Clerics Urged to Promote Family Planning

As population continues to swell, officials turn to religious leaders to encourage birth control.

Clerics Urged to Promote Family Planning

As population continues to swell, officials turn to religious leaders to encourage birth control.

Thursday, 4 June, 2009
When Sheikh Abu Abbas addresses worshippers in a mosque in the north-eastern coastal city of Latakia after Friday prayers, the cleric doesn’t confine himself to giving advice on religious matters.

“Be careful, young men. Over are the times when men could bring many children into the world and leave their future open to luck,” the cleric told a group of young men gathered around him in the Rihana mosque on a recent Friday.

“Relying on luck does not work in our harsh times.”

The authorities are urging clerics across the country to persuade their congregants to abstain from having large numbers of children, amid growing concerns over Syria’s economic and environmental problems.

The country has been witnessing falling oil production, poor industrial performance, high unemployment, and a struggling agricultural sector hit hard by three years of drought.

Syria is also beset with environmental problems, related to deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, and desertification.

The authorities are keen to limit the strain placed on the country’s resources by a rapidly increasing population.

Prime Minister Mohamad Naji al-Otari urged clerics to play a part in reducing the birth rate at a conference held to discuss the matter on April 27.

In a televised address to the nation at the opening of the event, he cited a government report which set out the seriousness of the problem.

Although population growth decreased from more than 3 per cent per year in the Nineties to around 2.4 per cent in 2007, the rate is still high compared to other countries, said the report.

During the conference, Otari asked religious councils to raise people’s awareness of the importance of family planning.

The Syrian Commission for Family Affairs Sira Astor told the conference that the Syrian population, which currently stands at 20 million, is expected to increase by around ten million in the next 15 years.

With greater numbers of people, the country will be faced with higher unemployment levels and more environmental problems, she noted.

Sheikh Abu Abbas said that official warnings about the potential effects of uncontrolled population growth convinced him of the urgency of promoting family planning.

“I am worried about the future of our people,” he said, noting that he has been calling on people to have smaller families during Koran-teaching tours of villages in the north-east of the country.

Although clerics have broached the topic of birth control with congregants, they still refrain from discussing the use of contraceptive methods – a taboo subject in poor areas.

“It is difficult to convince people to be careful [not to have] too many children,” said Sheikh Omar Hajji, who leads prayer at the Al-Karam mosque in Damascus.

“The dire economic situation forces us to reconsider the saying that a very large family is a source of power,” said the cleric, who has also become an advocate of birth control.

“What would people do with their children if education and health were not free?”

Some have welcomed the involvement of religious leaders in encouraging family planning.

“Clerics have an important influence over society in Syria,” said Najwan al-Ali, a Damascus-based physician.

But others say the state should be tackling the problem itself.

The government should penalise people who have many children, said Mohamad Rahman, a sociology expert, also from Damascus.

“It is not enough to simply preach to people that they need to have fewer children, in the absence of laws that prevent the marriage of women before the age of 18,” he said.

In spite of the recent warnings about the consequences of having large families, many Syrians still believe the latter are a blessing.

“It is strange to hear clerics ask us to have fewer children when God said that every newborn comes to life with his own fortune,” said Mohamad Barwan, a grocery store owner, attending a Friday sermon at Damascus’s Al-Karam mosque.
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