Syria Once Again Issuing Visas Allowing Jews to Leave Country

Reports that Syria is once again granting travel visas to the country’s Jews have the American Jewish community optimistic but cautious.

A State Department official confirmed Wednesday that the Syrian government recently resumed issuing travel visas to Syrian Jews, who, except for a brief lull in 1992, were long barred from leaving the country.

“We’ve seen progress in the issuance of travel visas in the past few weeks,” the official said, refusing to comment on the number of visas issued so far.

A source on Capitol Hill confirmed that between 100 and 200 visas had been issued last week. The source could not confirm whether more visas were granted this week.

The turnabout is seen as an attempt to make good on a promise that Syrian President Hafez Assad made to U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher during a meeting in Damascus in early December. The Syrian leader pledged he would give exit visas to all remaining Jews by the end of 1993.

While up to 1,000 Syrian Jews apparently still have not been given travel visas, Jewish advocacy groups are nevertheless encouraged.

“We’re pleased that there’s movement” in the right direction, said Alice Harary, president of the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews.

“It’s certainly about time that the Jews in Syria should have the basic human right of travel,” Harary said.

Jewish leaders were carefully measuring their excitement, however, citing previous but unfulfilled promises that the Syrian Jews were free to leave.

“This is a sensitive issue brought up at a sensitive time,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Hoenlein and others stressed that speculation could only stir false optimism and potentially threaten the visa-issuing process.

Syria announced a free-travel policy for its Jewish community in April 1992. But since October 1992, few travel visas have been issued.

Christopher’s meeting with Assad followed an intense lobbying effort by Jewish organizations urging the Clinton administration to press Syria to free the country’s Jews.

Observers interpret Assad’s recent promise to give visas to all Syrian Jews as a goodwill gesture offered in part in exchange for a meeting with Clinton. The president is scheduled to meet with Assad in Geneva in January.

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