It must be unfortunate that a minor country like Syria should get a worldwide attention only when an event associated with death should occur on its soil. First came the death of President Asad last June, which brought a trail of over a 1,000 reporters and a sudden interest in Syria and its people, but now with the Pope's visit scheduled for the end of this week, the death of Asad is bound to look like a manageable event. In fact, with at least 500 reporters covering the Pope's visit, the Syrian economy, whose state budget is one-tenth of a company like IBM (for a society of over 16 million), must experience a boom by the weekend. (Regrettably, and by a strange coincidence, I'll be in Rome this weekend, so I won't be able to see the Pope in person.) The Pope's busy schedule worldwide is in itself represented as a challenge to death by an aging and sick old man, whose death is perceived as imminent, and to whom the new Syrian president would look like a grand-grand-son (a face-to-face between the Pope and Asad-the-father, also riddled with a weakened body before he died, would have been a far less attractive media event). Obviously, the intriguing question here is why should the Pope attract much attention in Syria, and what is it in his own physical presence that triggers such unreserved attraction. Is it the person himself, or is it the institution of papacy, or is it Catholicism as such?
To begin, we should first note the Pope's trajectory in his three-day visit, which in itself might provide us with some clues. First and foremost is a scheduled visit to the city of Qunaytira in the still occupied Golan Heights. The city itself was liberated from Israeli occupation as an outcome of the negotiations that followed the 1973 Yum Kippur October war (thanks to Henry Kissinger and associates), and has since then been left by and large mostly uninhabited, primarily as a propaganda to keep the stakes high for the Golan Heights. Going to Qunaytira is like traveling through a dark tunnel, surrounded by a military landscape, until you reach a devastated city whose signs of devastation have all been left in place to remind you of all those Zionist, colonialist, imperialist aggressions and the like, and also as a reminder that the rest of the Heights are still occupied (more accurately, "annexed") and therefore need their own dose of "liberation." The Pope will be praying, if all goes to schedule, in a major Greek Orthodox church in the city, so that his presence there will be the major event for the Syrian government who would look at such a visit as an endorsement to Syria's rights over the Golan Heights. We already touch here upon a major ideological foundation for many of the papal practices in recent years, the pièce de résistance of the entire system: from his pleadings to stop the coming execution of Timothy McVeigh, and his suspicions towards the death penalty in general, to his visits to Cuba, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, not to mention Poland, his birthplace, the Pope has been aggressively stating an ideology of the weak versus the strong, the south versus the north, the poor versus the rich, and the disfavored versus the affluent. His anti-death-penalty stances fall within what many in Europe perceive as a quasi-barbarism within American capitalism as such, namely that the most affluent society in world history can do no better than send some of its upper criminals to the death row. Stated differently, the anti-capitalist riots that began in Seattle against the WTO, and indirectly the IMF and the World Bank, and whose movement is perceived as anti-globalization, find their place within the more humane European capitalism, which in many of its core areas is infected with the ethos of Catholicism rather than the more perverse Protestantism.
In fact, and pace the Weberian thesis of a superiority of Protestantism when it comes to the core capitalist institutions, Catholicism has been lagging behind in the US and the rest of the world. Hence, even the Pope's visit to a wealthy society like the US a couple of years ago, and his mass rally in New York's Central park, were also a move towards the disfavored in American society. In a nutshell, it is precisely this attractive side of Catholicism in the eyes of its beholders that also renders it a backward movement for its detractors. In fact, a major problem with Catholicism is the visibility of the cult's signs, beginning with the Vatican itself, which is represented as a "city" and as the Mecca of all believers. At the center of all this is, of course, the Pope himself, another visible sign of redemption on earth. By contrast, the production and circulation of the means of salvation in Protestantism remain invisible so that there is neither a "center" nor salvation as an instant gratification. I need go no further to show how this leads to the spirit of capitalism à la Weber. Suffice it to say, however, that Eastern Catholicism, in its Greek Orthodox variant, is even more prone to visible rituals and symbols (all seven of Tarkovski's films contain such manifestations of the Greek Orthodox rituals), and to a sense of community over the individual, and while Sunni Islam remains suspicious of all religious symbols in the form of art or otherwise-an icon-phobia that was all too evident in the destruction of Buddhist art by the Taliban-Shi'ism by contrast tends to be closer to Catholicism at least in this respect.
No doubt the humanitarian and anti-capitalist messages inherent in many of the papal movements around the globe would have their impact on Syrian society at large. But the Christians will look at his visit a bit differently, in particular that their communities, which make up 10% of the Syrian population, have been more drained by immigration than others. We tend to forget that for many of the countries outside North America and Europe, there are very few "economies" that function properly, if at all. Indeed, as is the case with Syria, there isn't even anything that would be close to an "economy," and hence there isn't much at stake. Like all political representations, religion in economies where there isn't anything at stake has in the final analysis the upper hand, if not the last word. I'm sure the Pope will have a great time in Damascus.