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Aleppo: A Syrian Mosaic

An ancient city is home to diverse faith communities

The Syrian city of Aleppo ranks among the oldest continuously inhabited centers in the world. Deep beneath its protective walls, narrow alleys and clustered structures lay the remains of civilizations stretching back 7,000 years. Since the time of the apostles, Aleppo has been a major Christian center. After Beirut, it is the Middle East’s most diverse Christian community and its second-largest.

Armenians, with deeply entrenched roots, make up the city’s most prominent Christian group. Beginning in the fourth century, Armenian pilgrims to Jerusalem broke their long journeys in Aleppo’s convents, hostels and monasteries. Waves of Armenians later settled there after the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantines and conquered Armenian territory in Asia Minor and the Caucasus in the 11th century. Between 1915 and 1923, Aleppo’s Armenian population swelled to 250,000. Since then, many of the city’s Armenians have moved to other parts of Syria or Lebanon or they have emigrated to Europe, North America or Oceania.

The majority of Aleppo’s Armenians (who now number as many as 77,000) belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. About 17,500 people, however, are members of the Armenian Catholic Church, which shares the rites and traditions of the Apostolic Church while in full communion with the church of Rome. Another 1,500 attend services at Armenian Evangelical (Presbyterian) churches.

Within the city’s Armenian community — regardless of church jurisdiction — the preservation of Armenian culture and language remains resolute. The churches sponsor seven schools, where students learn Armenian as well as Arabic, English and French. There are also numerous church-affiliated community centers, cultural clubs and theaters. Within the mostly Christian neighborhood of Al Jedaydeh, Armenian-owned stores display signs in Armenian and locals address one another in that language.

“The church comes with the community. Without the church there is no community,” said Deacon Kivork from the shady courtyard of Forty Martyrs of Sebaste Armenian Apostolic Cathedral, where he serves. “The church is like the skin on the body,” he added, pinching the skin on his own forearm. “Can you remove it?”

Built between 1499 and 1501, the stone edifice stands at the heart of Aleppo’s ancient Christian Quarter, in the neighborhood’s souk, or marketplace. Its modest, arched outer gate interrupts the souk’s long twisting stone wall that is lined with dozens of shops and kiosks.

Today, explained the deacon, the cathedral primarily serves the city’s “Old Armenians.” Old Armenians, he added, are distinct from the refugees who fled to the city during World War I. At that time, the Young Turks, a reform movement under the Ottoman sultan, forcibly displaced the empire’s Armenians for alleged ties to the Allied forces. As many as 1.5 million died in the process.

Aleppo’s Armenian community is but one patch in the city’s richly diverse fabric. For most of the first millennium, Aleppo’s Christians were either Greek- or Syriac-speakers belonging to rival churches. Those who spoke Greek typically followed the rites of the church of Antioch, which heavily influenced the practices of the church in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Syriac Christians followed the rites of the Western Syriac tradition. Today, Aleppo’s estimated 37,000 Byzantine Christians belong either to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church of Antioch. The city’s 15,000 Syriac Christians are roughly divided between Orthodox and Catholics.

From the 11th to 13th centuries, military expeditions undertaken by European Christians to win back the Holy Land brought many Roman Catholic congregations to Aleppo, notably the Franciscans. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when the city became a strategic citadel and commercial center along the “Silk Road” trade route, it experienced another influx of Latin Catholics, especially Italian traders. About 12,000 Roman Catholics remain.

In subsequent centuries, unstable economic and political circumstances have compelled other Middle East Christians to find refuge in Aleppo, including Maronites from Lebanon and Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac Christians from Iraq and Turkey. Some 15,000 Chaldeans, fleeing the strife ripping apart their Iraqi homeland, now live in the city.

For generations, Christians dominated Aleppo’s banking and mercantile industries. Some families owned successful businesses, enjoying long legacies of wealth. When Syria and Egypt were unified as the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961, however, authorities launched a campaign to nationalize business and industry. Even after Syria seceded from the union, nationalization remained in force, driving many of Aleppo’s wealthy Christians to Lebanon or further afield. This diminished significantly the size and influence of the city’s overall Christian population.

A half-century ago, 180,000 Christians lived in Aleppo, making up some 40 percent of the city’s total population of around 420,000. Since then, the population of Aleppo and its environs has ballooned to about 2.7 million. Meanwhile, the Christian community remains roughly the size that it was 50 years ago, but now at about 6 percent of the population.

