Workers harvest carrots at a farm in southern Syria sponsored by Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Boulos Borkhoche. (photo: Mitchell Prothero)
An after-school program in Khabab led by the archbishop draws many village children. (photo: Mitchell Prothero)
A woman hangs her laundry near St. Elias Church in the village of Ezraa. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Adhering to an ancient tradition, women and men worship in separate sections of the church during the Divine Liturgy in Khabab. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
The pastor of St. Elias Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Ezraa points out the Roman-era foundation of the sixth-century church. (photo: Mitchell Prothero)
At a run-down gas station on the outskirts of Khabab, a village in the volcanic plain of the Houran south of Damascus, a taxicab driver refills his battered yellow sedan. He takes relief from the sweltering morning sunshine in the small patches of shade of nearby date trees.
The parched landscape, hazy from the heat and dust, gives way to well-tended fields. Local farmers, known for their production of grains, grapes, olives and pistachios, try to make do with what little water has been stored from the seasonal rains that fall from December to February.
At first glance, little seems to distinguish the quiet village. But one could drive from Khabab in any direction for an hour without ever seeing a single minaret. Though the area lies near Syrias border with Israel and Jordan and only some 100 miles from Saudi Arabia, it is almost entirely Christian (Antiochene Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholic). Khabab and its surroundings form the center of a Christian enclave that had once been an important center of the church during the late Roman and early Byzantine periods. Today, an estimated 60,000 Christians call the Houran their home.
The first Christians forced to leave Jerusalem for reasons lost to history settled among the pagan Bedouin of the Houran in the first century. The community flourished in subsequent centuries and prospered through the early years of the Arab Muslim conquest of the region in the seventh century. But instability and changing trade routes, which once linked the region with the great commercial centers of the Mediterranean and Red seas, impacted the Houran significantly, reducing once important cities and towns to provincial outposts. Christians hung on, however, settling in former Roman-era forts and clinging to their churches, some of the earliest structures dedicated to Christian worship in the world.
Despite this legacy, the regions Christian presence is vanishing. Since the 1950s, economic stagnation, unemployment and a dearth of institutions of higher learning have taken their toll on the population, driving its most talented and motivated to Damascus, Aleppo, Beirut or abroad, particularly the states of the Persian Gulf. Emigration has affected Hourans population as a whole, but its impact on the Christian minority has been particularly cruel.
Further diminishing their presence is a low birthrate most Syrian Christian couples have only two children as opposed to a much higher birthrate among the countrys various Islamic communities, which together form about 90 percent of the population.
Holding together the Christian community, keeping its faith alive and its cultural and spiritual traditions intact even temporal concerns such as jobs fall largely on the shoulders of Christian leaders such as the Melkite Greek Catholic Metropolitan of Bosra and Houran, 75-year-old Archbishop Boulos Nassif Borkhoche.
Archbishop Boulos works from a modest three-story rectory, located just outside Khabab. Though surrounded by vineyards and grazing land for cattle, the archbishop touches on the principal challenge facing him and his community the absence of a sustainable economic future for the Houran. The associated problems are all too familiar in rural Syria: an insufficient water supply, a lack of modern agricultural equipment and a limited choice of crops that can thrive in the regions lush volcanic soil but harsh climate.
The archbishop does what he can to invigorate the local economy, and has initiated a few projects to this end, but his resources are modest and the problems vast.
The church provides assistance to the poor [and] money and medicine to the needy, he explained. I feel sorry that I cant do more, because we cannot afford it.
There are social problems too, he continued. For example, when the father in a family dies, there is no one in the family who can support the children or his widow. So, the church helps when it can, but too often there are not the necessary resources.
Developing farming, the archbishop believes, is the key to stimulating the economy. And with the aid of various benefactors, including CNEWA and the Syrian Bank for Agriculture, he has progressed, albeit modestly.
This is a poor region and it lacks water for farming, the archbishop continued.
So we dig commercial wells that can help the farmers in the area. We have five current well projects completed and one under way. They irrigate corn, wheat, olives, grapes, tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini during the main growing season. In the summer and winter, our main crop is carrots.
Digging these wells is no small feat, explained the archbishop, who, with his staff of four, works directly with local farmers, ascertaining their needs. The task requires huge machines capable of drilling to the water level more than 700 feet deep, as well as engines to pump the water into storage lakes. The combined water drawn from these five wells irrigates only about 300 dounams (roughly 75 acres) of crops at a time, which accounts for a fraction of the hundreds of square miles of farmland that residents rely on for their livelihoods.
Under the guidance of Archbishop Boulos, the local church has helped one group of local farmers plant more than 800 apple and olive trees which need little water and supplied three tractors to help maintain these orchards. The venture employs more than 50 seasonal workers and supports the seven families who live on the orchards year-round.
Giving a tour of his development projects, the archbishop first stopped at the carrot farm a few miles from the rectory, where the harvest was under way. He parked alongside a huge muddy field, jumped out of his car and saluted the dozen or so workers dressed in traditional Arab clothing.
Salaam Alaikum, he said to the men and women busily washing carrots under a high-pressure water hose piped from one of the nearby wells. Each winter, the farm produces more than 4,400 tons of carrots for sale in Syria. The archbishop is still assessing the potential for greater profit from exporting the carrots to neighboring countries.
Alaikum Salaam, responded the Muslim workers, who belong to nomadic Bedouin tribes that travel to the Houran during the harvest season.
Perhaps nowhere in the Middle East are relations among Christians and Muslims warmer. While Sunni Muslims form 74 percent of the population, about 16 percent of Syrians identify themselves as either Alawi or Druze, esoteric sects derived from Shiism, but considered heretical by much of the Islamic world. Christians belong to a number of churches, including Armenian Apostolic, Assyrian, Antiochene and Syriac Orthodox and Chaldean, Maronite, Melkite Greek and Syriac Catholic.
Here in the southern villages, there are no Muslims, but there are Muslim villages nearby and we have excellent relationships with them, Archbishop Boulos said. We often visit one another on religious holidays Christian and Muslim on national holidays and on special occasions.
The two communities worked shoulder to shoulder during the 1967 and 1973 wars with neighboring Israel. Located near the disputed Golan Heights, which Israeli troops captured from Syria in 1967, Khabab became a refuge for the thousands of Druze and Sunni Syrians forced to flee their villages in or adjacent to the disputed territory. The local church provided food, clothing and shelter to the refugees for as long as six months at a time.
The Melkite Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Bosra and Houran also employs more than 300 elementary school teachers who not only work among local Christian students, but travel to remote and impoverished villages to teach Muslim children.
A native of southern Lebanon, the archbishop added that such communal harmony is not singular to the Houran. In the mountains in northern Syria, near [the city of] Aleppo, there are many Christian villages close to Druze and Muslim villages and together they also have no problems.
Father Ibrahim Sahoub, who teaches in Khabab, added that institutional advancement is also needed to mitigate the poverty of the Houran.
Id like to see retirement and nursing homes, hospitals and hospices be built. Id like there to be further encouragement for students to pursue higher education, and there is a need for scholarships and a public library.
But Father Sahoubs wish list exceeds what the local church can fund and perhaps administer responsibly.
The government is always ready to help, Archbishop Boulos said, adding that he could not remember a time when it discouraged him from moving forward with a project.
But leaders of the Antiochene Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholic churches have no illusions. The local church cannot take the place of the state in transforming this arid plain, dotted with stones of basalt and Greco-Roman ruins.
Based in Beirut since 2000, Mitchell Prothero contributes to a number of publications.