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Deep Roots in a Fertile Land

Christians cultivate their faith in Syria’s historic breadbasket

If it is Thursday, it must be time for “Sunday school” in the village of Iselha, deep in the south of Syria

A deacon and several volunteers assemble in the afternoon at the Greek Orthodox bishopric in Suweida, the chief town of the Jabal Al Arab region, and travel by van for about 15 minutes to reach the village, downhill and toward the plain of Houran.

Dozens of enthusiastic youngsters and teenagers have gathered outside the village church, St. George, and wait for class to begin, signaled by the ringing of the church bell.

Deacon Ghazwan Nuzha holds a discussion with the older group, some of whom sit on a row of old black stones, the kind used in buildings here centuries ago. Carmen Eid, a volunteer, takes the younger group inside for class.

“Who was Moses?” Ms. Eid asks the students, who call out their answers. “Where did he live? What did he give us?”

Christians have thrived for centuries in this village of about 400 people, three-fourths of whom are Greek Orthodox.

Next to the church, a Byzantine-era cross is etched over the door of an abandoned dwelling. The present church, built in 1934, lies above the ruins of a much older stone building.

Iselha straddles the Jabal Al Arab region – the mountainous home of Syria’s Druze community – and the fertile Houran, famous as the granary of the Roman Empire. Further east are the Golan Heights and the snow-capped peaks of Mount Hermon.

Christians are a small but significant minority throughout these regions, dotted with black and gray basalt stones left from volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago.

Used to build temples and churches in the past, today the stones are used in homes and buildings, as well as in the low walls that border small farms and plots of land.

Inscriptions in Greek, symbols like grapes and wheat and bits of columns are ordinary finds in or around homes. Locals casually point out where the huge black stones of a Roman road lie below the modern asphalt or where churches and columns lie buried below villages and towns.

Other impressive ruins are aboveground and attract tourists, like the amphitheater and church town of Bosra or temples and other buildings in Roman-era Qanawat and Shahba, the birthplace of a Roman emperor, Philip the Arab (A.D. 244-249).

A strategic area when part of the Roman province of Arabia, the region became an important Christian center during the late Roman and early Byzantine periods.

The Houran and Jabal Al Arab were full of churches, sending several bishops to the famous church councils of the day, like Chalcedon in 451. However, the region lost much of its significance after the Islamic conquests of the seventh century, probably due to changing trade routes and instability.

In modern times, emigration has posed the main threat to the survival of Christians in southern Syria. Villages with sizable Christian populations have seen a steady flight of their residents to bigger towns in Syria or abroad. Emigration touches every community, but the phenomenon hits the Christian minority particularly hard.

The town of Ezraa, in the Houran, has fared better than others in the face of widespread emigration. It preserves two important Byzantine churches – St. George and St. Elias. Both are in use today by the town’s Christians, who form a large minority among the 13,000 or so residents of Ezraa.

Lina Farah, 31, sits in the courtyard of her family home, which is made of black basalt and added to with concrete. The rooms all look onto the courtyard, which has a grape arbor.

“No house is ready to be lived in without being renovated in some way,” she says. Small-town life means “neighbors visit all the time. There’s no such thing as making an appointment. People just drop by.”

Ms. Farah helps out with catechism classes – this time on a Friday – next to Ezraa’s Melkite Greek Catholic church.

“People hold social gatherings like giving congratulations or condolences on Fridays, since people with jobs are busy during the week,” she says. Friday and Saturday make up the official weekend in Syria.

Satellite dishes rise above some old houses and women pace the roofs hanging laundry and chatting on cellular phones.

Surrounded in her courtyard by a house made of huge black basalt slabs and the top of a Byzantine-era column, Nazih Samara recalls the days when camels used to haul grain from the Houran to markets in Damascus.

“The big merchants would take our wheat at the end of the year. There was nothing left for the peasant in those days,” she remembers.

“People would leave for Damascus, but if you had land, you would stay. They also went to Lebanon and Palestine during the British Mandate. So many people left,” says Ms. Samara, who was lucky to see only one of her nine children emigrate, to Australia.

Father Elias Hanout, of St. Elias Melkite Greek Catholic parish in Ezraa, points out the Greek inscriptions and religious symbols carved into the beige and dark gray stones of the church, which has withstood earthquakes and other disasters since it was built in the first part of the sixth century.

Today’s atmosphere of coexistence between different faith communities, he says, is buttressed by the hope that flight by Christians from Syria’s southern countryside might be tailing off.

Christians and Muslims in Ezraa and other parts of the region venerate St. George, the patron saint of the town’s Greek Orthodox church, built in 512 and the oldest functioning church in Syria.

Like their Muslim neighbors, Christians often refer to the church as “Khudr Ezraa,” or St. George of Ezraa, using its Arabic name.

