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It is estimated that of the 17 million people living in Syria, 1,200,000 are Christians and 800,000 of those are Greek Orthodox. Among the latter, 1,300 are Greeks, 900 living in Aleppo and 400 in Damascus, who are well-accepted, and greatly appreciated.
A living religious museum
Many large and small ethnic groups and religious communities co-exist in Syria, keeping their memories and traditions alive for thousands of years. Among the most significant ones are the Sunni Muslims, the Alawites and the Ismaili Muslims of the Shia Islam, the Christians, the Assyrians and the Armenians.
In the parts of its territory controlled by the governing regime, Syria is tolerant in religious matters. The religion and the origin of all inhabitants are sacred and they are all considered Syrians, having equal rights and obligations. The Syrian state expects blind obedience and loyalty from all, while at the same time consent to their unimpeded religious, linguistic and cultural self-determination, as long as this self-determination does not shake the unity of the state.
It is a multinational and multi-religious community, which despite its terrible woes, insists on existing against the fanatical absurdity that wants all mixed communities to sacrifice their diversity on the altar of religious purity.
The core of the Christians
The core of the Syrian Christians is located in Aleppo, the largest city of Syria, with a population of 3,000,000 people, among whom 300,000 are Christians. In Aleppo, the Christians’ shops close on Sundays and the Muslims’ on Fridays. In Aleppo, Christians of different doctrines visit each others' churches, mostly for social reasons, without being interested in their religious differences.
A Greek Orthodox during a wedding or a christening ceremony can attend the rite of passage at an Armenian or an Assyrian church, adapting to a ritual different than his and without having any accusations for associating with monophysites or heretics. Similar interactions and approaches often occur among the Orthodox and the Catholics, who are about 100,000, as well as the Protestants, who are very few.
The chemistry between the different Christians in Syria is mainly due to their common fate. It still remains a sample of their living faith, which is not only based on their national legacy but also in the acceptance of the diversity of others.
A renowned Orthodox pilgrimage
One of the most important Greek Orthodox centers is the village of Saidnaya, 35 km north of Damascus. At the entrance of the village lies a statue of St. George, while the crosses on the façade of many houses signify the religious beliefs of their occupants. It is doubtful how many of them have ever seen Greek churches or even if they know where Greece is; however, the way they practice their faith is quite similar to the Greeks.
During the 5th and the 6th centuries A.D. Syria was full of Orthodox monasteries and this is where the monastic life flourished. A huge monastery from that era, which dominates Saidnaya, is that of Virgin Mary built in 547 by Justinian, the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, after a vision he had. The Convent of our Lady of Saidnaya is known to the entire eastern Christian world mainly because this is the place where the icon of Virgin Mary, painted by St. Luke the Evangelist, is kept.
The convent has 60 nuns and an orphanage that can accommodate up to 200 orphans. Inside a small chapel, where someone has to bend his head to get in, under the light of a few candles, the nuns guard the holy icon on a daily basis like soldiers -something they have being doing for centruries. At the entrance of the chapel there is a sign that encourages people to take off their shoes, which is uncommon for a Christian church.
The place where they still speak the language of Jesus
A few kilometers north of Saidnaya is Maalula, a village built inside a large gorge. Its Christian inhabitants, with the Orthodox being the majority, are the only people who still speak Aramaic. The Aramaic language belongs to the Semitic language family and in the pre-Christian era, it was spoken throughout the territory lying between the Mediterranean, the Armenian mountains and Kurdistan. It was the language that Jesus and his disciples spoke.
In the high and steep cliffs that look like they are crushing Maalula, the Christians have engraved huge crosses, and the churches are far more than the mosques. It is impressive that inside a gorge, just 56 kilometers off today’s city of Damascus, some of the greatest ancient civilizations and languages still coexist.
A historic community that insist on existing
An impressive example of a historic community of about 200,000 members that insist on living scattered in the countries of the Middle East is the community of the Assyrians, all of them of Christian faith. Their churches are more austere than the Greek Orthodox ones and they are always crowded, while many of their priests have studied at the theological schools of Greece.
The Assyrians come from the ancient Akkadians, a race of Semitic origin, who during the 4th millennium B.C. moved from the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula to Mesopotamia. Their joy is indescribable when they meet Orthodox Greeks and speak of Greece with great admiration, overestimating the country’s possibilities. In their mind, small Greece is the cradle of the Orthodox Christians throughout the world and they wonder why it doesn’t play the role that it should at an international level.
