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Letting Christians Down

Home to some of the first Christians, the ancient city of Damascus maintains its Christian past.

The first recorded “Christian” act the people of Damascus ever undertook was to allow Saul – the future Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles – to escape the wrath of his fellow Jews by being let down, on a rope, in a basket, to safety outside the city walls.

The walls of that period have long since been destroyed. The present structure, however, which runs around old Damascus, is no less impressive.

Today’s Christian tourists pour into the old city from Baab Sharqi, the Eastern Gate, which leads to the Christian quarter. Herded by a guide, these visitors chatter among themselves, unmindful of the Arab Christians who live there. The tourists head for well-known Christian sites: St Paul’s Gate (marked Baab Kissan on present maps), the house of Ananias (the man appointed by the Lord to assist in restoring Saul’s sight) and the Street Called Straight, on which Saul stayed. Usually, these visits include a shopping spree.

I asked a group of Damascene Christian youths if Western Christians ever showed any interest in meeting them. All heads nodded “No.” This lack of concern cannot be meant as respect for a low profile, as the Christians in the quarter keep a high profile indeed. Their churches are stately beauties with bells that ring out and schools whose children are as noisy at play as any.

Do these Westerners not wonder for whom those bells toll? Do they not notice the crosses on gold chains around the children’s necks? Does their chatter keep them from seeing the sisters and priests moving through the streets? Here, right in Damascus, now a sprawling city of 3.5 million that serves as the capital of the Syrian Arab Republic, are the descendants of some of the first Christians. Many are shopkeepers who depend on visitors for a livelihood.

An ideal Christian tour of Damascus might start with the Greek-Melkite Catholic Patriarchal Vicar, Archbishop Isidore Battikha. His office, not far from St. Paul’s Gate, is a treasure of Eastern art – a room beautifully decorated with carved wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. During our conversation the Archbishop’s warm smile disappeared. A furrowed brow warned that serious conversation lay ahead.

“Yes,” he said heavily when I asked him the same question I had asked the youths, “Christian groups do stop by and visit.” But I gathered that the visits were perfunctory and that issues affecting the Syrian Christian community were rarely discussed.

Those issues would find easy parallels in the West. Archbishop Isidore talks of school choice, of youth straying from religion, of the modem world’s hold on them, of temptations that come from magazines and newspapers, television and videos, in material often inappropriate for the present-day culture in these ancient stomping grounds of Christianity’s star missionary.

The beauty of Archbishop Isidore is that he sees these problems as challenges. Still a relatively young man, his charisma and obvious delight in working with youth has paid off. He speaks of nashataat shabibi, or youth activities, not limited to the younger generation in Damascus but also including that of nearby villages.

The Christian youth of Damascus now follow in Saul’s footsteps, acting as missionaries for outlying Christian communities where liturgy might be celebrated in a home because the village has no church. Before setting out, these young missionaries must undergo training that includes the study of St. Paul’s letters to the nascent Christian church.

Although the church does its best by running an employment office that scouts out jobs and matches worker with work, today’s apostles must nevertheless help other Christians face unemployment and the problems encountered by low-paid laborers who cannot support their families. The youths run fund-raisers to help the disabled, and they help heal family rifts through their good Christian will. Archbishop Isidore calls them Rusul Al Masiih, or apostles of Christ.

“These girls and boys are the yeast,” he says, using bounteous gestures to show how Christian spirit and action grow.

The secular, though Muslim-led, Syrian government gives full recognition to Christianity and the country’s Christian community, which comprises about 12 percent of Syria’s population. Understandably the Muslim day of prayer, Friday, is the official day off. The Christians have adjusted – Sunday school is held on Friday. In Dummar, a planned town just outside Damascus, the government has donated land for a church. Greek Orthodox and Greek-Melkite Catholics will pool their resources, including labor, to build the church, which they will then share.

But there is no doubt that help from abroad is appreciated. The European Parliament has been exemplary. They have set up vocational and technical schools that have benefitted many Christian Syrians. Through CNEWA’s Beirut office, grants have helped with the construction or renovation of churches, convents, housing and schools.

Another good spot for a visiting Christian to see would be the sidewalk in front of the visa section of the United States Embassy. Get there by midnight. That is when the line starts to form. Watch as hundreds of Syrians and Lebanese – young, old, men, women – stand and wait to apply for a visa. Then go watch similar lines form in front of other Western embassies.

