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Debate Over Religious Freedom in Syria Causes Anger in Los Angeles Diaspora

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As the fight for democracy and human rights in Syria reaches fever pitch, with Syrian security forces killing at least 500 activists by some estimates, the drama has spilled over into diaspora communities outside the country. The Syrian-American community of the greater Los Angeles area - centered just five miles from Disneyland - has fractured so intensely over the issue that they now spend their weekends screaming at each other at protests instead of picnicking together as they once did.

Supporters and opponents of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad clashed in front of Los Angeles' Federal Building on a recent weekend in April, yelling at each other as a dozen police officers intervened and an LAPD helicopter hovered overhead.

"Most of the people at this rally are part of my mosque community and they've known each other for, literally, decades," wrote blogger Tasbeeh Herwees after the incident. "They've raised their children together, gone to the same picnics, prayed at Friday prayers side-by-side. They're friends. Neighbors. And now they're protesting at opposite sides of the street."

On one side, a gray-haired man with a pressed oxford shirt tucked into khaki pants stood beside a middle-aged woman in a conservative dress and hijab, both holding signs that said "48 years is enough," referring to the long reign of Bashar al-Assad and his even more brutal father, Hafez al-Assad. They were flanked by children and were both yelling in Arabic at the opposing side.

The pro-Bashar activists, some of whom called themselves members of the "Dr. Bashar al-Assad Lovers Committee," shouted right back as children held signs with large glossy pictures of al-Assad with the captions "Bashar is peace" and "Bashar is security."

Some of the pro-Bashar ranks were taking photos of the opposition protesters, sparking fears that the tentacles of Syrian state repression had extended the 7500 miles between Damascus and Los Angeles.

"Some of their group are paid informants by the government," said Mazen Almoukdad, one of the anti-Assad activists. He recognized one man named Riad, he said, who had "spent a few years with secret police and openly represents the [Syrian] government."

Ammar Kahf, a leader of the local opposition protests and the Los Angeles representative of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nation-wide coalition that works in solidarity with opposition friends and family back in Syria, seconded that Anaheim-based businessmen who were "employed by security services in Syria before coming here" were asked by the local Syrian consulate to promote the government back home, which has been suffering something of a public relations problem since opposition protests began.

The man Almoukdad identified as Riad "partnered up with three other businessmen to save their bosses image," Kahf said, referring to Bashar al-Assad.

That man, Riad "Ray" Saeid, works as editor-in-chief of the Anaheim-based Arabic language newspaper Al-Alam Al Arabi, which has recently begun publishing pro-Assad articles.

When asked if such accusations were true, Saeid responded with a long, resounding laugh.

"That talk is crap," he said before launching into accusations of his own. "They are a bunch of criminals, fanatics, al Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood."

While a shroud of mystery and intrigue surrounds Saeid, at least among the opposition protesters in Los Angeles, his unequivocal support of Bashar al-Assad is certain.

Al-Alam Al Arabi ran a story on the confrontational protest at the Federal Building, writing in an Arabic-language story that Syrians with "loyalty and love for their country" were there to reject "attempts to sedition and acts of sabotage carried out by a group of agents and spies who want evil to the homeland."

As a result of that and similar stories, Saeid lamented that community member "are throwing away copies of our paper" in the local mosques.

One thing is clear: the vitriolic debate dividing the diaspora community in the greater Los Angeles community is just a microcosm of the life-or-death debate back home in Syria, where hundreds of non-violent grassroots protesters have lost their lives at the hands of state security forces.

At the heart of their fierce animosity is a debate over how to best protect Syria's myriad religious communities: Sunni Muslims, Shi'a Muslims, Christians, Druzes, Alawis, Jews, Yazidis, Ismailis, and others.

Those in support of al-Assad make the argument that his Ba'athist regime, brutal as it has been, has kept the peace between warring religious factions. Unlike neighboring countries like Lebanon, whose 15-year civil war saw brutal and bloody inter-religious feuds, Syria has been relatively free of such strife, they claim.

"We want peaceful existence between all groups: Salawi, Jews, Christians, Druzes," said Saeid. "I don't care what religion you are, if you go the church, synagogue, or mosque. Belief is between you and God."

Of his opponents, Saeid says that "they want to live like Afghanistan, they want to live like the Taliban. They want to kill seven million Syrians in order to built an Islamic state."

Some in attendance at the Federal Building protest in April echoed Saeid's accusations about the religious motivation of the diaspora opposition movement.

Those are the Muslim Brotherhood," said Faraja Issa, gesturing towards the opposition protesters. "They want to take Syria back, they want to do just like they did in Afghanistan."

The Ba'athist ideology that has, according to supporters, kept the peace between warring religious factions has come at a price in the Arab world. Most closely associated with dictators like al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, the Arab nationalist doctrine has been implemented at high cost, often with jailing and torturing of dissidents.

Reports abound of underground prisons in Syria where political prisoners are held for years, without access to sunlight, let alone friends and family.

Opponents of the regime argue that torture, a massively repressive police state, and an unaccountable dictatorship are an unacceptable price to pay for religious peace.

The recent bloodshed has only entrenched the opposition's position. Syrian security forces have been responding to peaceful protests with live ammunition fired from military assault weapons, according to Human Rights Watch. Christof Heyns, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, said that "live ammunition is being used in clear violation of international law."

"I know people are dying, people are taking bullets in the chest. People are choosing to do that because they want freedom more than anything else," said Mohja Kahf, a poet and professor at the University of Arkansas who has been an active member of the diaspora opposition (and who also happens to be Ammar's sister). She says that the protests have united Kurds, Christians, Muslims and non-believers behind a vision of Syria as a free, tolerant state.

"Whether behind bars or exiled, we are free on the inside now," she said. "Freedom is something you have and you act on in the inside. [The Syrian protesters] are free. Nothing the government can do can intimidate them or change that now."

"Syria is a very ethnically diverse country," said Ammar Kahf. "But Syria is one country, undivided. They continue to utilize the threat of sectarian issues. The [Syrian] regime has been using those sectarian division threats, too. This is all fabrication."

Staunch al-Assad supporters like Saeid have little sympathy for such activists, especially those causing unrest at home in Syria.

The protesters will be "thrown in jail and punished for every drop of blood shed in our country," Saeid said. I don't want to say they are traitors to their country. But they are dumb. They are stupid. They don't understand the consequences. They don't understand what is waiting for them."

But with men, women and children of all religious affiliations being killed back home in the struggle for a more free, more tolerant state, at least according to Mohja Kahf, those members of the diaspora community who are sympathetic are doing everything they can to help.

"I'm not eating very much or sleeping very much," she said. "We really want to just do everything we can to support and megaphone their voices, especially because there are very few independent journalists allowed in Syria. It's important that the world knows what's happening."