Great similarities with Greece
The Greek Orthodox churches in Syria are so similar to those of Greece that a Greek visitor might think that he is in his country and not in the heart of Arabia. The chants are Byzantine, like the ones heard in the Greek churches, except that they are in Arabic. Since the Arabic language is more sonorant, its combination with the Byzantine hymns, is music to the ears.
At weddings and christening ceremonies, the churches are filled with well-dressed believers that seem to have come out of the contemporary modern Greek reality; men with trimmed mustaches and well-creased shirts, slender brunettes with high heels and little girls with ribbons on their hair. As in Greece, the guests throw rice to the newlyweds; the priests dip the babies in the baptistery while the mothers of both the bride and the groom arrange all the wedding details with great care.
Many Muslims often visit the Orthodox churches of Syria, watching everything that’s been taking place with puzzlement. It is quite impressive to see Muslim women with chador, looking like Christian nuns, standing in front of the icons with their babies in their arms.
The Christian homes of Syria resemble the old Greek houses, especially those in the boroughs. The same icon-stands and the same hand-woven textiles with religious scenes are hanging on the walls. The covered bazaars of Damascus and Aleppo, the so-called souks, sell excellent hand-woven textiles and woodcut frames with biblical themes, that make Greeks feel nostalgic. Today such decorative elements with religious themes are not a common sight in Greek houses.
From Kilkis to Aleppo
We visited Syria before the outbreak of the civil war, during a journalistic mission of the Greek edition of National Geographic. In Aleppo, we met a 42-year-old Greek woman named Sonia, who was born and raised there. Every night before they went to bed, Sonia and her three children would say the prayer of Our Father and sing the national anthem of Greece. There hadn’t been a single night in their life that they missed saying the prayer or the national anthem. Without having ever travelled to Greece, they loved it more than Greeks living in it.
Sonia’s great-grandfather was a merchant from Sergiopoli Kilkis, who started his long journey to Aleppo around 1900, when the conflict between Syria and Turkey led to the closing of the roads and made him stay there forever. The restless young merchant from Northern Greece then started his Christian Greek family in a far-away city in Syria.
Sonia went to church every day and felt the constant need to declare her Christian identity. She had a cross engraved on her arm, which could have easily made her a target of religious discriminations. She, however, wasn’t afraid of the consequences of confessing her faith and declared that her love for Jesus was stronger than fear.
When religious fanaticism began to exacerbate in Syria, she sent her children to her relatives in the United States while she went to Greece for the first time in her life. In Athens they often went to Greek churches and along with other Syrian-Orthodox immigrants, to the Armenian church close to Koumoundourou Square, where they had their Mass in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
In Aleppo, we also met the two missing Christian Bishops, before their abduction by the Islamist rebels in 2013. One of them was the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo, Paul, and the other one was the Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo, Yohanna Ibrahim, who spoke Greek fluently and had studied Theology in Athens. They were open-minded people with deep faith, a real example of pure hierarchs.
Crimes against humanity
During the civil war in Syria, the radical Islamists invaded towns and villages and massacred Christians. They invaded Maalula every so often and killed villagers until the Syrian army finally arrived and drove them off. In Saidnaya, they invaded the Convent of Our Lady and took some nuns as hostages. In Aleppo, Christians give daily battles to save their homes and churches.
The idyllic multinational and multireligious cities of Syria turned to piles of rubble. Their Christian residents were slaughtered in their own country, even though they were the oldest inhabitants of Syria. When the Arabs conquered the Middle East, they found the Christians there, as natives who hadn’t come from somewhere else.
Christianity in Syria hasn’t come from another place, nor has it anything to do with the Crusaders. It was born in those territories and has been identified with them. The persecution of Christians in Arab lands has been a mutilation of the historic continuity of the Middle East.
Unfortunately, the West, in order to overthrow President Assad of Syria due to his alliance with Russia, supported and armed the radical Islamist organizations. It is unthinkable and cruel that they sacrificed the ancient Christian communities of the Syrian dessert on the altar of cold geopolitical interests.
TEXT-PHOTOS: GEORGE ZAFEIROPOULOS