Syria Permits Vigil For Slain Civilians, Soldiers Protesters in the capital, Damascus, staged a candlelight vigil Wednesday night to press for democratic changes. It was the first officially sanctioned protest in the capital, and it comes just days after the regime allowed opposition activists to meet at a Damascus hotel.

Syria Permits Vigil For Slain Civilians, Soldiers

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.


And Im Renee Montagne.

Arab leaders under pressure this year have tried different ways to keep power.

INSKEEP: Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak used police power and persuasion.

MONTAGNE: Libya's Moammar Gadhafi used violence and threats.

INSKEEP: And amid brutal crackdowns, various rulers have tried to improve their image, as Syria's Bashar al-Assad is trying now.

MONTAGNE: He allowed a candlelight vigil, last night, in Damascus for those killed in protests.

Here's NPR's Deborah Amos.

Unidentified Man: (Arabic language spoken)

(Soundbite of ambient street sounds)

DEBORAH AMOS: The invitation went out on Facebook. Official approval came after three rejections and there were rules: No politics, no slogans, no pictures not even of the president. Two hours in this city park, organizers were in charge of security and they patted down anyone who entered.

Unidentified Woman: We are checking if they have any pictures or flags with things written on it.

AMOS: This is a memorial for the dead, says Bishar Hamwey, one of the organizers.

Mr. BISHAR HAMWEY (Organizer): No, we dont take sides here, from the army and from the civilians.

AMOS: Syrian state television has covered the funerals of soldiers and police, but openly marking the death of those killed in protests, that is new, says Hamwey.

Mr. HAMWEY: It is new, and we are welcoming this and we hope it's a beginning for a new era of civil rights for Syrians in Syria.

AMOS: The gathering was young and well-educated, the Facebook generation in person college students, computer programmers, and Web designers.

NISREEN: We also studied IT.

ASMA: Shes the IT, but I'm the geek.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMOS: Nisreen and Asma, in their mid-20's, gave first names only. But they say the killing must end and the protests must go on.

ASMA: Well, actually, the protests are there because rights have not been met yet. And up till now, no serious signs for that.

AMOS: In this public park, they said they had never taken part in any demonstrations. But in whispered conversations, others said they're on the streets every night, at midnight rallies, to keep the pressure up. The cat and mouse game they play with security police played out at the vigil, too; with plain clothed security snapping pictures of anyone who talked to the media.

(Soundbite of chanting protestors)

AMOS: When a pro-government group marched to the edge of this park, carrying pictures of the president, Aktham al-Hassanieh, a vigil organizer, rushed down to stop them. But the police stepped in first to head off any confrontation.

Mr. AKTHAM AL-HASSANIEH (Vigil Organizer): The police deal with them.

AMOS: Are you surprised by that?

Mr. AL-HASSANIEH: Kind of.

AMOS: For the second time in a week, the Syrian government has surprised critics by approving meetings that would have been unthinkable a few months ago. Well-known dissidents were permitted to meet in a Damascus hotel on Monday, and now a silent vigil in a public park.

George al-Ain says he came here to honor the deaths that paid for the changes.

Mr. GEORGE AL-AIN: For sure, they made Syrians people move to a new era.

AMOS: You are a Christian?

Mr. AL-AIN: Yeah, I'm a Christian.

AMOS: People tell me that there are no Christians in the protest movement. Not true?

Mr. AL-AIN: Its so untrue, this thing.

AMOS: The official narrative of the protest movement is that it represents a sectarian split; a mostly Sunni Muslim uprising against Syria's minorities -Christians and Alawite Muslims.

Much of the violence, say government officials, is due to clashes with armed gangs. But these young people have a different explanation for the deaths of more than a thousand peaceful protesters, says 20-year-old Batuol Nayouf, a political science major.

Ms. BATUOL NAYOUF (Student): We both know who killed them and we both know that they died for something. Everything, you have to pay for it. You dont get anything for free, especially in these countries.

AMOS: Government troops have pulled out of some provincial cities. But security personnel have tightened a grip on the capital as another Friday - a protest day - approaches.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

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