Thursday, April 06, 2006

Syria Imposing Stronger Curbs on Opposition

Syria Imposing Stronger Curbs on Opposition - New York Times: "Just months ago, under intense international pressure to ease its stranglehold on neighboring Lebanon, the Syrian government was talking about ending the ruling Baath Party's grip on Syrian power and paving the way for a multiparty system.

A growing sense of confidence because of shifts in the Middle East in recent months, especially the Hamas victory in Palestinian elections, political paralysis in Lebanon and the intense difficulties facing the United States in trying to stabilize Iraq and stymie Iran's drive toward nuclear power.

Damascus has a very different feel from that of a few months ago, when investigators for the United Nations Security Council issued a report suggesting that the Syrian state — not just individuals — was behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, in February 2005.

Sami al-Abbas, a novelist, and Farouk Hamad, a poet, were arrested Monday for meeting with opposition leaders, said Razan Zaytouneh of the Syrian Human Rights Information Link, a local organization.

Muhammad al-Habash, a member of Parliament and general manager of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus, says that in spite of the restrictions, Syria is far more relaxed than it was five years ago when, he said, he would not have been allowed to meet with a foreign reporter.

The Syrian government has gone further to accommodate religious conservatives than in the past, officials and religious scholars said.

It has appointed a sheik, as opposed to a secular Baathist, to head the Religious Affairs Ministry; allowed, for the first time, religious activities in the stadium at Damascus University; and permitted a speech emphasizing religious practices and identity to be given to a military audience. President Bashar al-Assad has increasingly inserted references to religious identity and culture into his speeches."

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