Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Christians in Syria

Christ was born in Palestine, but Christianity was born in Syria.
Bashir al-Assad, President of Syrian Arab Republic
This quote is not significant for its theological or historical value, but because of its context and who said it. The Syrian President Bashir al-Assad said this during the visit of pope John Paul II in Damascus, and it is a line often repeated by Syrian Christians as a symbol of the good relations the Christians enjoy with the Syrian government (and a great deal of pride at their long Christian tradition, of course).

There are about two million Christians in Syria, they make up a significant part of the population. Since they are divided into so many denominations (Greek-orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian-Orthodox, Greek-Catholic, Syrian-Catholic, Latin Catholic, Armenian-Catholic, Caldeans and Maronites, and some scattered protestants), you are about as likely to find a church as a mosque while walking in the major cities.

The first thing any Christian leader will tell you is how good the relations are between the various churches (the Greek-orthodox and the Syrian-orthodox share communion), as well as between Christians and Muslims. Mor Matta Roham, the Bishop in Hassake, told us during our trip which took place during the end of Ramadan, that the clergy of the city would, for the festival, go around to the leaders of the Muslim tribes and offer their congratulations. At Christmas and Easter (national holidays in Syria) the Muslim leaders would in turn visit the Bishops. In Aleppo we were told that during the celebrations of Aleppo as the capital of Islamic Culture in 2006, a public seminar would be held where one of the priests in the Syrian-Orthodox community had been invited to lecture of the role of Christians in the formation of Islamic Culture.

In other words, as things are now, Syria is probably the place in the Middle East were the Christian minority is best off. Of course, you could hear it in the way that the Bishops and Patriarchs we met emphasized their good relations, that they are fully aware (and want us to be aware too), that this will change the day the first American bomb falls over Damascus.

The Syrian Christians see themselves as having a crucial role in the relationship between east and west. "As long as we are here it will not be possible for the muslims to equate American and European foreign policy with Christianity. As long as we are here the muslims can see that they are not the same thing, that it is not Christianity that motivates the hostile acts of the west", Patriarch Gregory III Laham (Greek Catholic) told us.

I must confess that some of the Christian communities I visited in Syria seemed more dynamic and alive than anything I've seen in the West. In Hassake, the Syrian-Orthodox have recently finished building a huge school-building, and are already working on the next. They have well over a thousand students (about 20% are Muslim children). The positive side to the exodus of Christians from the Middle East is that those who stay receive financial support from those that leave for the west. But they certainly seem to put the money to good use, building up not only the community of their own but fostering good relations with other communities as well.

The overwhelming feeling I got when travelling around Syria was that if the west would only leave this part of the world alone, they would be fully competent to sort of their problems themselves.

1 comment:

Michael F. Bird said...

Fascinating stuff!