The vast majority of Aleppo residents are Sunni Muslims. Most Christians live in neighborhoods clustered north of the city’s downtown area. Few, if any, live in the hundreds of predominantly Sunni towns surrounding Aleppo’s city center.

Alarmed by the dwindling number of Christians, the government has stepped up its efforts to bolster the community.

“The authorities are very open to Christian concerns,” said Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, who shepherds Aleppo’s Melkite Greek Catholic community. Sitting in a parlor at his residence, he gestured to a large framed photograph of him with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hanging on the wall.

“To help us do what we can to help our people,” he continued, “the government makes our lives easier, our projects easier and what we need easier to reach.”

According to the archbishop, the government has expedited building permits for church-backed developments, offered land grants, exemptions from taxes on buildings and properties and supplied its facilities with electricity and water at no cost. But, he added, “it is not a matter of quantity, but a matter of quality.”

The Greek Melkite Catholic Church offers a host of social services. Since his installation in 1995, Archbishop Jeanbart has worked tirelessly to expand existing programs and has spearheaded many new ones.

“I feel as a pastor I have to do my part to help our people to remain, to try and help the youth not to emigrate.”

The archbishop focuses much of his energy on the archeparchy’s numerous educational institutions. Under his watch, the archeparchy has opened six vocational schools that provide training in business, tourism, nursing and other skilled trades. The archbishop expressed hope the schools would enable a new generation of Syrian Christians to “find a good job and encourage them to remain in the country — to continue living in this country where we have been for 2,000 years.”

In addition, the archeparchy administers numerous and well-regarded elementary and secondary schools. Open to all Syrians regardless of creed, these schools are diverse and dynamic centers of learning and culture, often enrolling more non-Christian than Christian students. Depending on a family’s ability to pay, the church awards generous financial aid packages to qualifying students and in some cases waives school tuition and fees altogether.

Aleppo’s poorest families, however, have other urgent needs that compete with their children’s education, such as securing a roof over their heads. In an effort to assist these families, the archbishop and his immediate predecessor have initiated the construction of nine housing projects. Today, more than 100 Christian families live in these projects.

Najat Khawati, her husband and her adolescent son and daughter occupy a small two-bedroom apartment in the working-class neighborhood of Adra al Saideh (or Blessed Virgin Mary). Years ago, as they planned their wedding, they began apartment hunting but quickly realized that, as low-income earners, they could not afford a market-price home. Fortunately, the archeparchy had an opening in the building, which it offered to them for 50,000 Syrian pounds ($1,086). At the time, the price for a comparable apartment ran between $6,520 and $8,700.

Yet the Khawatis do not have unrestricted ownership of the apartment. When they purchased it, they agreed to relinquish the right to sell it freely on the market. In the event the family decides to move, the archeparchy mediates the sale of the apartment, negotiating the price and selecting new owners. In this way, the Melkite Greek Catholic archeparchy prevents profiteering by the families it helps while maintaining the character of the neighborhood.

In recent years, Aleppo has experienced a phenomenal economic boom, pushing up real estate prices dramatically. Apartments comparable to the Khawatis’ now sell for as much as $21,800 — well out of the reach of the family, whose income has not increased accordingly. The prospect of a church-administered sale of their apartment, which does not promise enough of a profit to buy elsewhere, prevents them from moving to larger quarters as their family grows.

Despite this tug of war, the family is grateful for their home. “If there was no church offering us homes,” asked Mrs. Khawati, “where would we go?”

The Armenian Apostolic and Melkite Greek Catholic churches are not the only Christian communities providing vital social services to Aleppo’s residents. Other Christian communities in Aleppo also run schools, clinics, shelters and community centers.

At the St. Ephrem the Syrian Dispensary in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Al Soulimanya, a Sunni Muslim woman reclined in an examining chair, her mouth opened wide as her Armenian dentist drilled a cavity. She traveled across town to this Syriac Orthodox-run clinic, which offers quality dental care and a wide range of health services, from cardiology to simple surgical procedures, for a nominal fee.

In an adjacent room, a Chaldean mother and son — Iraqi refugees — sat quietly while their Syriac Orthodox doctor, through his stethoscope, listened to the boy’s breathing as part of a routine checkup. And in the waiting room, three Kurdish Muslim women, dressed head to toe in black, and their faces veiled, waited patiently for their appointments.

