"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Wednesday 15 December 2010

[Irenikon] Christians in the Middle East

Christians in the Middle East

by Gianni Valente

Gestures of Muslim devotion at the tomb of St John the Baptist, in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus [© Massimo Quattrucci]
      In the little square of Bab Touma the usual chaotic bustle seethes: the stop and go of the taxi drivers, whiffs of kebab, the syncopated melodies of Arabic songs that emerge from the shops with radios constantly tuned in. But it’s enough just to slip a few yards into the alleyways of what the guidebooks call the ‘Christian quarter’ of Damascus, and immediately a refreshing silence becomes the soundbox of familiar, daily sounds: footsteps on the pavement, voices coming from windows, the rhythmic chiming of bells. At the crossroads and on the walls of the houses the shrines of the Madonna and Christ on the cross make a discrete show on the public street above the engrossed thoughts of the passersby. Some look up and make the sign of the cross.
      Even in the courtyard of St Paul’s Church, the Latin-rite parish administered by the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land, one breathes the relaxed, workaday atmosphere of a summer oratory. A group of teenagers laughing and swapping jokes, lounging in the doorway of a little hall. While Father Raimundo Girgis, the young pastor in monastic habit, sitting in the parochial office browses through the book for his parishioners he has just had printed. It tells the story of the martyrs of Damascus. It tells of the blood of Christians shed in this place where now, for those who believe in Jesus, all seems to come together in a calm and peaceful life, the life of those who feel truly at home. Right here in July 1860, Druze fanatics roamed the streets looting and cutting throats, shouting “How great it is to massacre the Christians”. Then, only the protection of an Algerian emir and his militia prevented the slaughter from becoming an extermination. But a traitor pointed out the vulnerable little door by which to storm the convent of the friars. They killed eight, along with three Maronite faithful. Before their martyrdom, Father Manuel Ruiz and his companions had gathered in the church. The father superior had absolved their sins, and they then took communion, consuming all the consecrated hosts to prevent them from being desecrated.
      Here now, it is a completely different story. And for decades, all over Syria, there has been no restriction on the freedom of expression including public practices and devotions of those who confess Jesus the only Son of God. The last procession of the faithful went through the streets of Bab Touma only a few weeks ago, with prayers and songs in Arabic. Masses, pilgrimages, summer camps, conferences, catechism classes, scout camps are held in towns and villages without any problems. The feasts of Christmas and Easter – both the Catholic-Latin and Eastern-Christian ones – are holidays for the whole country. Even the booklet printed in Arabic on the martyrs of Damascus – Father Raimundo points out – is a small but eloquent sign of the sudden and unforseeable turns that history takes at times around here. The booklet deals again with an old act of violence: Christians slaughtered by a Muslim sect. Yet the departments of the government – that of the Arab Republic of Syria, not some colonial neo-protectorate submissive to the West – have granted the nihil obstat to the publication without batting an eye.
      The priorities of the President
      The fortuitousness of history is something that Christians throughout the Middle East have been aware of and respected for millennia. From the time the first disciples unpredictably happened on Jesus by the Sea of Galilee. Because since that time there have been Christians in the Middle East.
      In the sanctuary of Santa Tecla, in the cliff village of Maalula, you still hear the Lord’s Prayer recited in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. In that holy cave, where according to local tradition the disciple of St Paul spent her life of asceticism and prayer healing the sick with water from the miraculous spring, one now enters barefoot and prays kneeling or sitting on the damask carpets, as in mosques. And the apostolicity of the whole Church, its reliance on the testimonies of those who lived with Jesus and saw Him risen, is reflected in the habitual gestures and words of the Orthodox nuns, the charity with which the mother superior Pelagia and her thirteen nuns welcome pilgrims and care for the fifty orphans that Providence and the State have entrusted to them. Also in the nearby monastery of Our Lady of Saidnaya, where a precious Marian icon attributed to Saint Luke is kept under lock and key, Arab parents come from afar, from Jordan and Lebanon, to baptize their children, as was the case here in the first centuries after Christ, well before the ranks of Arab horsemen arrived to initiate the centuries of Muslim civilization.
      In the seventh century, when under the Umayyads Damascus became the first capital of the Islamic empire, the new power left ample room for the Arab and Arabized Christians of Syria. For seventy-five years, Christians and Muslims, shared the great church dedicated to St John the Baptist, celebrating their rituals and liturgies alongside each other, before the caliph decided to replace it with the great mosque where still today the women and men of Islam embrace with devout gestures the memorial which, according to tradition, contains the head of the cousin of Jesus. St John of Damascus, the son of an officer of the caliph of Damascus, was the most famous example of this enduring importance of the Christian community incorporated into the nascent Islamic civilization. “It is thanks to the Christians of Syria, that the conquerors came into contact with ancient thought and garnered its immense legacy” (J.-P. Valognes, Vie et mort des chrétiens d’Orient, Fayard, Paris 1995, p. 704 ).
