthodox Ignatius IV; Syrian Orthodox Ignatius Zakka I and myself, representatives of the clergy, and the Papal Nuncio.
We are having trouble with the Father Christmas “farce” very present in television programmes, from abroad watched all over Syria via satellite. In my Letter Pastoral for Christmas I reminded our parishes that Father Christmas is not part of religious celebrations.
I would end with a note: in Syria official documents are dated according to two calendars: the Egìra Muslim calendar and the universal Christian calendar with the names of the months in Syrian, Christian therefore, and the indication of the year of the Birth of Jesus”.
+ Gregorios III Laham. Patriarch of Antioch and the East from Alexandria to Jerusalem
(Agenzia Fides 20/12/2004)