Syria’s Christians, and the Toll of War
(Damascus) Syria, considered by many around the globe to be the cradle of Christianity, is believed to be the only place on earth where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ is still spoken and taught. The historic small town of Maaloula, located some 65 kilometers to the northeast of the Syrian capital Damascus, and the two nearby villages of Jubb’adin and Bakhah have enjoyed this unique privilege for centuries.
Aramaic which is relayed only through verbal communications amongst the inhabitants of those three small villages at the foot of the Qalamun mountains, 1500 m above sea level, has received special care and subsidies from the Syrian government since 2007. The first institute that teaches both spoken as well as written Neo-Aramaic was opened 12 years ago, with hundreds of local and national students, both Christian and Muslim joining the popular classes.
In 2013, Islamic fanatics including ISIS and Al Nusra terrorist militias invaded the area, and wreaked havoc, inflicting large-scale destruction all over Maaloula. The town’s holy unique monastery and historical church were brutally ravaged. Rare statues, monuments and artifacts were destroyed or stolen by the Jihadi extremists. The town was later liberated by the Syrian Army and its allies after fierce and costly battles with the fanatic invaders. The majority of the edifices that were worst hit have now been restored. Maaloula now boasts the second largest statue of Jesus Christ in the world, straddling a scenic hill-top near this historic cave-riddled Mecca for Christians from all over the world.
Similar to their plight at the hands of Islamic terrorist groups in Iraq in recent years, Syria’s Christians, who make up around 12 % of its 23 million population, had a presence of over 30% prior to 1967 according to some statistics. Christians were a prime target for Islamic fanatics and Kurdish separatist militias, mainly supported by the United States who had a 2000-strong force in the region. Some of the worst affected areas were the northern and northeastern cities of al-Hasakah and Qamishli, where a massive exodus by local Assyrians took place, and numerous churches were reduced to piles of rubble by ISIS terrorists. Over one million Syrian Christians fled the country as extremist Jihadi groups, backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and even Israel, ravaged the hitherto peaceful and prosperous Christian neighbourhoods in the northern and northeastern parts of Syria. ISIS and other Jihadi barbarians killed, kidnapped, ransacked and raped wherever they arrived and were able to rule; Christian areas were no exception. Archbishops Yazji and Bouloss of Aleppo were both kidnapped 5 years ago by pro-Turkish Islamic militias, in the border area between Aleppo and Turkey, on their way back to Aleppo. No word of their fate or whereabouts has ever been confirmed, despite desperate calls and efforts for their unconditional release.
Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes and relocate in other safer places within Syria, and a larger number of Syrian Christians headed mainly for Europe, Scandinavian countries, Australia and the United States.
Oriental Christians have always displayed strong nationalist feeling, unwavering bonds and affiliation to their Eastern roots and heritage. Widely perceived as preservers of the region’s rich history, traditions and even the Aramaic language, with Oriental Christians both home and abroad having been some of the region’s top linguists, poets, writers, artists and politicians particularly in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
The call by Pope Saint John Paul II, who made an historic visit to Syria in 2001, on Christians to remember Syria’s “magnificent contribution” to the history of Christianity, still brings proud memories here.
“We remember that it was in fact in Syria that the Church of Christ discovered her truly catholic character and took on her universal mission,” added Pope John Paul II in Damascus on May 6, 2001.
“At the gates of Damascus, when he met the Risen Christ, Saint Paul learned this truth and made it the content of his preaching. The wonderful reality of the Cross of Christ, upon which the work of the world’s Redemption was wrought, became present before him,” proclaimed the Pope who also praised the great contributions of Syria’s saints throughout history.
Along with its political intractability, the brutality of the Syrian war has taken on dangerous religious and sectarian dimensions that have exposed structural imbalances in Syrian society, and poisoned with a climate of mistrust, anxiety and uncertainty in the lives of several minorities, ethnicities, religions and sectarian segments of the historically cohesive and harmonious Syrian society.
These 8 years of catastrophic war have had a heavy toll on Syrian Christians, and have almost definitely rekindled memories of the humanitarian disasters and massacres suffered by Oriental Christians. Such memories have perhaps made them feel they were targets for annihilation and that migration was their only chance to survive.
Syria is a country considered by Christians as the cradle of Christianity, and the site of many sacred spaces, from churches to monasteries and shrines. Damascus hosts both the Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and the Orient, as well as the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem.
As the war in Syria rages on, the trickling departure of individual Christian migrants has developed into a mass exodus. The number of Christians in Syria has dropped from 30% of the population in 1967, to less than 10% according to recent statistics. UN data from 2016 stated that, of the 5.5 million Syrian refugees, 825,000 were Christians.
The plight of Christians in Syria remains and the continued threat on their existence is a hugely important to Syria’s historical identity, heritage and the makeup of its society. The Church as well as the world at large have a moral and human responsibility to prevent the the cradle of Christianity from disappearing all together.