      Since then, it certainly cannot be said that the Christians of Syria have been spared problems, suffering, terrible tragedies: the abuses suffered under the Abbasids, the fierce Mameluke reprisals following the Crusades, the countless stories of violence and subjugation that dot the centuries of Ottoman rule, especially when “Christians appeared as a pretext for European interference” (ibid., p. 707). But now, and for decades, the direction taken by the groups that control power has been that of a unanimist pan-Arab nationalism. A secularizing policy that has put a damper on religiously based discrimination and exalts Syrian-Arab identity as the exclusive criterion of national unity. The line was set out by General Hafez al-Assad in 1970, and taken up by his son Bashar – who succeeded him as president in 2000 – with enlightened arguments and legal measures that lay claim for the secular State to the role of guarantor of peaceful co-existence between the different confessional communities. In June 2006, a presidential decree granted the Catholic communities jurisdiction in regulating matters of private family and hereditary law according to rules and criteria other than the legislation of Koranic derivation in force for the Muslim majority. While last July a circular from the Syrian Ministry of Education forbade the full veil for teachers in schools and for students in public universities as an antidote to the spread of “extremist ideas”. A month earlier, 1,200 teachers who wore the niqab (the veil that leaves only the eyes uncovered) were transferred to office work, where there is no possibility of having contact with students. “Now our first priority is to keep our society secular as it is today”, President Assad said without hesitation last 27 May in the long video interview granted to the US journalist Charlie Rose. “In Syria”, the President explained, “there is a rich diversity of which we are proud. But in the end, you’re a part of this region. And you cannot ignore the conflicts around you. If you have a sectarian Lebanon to the west and a sectarian Iraq to the east, with a peace process still unresolved on your southern border, and you have terrorists who are spreading throughout the entire region, you’ll be infected with it, sooner or later”.
The sanctuary of Santa Tecla in the cliff village of Maalula [© Massimo Quattrucci]
      The ghosts of Quneitra
      Farid Bulos, the pastor of St Therese, the Chaldean Church in Damascus, is well aware of what effect the contagion of the sectarian spiral triggered by the ‘Coalition of the willing’ hired by Bush also had on the the life of Christians in Iraq. The war has been officially over for years but more than a million Iraqi refugees are still displaced persons in the Syrian capital. Out of these – say the data of the local UN Office for Refugees – less than 1,200 have returned home to Iraq since 2008. Others dream of escaping elsewhere, to Europe, to America. As they wait for visas they grow accustomed over time to a chronic insecurity resulting from living by their wits. The parish, with its fragile resources, tried from the beginning to function as a first-aid center for the survivors arriving in Syria with nothing, except for the clothes they wore, with the only relief of having escaped the endless stream of massacres, murders and kidnappings that marked the crazy days of ‘liberated’ Iraq. But emergency when it becomes a permanent condition wears one down in the long run, just as incurable diseases do. And in Damascus, the huge waiting room for thousands of suspended lives, the vulnerable fragility of one of the most solid of the Eastern Churches manifests itself without disguise, the disintegration of thousands of years old Christiany called to faith by the preaching of the Apostle Thomas and now eradicated from the very earth where it germinated. “Here now there are no Iraqi priests. Many have passed through, but they too, as soon as they got a visa for some Western country, flew off”, Farid says bitterly.
      The uninterrupted persistence of the Middle Eastern Christian communities through the centuries is a miracle of history precisely because it centers on fragile and unprotected human situations. A defenselessness that has shown a capacity to find every possible way to adapt to even the most hostile conditions experienced within the Islamic civilization. But which is wounded fatally by situations of conflict, tests of strength that disrupt the balance and tear the fabric of normal, peaceful life together in society. That is why every war stirred up in these parts has always been a war against Christians. They are always the first to pay, the targets most under fire, the predestined victims. Without strongholds in which to hold out in, without tribal militias to turn to for protection, without a militant vanguard to send forward as human shields in the disputed territories.