“Islam and Christianity both revere Khudr,” Father Hanout says. “Muslims and Christians here all study together and work together. Today we have a better understanding of each other. We visit each other, attend each other’s funerals and weddings.”

As for the challenge of stemming emigration, the priest cites improved road, water and electricity services and better returns in the agricultural sector as reasons for staying.

“People today can combine a day job with tending their farm or land, because of tractors and other things that have made agricultural work easier,” he says.

“Another big change in the last 10 years in the Houran has been a move toward planting olives,” which are proving to be a profitable addition to the grapes and apples of Jabal Al Arab and the cereals and grains of the Houran.

Saba Esper, Greek Orthodox Bishop of Bosra-Houran, Jabal Al Arab and the Golan, resides in Suweida.

Bishop Saba describes three main jolts that have affected Christian emigration and compounded the steady flight of people from all religious communities who leave their native villages and towns in search of better economic opportunities.

The first began in 1925 during the Syrian uprising against the French Mandate. “Some Christians took part in this revolt, led by [Druze leader] Sultan Pasha Al Atrash, but in general there was a lack of security during these years and the French didn’t provide security for Christian villages,” he says. “Half the people of Kharaba,” where the French burned the Greek Orthodox bishopric in 1925, “left their village.”

A severe drought in the early 1960’s caused a second wave of emigration. A third wave took place in the wake of the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights in June 1967, when Christians of the area fled to Damascus, the capital of Syria.

Meanwhile, a lack of job or educational opportunities prompted people from all communities to leave in droves for the bigger cities in Syria or for Lebanon, the Gulf, Europe, North and South America, Africa and Australia. In some cases, all bonds have been severed between the expatriates and their homeland, while in others, summer visits and remittances sent to families here are evidence of continuing ties.

Emigration has been long-standing but much took place during the last century; the bishop blames decades of stagnation in the Greek Orthodox community for part of the flight to Damascus and beyond.

After the burning of the bishopric by the French, it was not until 1963 that a bishop was appointed for the region. However, that bishop began residing full time in Suweida only five years ago, when Bishop Saba was named to the post.

“In general, the churches were being neglected,” recalls the bishop, who oversees a program of religious education for the region’s villages and towns, publishes a magazine for the community and provides follow-up education for priests.

As Suweida lacks a proper hotel, a priority was to establish a guest house for visitors. CNEWA, which secured the van that ferries priests and volunteers to villages to teach Sunday school throughout the week, provided assistance for the diocese’s guest house project.

“We started out with 28 beds in the guest house and now have 60 beds. Before the guest house, Christians here were cut off from other churches because there was no hotel in Suweida for visiting delegations and groups,” the bishop says.

Other projects involve producing and marketing traditional foods like wine, juice and labneh (a soft cheese made from yogurt) and instruction in how to care for olive trees.

“Many people who leave for Damascus do not have sufficient means and are forced to live in poorer neighborhoods,” Bishop Saba says.

“However, we can’t tell them not to look for a job if they can’t find one here. In any case, the church can’t take the place of the state, so we do what we can to provide encouragement to stay.”

Future projects by the diocese include setting up a nursery and a small medical center for area residents.

“When we say that we’re going to start these kinds of projects, people from all religious communities immediately begin asking when our exact starting date is – they’re excited and supportive of such efforts,” he says.

While the Greek Orthodox have suffered from more than a half-century of stagnation the region’s Catholics have been slightly luckier.

The largest Catholic villages of the Houran – the so-called “triangle” of Khabab, Bassir and Tibna – straddle the highway that runs from Damascus due south toward the main town of Daraa and the Jordanian border.

Some maintain that village residents who are close to a main road, which was upgraded to a major international highway in the 1990’s, have an incentive to remain because the capital and Daraa are easily accessible, whether for study or work.

The Melkite Greek Catholic bishopric in Khabab is also active in trying to provide residents with an incentive to remain in villages like those of the triangle, whose populations range from 3,500 to 5,500 people.

CNEWA helped with the diocese’s project to plant olives and grapes. The diocese has also carried out small projects like renovating or renting out church property in parishes spread from the Houran up to the Jabal Al Arab, namely Ezraa, Mismiyeh, Mazraa, Rakham, Al Sawra Al Kabira, Shahba and Heet.

A project to provide milk cows to local Christians was initiated several years ago, and like the Greek Orthodox, the Catholic diocese assists the needy of every creed.

There are various theories about how to prevent emigration, but one strategy stirs no disagreement.

In Iselha, Fawzi Shalash, a village school headmaster, describes a meeting with Bishop Saba, who had come to gauge the parish’s needs.

“Everyone my age and above, you can cross us out,” Mr. Shalash recalls saying, “but if you want to maintain a Christian presence here, you need to pay attention to the younger generation.”

Marlin Dick is a journalist living in Lebanon.

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