Christians in Syria: An idealised image shaken by war
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.