Christians in Syria: An idealised image shaken by war

Sunday 23/07/2017
Shattered by war. A Catholic priest inspects damage at Mar Elian monastery in al-Qaryatain in central Syria. (AFP)

Mar Musa- "We have always waited for war to come to us,” Brother Jihad said.

The monk with short-cropped hair sat on the broad terrace of Dar Mar Musa al-Habashi — The Mon­astery of the Holy Moses of Abys­sinia — about 80km north of Da­mascus. Clinging like a swallow’s nest to the side of the Qalamoun Mountains, the monastery over­looks a small cultivated plain, which stretches along either side of the 400 or so stone steps down into the desert. In the background, the sound of Brother Budrus rat­tling around the kitchen can be heard as he prepares a lunch of creamy lentil soup and homemade cheese.

Before the war, Christians made up 11.2% of Syria’s population. What that number might be now is anyone’s guess. A recent survey by Christian NGO Open Doors stated that many Christians feel a pervad­ing sense of hopelessness.

Since the outbreak of Syria’s war, Christian villages occupied by ji­hadist militias have been routed and their populations were killed, enslaved or fled. In some quarters, the attitude of the church has not helped, with many Christian leaders defending Syrian President Bashar Assad’s claim to be the sole guard­ian of the country’s minorities.

While this may have brought some comfort to Christians in Da­mascus, it increased the exposure of those in Syria’s hinterland. For many, the trauma of the last seven years of civil war has been enough for them to question if religious rec­onciliation will be possible.

In 1982, when Italian Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio discovered the sixth-century ruins at Mar Musa, abandoned since the 19th century, he was fascinated by the place. Nine years later, he returned to resume work at the centuries-old monas­tery.

“People love the silence around here,” said Brother Jihad, a com­mon name among Christians of the region. The silence of the desert and the emptiness of the landscape have made Mar Musa a place of pil­grimage for Christians and Muslims from all over the world. At the peak of its popularity, almost 30,000 people visited Mar Musa every year. The monastery was especially pop­ular with backpackers and students.

Mar Musa was considered “Taizé of the Orient.” Instead of giv­ing money, guests would help in the kitchen or in the fields or drag stones from the Wadi behind the monastery to help build an altar. Now, only the occasional visitor from a neighbouring village comes by.

When the monastery was caught between the rebels and the Syrian Army in 2012-13, community mem­bers said they feared for their lives. “We lived in fear. We wondered if God really existed or not,” Brother Jihad said.

The 39-year old monk said he spent days alone in the monastery’s chapel, watching as the candlelight flickered over the scorched faces of 11th- and 12th-century frescoes. “If you have had such an experience yourself, you can understand the needy much better,” he said.

In contrast to many Syrian church leaders, Brother Jihad said he can understand why many Christians have left the country. It is believed that more than half of Syria’s Chris­tian population has emigrated.

“Before the war, there was this image of Syria where all the peo­ple (and religions) were part of a mosaic of a united nation,” Brother Jihad said. “The war has revealed that this idealised image is not true. Christians and Muslims in Syria re­ally had very little to do with each other.”

A small bell breaks the silence and signals the call for prayer. Brother Ji­had removed his shoes and slipped through a low door into the chapel. A light beam from a narrow window revealed the carpets on the floor, as in a mosque. “We know that we receive a lot of support in prayers from all over the world,” Brother Ji­had said.

Financial support the community receives from Europe is vital. Even if you don’t need much for five peo­ple, he said “it is good to know that you’re not forgotten.”

The community clings to its con­nections with nearby villages. In the neighbouring village of Al Na­bak they speak of “our monks” when they talk about Mar Musa, al­though there are just 300 Christians in the town of 50,000. When the city was destroyed during clashes, the monks helped rebuild 70 houses there.

When the war came near the monastery, monks and nuns re­peatedly asked themselves whether they should stay. When Father Paolo was kidnapped by the Islamic State (ISIS) or when jihadists destroyed the second monastery of the com­munity near Homs with bulldozers or when 13 nuns from the Christian village of Maalula were kidnapped, the same painful question was wor­ried over. “But every night we de­cided to stay,” Brother Jihad said.

In Mar Musa, the people do not want to give up the ideal of inter­faith dialogue or building under­standing between religions. “Af­ter the war we will have to build bridges between the people,” said Brother Jihad. “There has been a lot of damage.”

He is waiting for the end of the conflict. The front is far away these days. Down in the valley a car ap­proached. A Syrian family parked and unloaded a picnic basket; 398 stone steps separated them from the monastery.