Annually, the dispensary serves 18,000 people from all religious backgrounds. The Syriac Orthodox Eparchy of Aleppo funds the clinic, absorbing most of the cost of the patients’ care. The clinic employs only three paid staff –— a secretary and two assistants. The doctors and dentists work pro bono, many giving an hour of their time every day.

That Christian-run institutions serve all Syrians — Christians and Muslims — squares well with the government’s policies promoting religious tolerance.

“It is not in the interest of government, nor in the interest of the people, of course, to have conflict like what is happening in Iraq,” explained Razek Siriani, director of international ecumenical relations at the Middle East Council of Churches.

“That is why we Christians, and the leadership of the Christians, support the government policy of coexistence because it is within the interest of the Christians, for their survival, for their existence.”

Tension between Aleppo’s Christian and Muslim communities is rare. Though Christians and Muslims do not mingle often outside the workplace, most Syrians believe the relationship between them to be amicable.

“If you walk in the streets here you find two phenomena: a very modern style of living and a very conservative style of living,” explained Mr. Siriani, stressing the visible contrast between what a typical Christian woman might wear — jeans, a blouse and makeup — and what a typical Muslim woman might wear, a hijab, or headscarf, and an ankle-length cloth dress.

“But they are, at the same time on the same street, walking not together as friends, but sharing the same street.”

Christian and Muslim leaders, on the other hand, are often seen cordially interacting with one another in public forums, discussing shared concerns and goals.

Anxiety is setting in among many Christians, however. They fear the relationship between Christians and Muslims is changing. Many of those interviewed for this article commented that, over the last decade, they have perceived a steady increase in the number of women who wear the hijab, or nikab, an Islamic headscarf that also covers the face.

“Because of the war in Iraq, there is a new fear that what happened in Iraq could happen in Syria one day,” said Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo. “I am convinced that we have to encourage Christians to be involved in the culture, to meet Muslim people, to build a dialogue with Islam.

“Pluralism is the modern way of being in a society,” said the bishop, but some Muslims have a “fear of a free, secular society in the world. As Christians represent this, they classify us as enemies of Islam.”

On the other side of the city, Baraa Eskief and his friend Muhammad relaxed on a cafe terrace, sipping coffee.

“If you respect my rights and respect me, you are my brother, whether you worship God or worship a stone,” said Mr. Eskief, translating a verse from the famous Muslim poet Alia Abu Madi.

Mr. Eskief, a devout Sunni in his early 30’s, applies Islamic teachings to all facets of his life, in his business affairs — he employs about 100 people in a T-shirt and clothing factory — as well as in his social and family life. Among Islam’s most important tenets, he explained, is respect for the other.

“To be a good Muslim, I cannot harm another person; I must respect him. I must treat him well.”

He adamantly disagrees with the suggestion that Aleppo’s Muslim community has become more “fanatic.”

“Yes, if a woman wears the hijab she is showing she is more religious, but that doesn’t mean she is a terrorist,” said Mr. Eskief, whose wife began wearing the hijab when they married nine years ago.

Nevertheless, many of Aleppo’s Christians remain apprehensive about their future. Perceived fears, true or unfounded, weigh heavily on a family’s or an individual’s decision to remain or search for a better life elsewhere.

Harout Okgian, a 23-year-old Armenian, has already made up his mind. He helps run the family business, a silver shop tucked in the corner of Al Hatab Square in the city’s Christian Quarter. He proudly pointed out that the shop is the oldest in the souk. When his father first opened it 30 years ago, he hardly had anything on the shelves to sell. Today, silver, jewelry and fine objects cover every shelf. Among those on prominent display are a collection of 400-year-old silver cups from Russia, silver necklaces set with precious stones from the Ottoman period and silver plates woven in a fantastically intricate filigree style — a technique passed down over the centuries by Armenian silversmiths.

“This is mine,” said Mr. Okgian. “I will take over from my father.”

If Aleppo’s economic and tourist industries continue to grow as they have in recent years, Mr. Okgian’s future looks very promising indeed.

“I have friends who think life would be better in the West. But I think it’s safe here, and besides, I have my shop,” he said. “For me, Aleppo is my home.”

Based in Beirut, Spencer Osberg reports for ONE and numerous publications.

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