The U.S. government does not grant many visas. The Europeans do not grant many visas either, but their vocational schools in Syria teach marketable skills that will lessen the desire to emigrate. Archbishop Isidore implores, “Don’t let Damascus become a museum of Christianity. Don’t support hegra (emigration). Help Christians to stay, not leave.”

Archbishop Isidore’s wisdom in this regard comes from experience. He served 15 years in Rome and saw how “the emigrés lose the East without being welcomed by the West.” He worries about the 12 percent that was, not long ago, 20 percent. “If our numbers continue to fall, we will dissolve.” Again he gestures descriptively with his hands.

He works hard with the other Christian communities of Damascus and talks, not about “my church,” but about “the church of Jesus Christ.”

“Only by chance am I a Greek-Melkite Catholic,” he points out.

The Damascene Christian community is quite diverse.

The mother church of Damascus is Greek Orthodox, led by Ignatius IV Hazim, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. The Orthodox patriarchs of Antioch have resided in Damascus since the patriarchate was permanently transferred from the impoverished town of Antioch in the 14th century. About 350,000 Greek Orthodox Christians, a well-educated and prosperous minority, live in Damascus and its environs. The Greek Orthodox run several elementary and secondary schools, orphanages, senior citizen housing and a dispensary.

Damascus is home to the Greek-Melkite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Maximos V Hakim, who also bears the title of Patriarch of Alexandria and of Jerusalem. The Greek-Melkite Catholic Patriarchate moved to Damascus from the mountains of Lebanon in the mid-19th century after a century of Ottoman persecution. The Greek-Melkite Catholic community is the largest Catholic community in Syria, numbering some 95,000 people.

The Syrian Orthodox Church has perhaps suffered the most from emigration. Thousands of families have left their native villages for Damascus, Lebanon or beyond. In 1959, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate settled in Damascus, leaving behind its traditional home on the northern frontier, near the current Syrian-Turkish border. The present Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, guides more than 6,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians who also call Damascus home.

The Damascene Syrian Catholic community – which totals sonic 6,000 people – is shepherded by Archbishop Eustache Joseph Mounayer of Damascus.

The Maronite Church in Damascus, which numbers more than 8,000 people, is guided by Archbishop Antoine Hamid Mourany.

The Armenian community, both the Apostolic and Catholic, is a flourishing one, operating a number of schools. Bishop Kanil Georgian, Armenian Apostolic Bishop of Damascus, leads more than 3,000 people. The late Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Exarch of Damascus, Archpriest George Tayroyan, shepherded the Armenian Catholic community, which also counts some 3,000 people, until his sudden death in April.

Several thousand Chaldeans, Maronites and Evangelical Christians round out the Damascene Christian community.

At the convent of Notre Dame du Bon Service, the Sisters of Notre Dame du Bon Service run a program for Christian girls from poor village families. With little to look forward to in their lives, the girls are taken under the wing of the religious community and schooled until they turn 19. Then they may choose either a lay or a religious life.

Their need for accommodation was met when a generous Syrian Christian financed the repairs of an old Syrian house. This wonderful house and the Christian life inside should be on every Christian pilgrim’s itinerary in Damascus. Here, perhaps, is a living Christianity even greater than that of the house of Ananias.

Another “must” on any Christian’s tour of Damascus is the Street Called Straight. Today, cars and small trucks blast their horns in deafening cacophony to warn the pedestrian that any divergence from the straight but narrow sidewalks could cost him or her dearly. Spice merchants, grocers and a wonderful man who sells bags, plates and all things made of paper add color to the street.

A sight it is. But the real street called straight is located in the work of a small community of sisters who operate, shall we say, under cover. They minister to women who have not walked the straight road of life: prostitutes, unwed mothers, street kids.

The sisters keep a low profile, working to provide guidance, spiritual support and sometimes such basics as clean clothing for women prisoners and the children of those down and out. The simple convent provides sewing lessons as an alternative to the lessons of the street. The day-care program is a lifesaver for hard-pressed families who cannot survive on a single income. And here foundlings, sometimes left in a basket, find love and care.

Behind St. Paul’s Gate is a small chapel. Several large ledgers piled up there contain the names of thousands of Christians who have come to Damascus through the years. How many of them, like those I saw, pile out of their coaches at St. Paul’s Gate for a quick snapshot, “do” the sites inside Baab Sharqi and leave. They visit the Christian monuments but fail to meet the Christians. Don’t let Christians down.

Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor.

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