By Detroit Free Press
June 21, 2011
In a loud and lively rally, more than 500 Syrians and Lebanese packed a Dearborn hall tonight in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose government has led a violent crackdown on protesters in recent weeks.
"With our blood, with our souls, we will sacrifice for you, Bashar," the crowd chanted several times in Arabic during the nearly three-hour rally.
But the event -- which featured a talk by Syrian Ambassador to the US Imad Moustapha -- drew sharp criticism from other Syrians in metro Detroit who say that Assad is a dictator who has brutally repressed peaceful demonstrators. And they questioned why such a rally was held at a time when there is mounting criticism of the Syrian government for its actions.
"It's sad," said Dr. Yahya Basha, a Syrian-American from West Bloomfield, of the rally. "I hope they won't stand on the wrong side of history. Assad is on the wrong side of history and of humanity."
Inside the Lebanese-American Heritage Club, a standing-room only crowd that was mostly Christian or Shia Muslim banged drums, chanted pro-Assad slogans, and whistled as speakers declared their support for Assad. Most were Syrian Christian or Lebanese Shia, but there were also some Syrian Shia and Druze as well. In Syria, more than 1,400 are said to have been killed by government forces and thousands others detained, say human rights activists.
But at the rally, speakers slammed the uprisings in Syria and said Assad was trying to prevent his country from turning into Iraq. Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab-American News, said that it's important to support Syria's government because the alternative would lead to chaos in the region.
"They are destroying it," Stephanie Hanna, 14, said of Syrian opposition to the crowd at the Dearborn rally. "They want to turn Syria into Iraq....What kind of freedom do they want? The freedom to kill people in the Army?"
To loud cheers of approval, Hanna said: "We have great leaders...Syria in the end will triumph."
Hanna is Orthodox Christian, as were many at the rally. Three Arab Christian priests, including Fr. George Shalhoub of St. Mary Orthodox Church in Livonia, were at the rally and sat in the front to show their support for Assad. Many Syrian Christians tend to be supportive of Assad because he has protected their community and has been generally secular, they say. They fear an unstable Syria or an an Islamist takeover that would threaten them.
The other sizeable group at the Dearborn rally were Shia Muslims of Syrian and Lebanese descent. Assad himself is Alawite, which is considered a part of Shia Islam, and he has been close to the Shia leadership in Iran and in Lebanon. For years, Assad and his father backed Lebanese Shia groups.
Some speakers and people declared their support for both Assad and Hassan Nasrallah, the Lebanese Shia leader of the group Hizballah.
Many at the rally wore t-shirts with photographs of Assad imposed on a Syrian flag. Underneath, it read: "We love you." Others waved Syrian flags, small and big.
On the wall hung a large banner with a photo of a smiling Assad, his hand waving to the crowd. It read: "Syria Believes in You."
In the front hung was another large banner behind the speaker dais that read: "Solidarity with Syria."
Ambassador Imad Moustapha referred to some of the opponents of Assad as terrorists, saying they wanted to create tensions between Muslims and Christians.
But Dr. Basha said before the rally of Moustapha:
"He's going to lie...He evades questions and doesn't answer with facts."
Basha noted that Syria has been ruled for more than 40 years by the Assad family, which he said has cracked down on some of his family members over the years. It's time for a change, he said.
Basha also noted that the Syrian government has banned foreign media from entering Syria. He said he wonders how long the Assad regime can continue committing crimes against the Syrian people.
"It's outrageous," Basha said.
But at the rally, speaker after speaker declared their support for the Syrian ruler.
"Radical armed groups are trying to destroy the country," said Dr. Tamam Mohamad, 34, of Detroit. "We support the unity" of Syria.