      Quneitra, the ghost town, is a great reminder of the conflict that for decades, even in the latent phases, continues to enmesh and exhaust the life of all the people here. Before the war of 1967 it was the administrative capital of the region that included the Golan Heights. Now it’s just a pile of rubble: everything has remained exactly as it was left by the Israeli occupiers, who razed houses and churches, schools and mosques to the ground with bulldozers and mines, after evacuating the 30,000 Arab inhabitants and before withdrawing as they saw fit to the heights. You get there by entering the security zone still controlled by UN troops, after passing under the Israeli positions that dominate the area from the hilltops. Among the few things left standing, the skeleton of the Orthodox Church is prominent. The Syrian government takes us foreign journalists on tour, and the official guides spare neither time nor effort in detailing the immense imprint, deliberately left untouched, made by the gratuitous devastation ordered by the enemy. Between memorial and propaganda, the three-dimensional models of the disputed area however offer a perfect snapshot of the strategic value of the area for the control of the water resources. Perhaps that is why even in the Golan there are those who wish to keep the wound open at all costs. Staking everything on the surreal and illogical option of stopping the clock at a moment almost fifty years ago, in a malignant past that takes away air, water and light from the thousand flowers of peace that are just waiting to germinate in these arid lands.
The bare and crumbling structure of the Greek-Orthodox church of Quneitra, one of the few buildings still standing in the city of the Golan destroyed in 1967 by the Israeli occupiers before their withdrawal [© Massimo Quattrucci]
      The dream of Homs
      And yet, it’s enough to leave the Golan to realize that the spell is broken. The magic formulas that aimed to petrify Syria in the ghetto of rogue-states no longer work. From Damascus to Aleppo, from the sea to the plains of the Euphrates, everything tells of a country aware of its great history, inhabited by a young population who are repositioning themselves on the starting line, eager to spring forward, toward the future.
      The first ten years in power of the ‘young’ Assad are seen and felt within the country as a progressive exit from isolation and international marginalization, a phase of transition in which the premises for an imminent Syrian ‘renaissance’ were laid. The political leadership appears committed to gradually liberating itself from certain anti-historical rigidities of Soviet brand. And it is moving with newfound authority on the geopolitical scene, strengthening traditional alliances while everywhere seeking new partnerships with all other regional geopolitical powers, in a sort of common front for self-defense against the risks of Iraqi “contagion”. Syria is strengthening its relations with Iran (which is building a huge cultural center in the middle of Damascus) without abandoning traditional ties with Saudi Arabia, the other great major regional center of influence; it is relaunching relations with the Lebanon of President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri on a new basis, aiming at closing the long, embattled period of tension and hatred; it is keeping channels open with Hezbollah and the divided groups of Palestinian power, including Hamas; and above all it is strengthening the brand new axis with Erdogan’s Turkey, inaugurated by the Syrian-Turkish free trade agreement of 2004 and further developed with the opening of the borders between the two countries and the signing of dozens of agreements of an economic nature.
      It is precisely in the economic field that the new, galloping Syrian dynamism is showing itself with greatest force. The governmental supervision on the economy seeks to sail free of the shoals of a rearguard statalism, and to arouse the interest of foreign and private capital with tantalizing investment opportunities. The socio-political stability of the country is being put forward as a guarantee of doing business in security, away from the turmoil in other Middle Eastern areas. Syrians who have become rich abroad are also investing in the major urban regeneration projects such as the immense one that is freeing the center of Aleppo of square miles of delapidated unregulated building in danger of collapse. While the Ministry of Tourism reels off with satisfaction the figures showing exponential growth in the sector. But the main motor of the economic boom are to be the five industrial cities that the government aims to build up from practically nothing over the next five years. Areas of intensive development, with a tax-free fiscal system to encourage investors, equipped with avant-garde infrastructures, including satellite villages where the workers can live with dignity. Hassia, the industrial city to be built near Homs, is for now just a pile of projects, maps, models and computer generated three-dimensional ads. But within five years almost eight hundred companies from all sectors will be concentrated in the semi-desert plain that surrounds it.
      The first to arrive were the Chinese and the Iranians. Circumventing the US embargo, they began to produce cars for the Arab countries. In the Hmisho factory, Chinese technicians and Syrian manpower are working side by side to produce mini-SUVs that sell for seven thousand euros. In the residential area of the ‘new’ industrial and technological Homs, the zoning plan provides for banks and hotels, schools and sports centers, hospitals and shopping marts. Along with mosques, churches will also be built. In such a country, no longer having to emigrate to find work, peace and a better life, Christians also will continue to feel at home, God willing. 


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