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On the Road to Unity

Sharing a church in Syria is both practical and inclusive

In a move as practical as it is inclusive, the new St. Paul’s Church will give Melkite Greek Catholics and Greek Orthodox worshipers the opportunity to share not only a common site, but will further unite their communities.

The church, which is almost completed, is located in Doumar, an expanding area in the western suburbs of Damascus, on the old road to Beirut. A middle-class neighborhood, Doumar used to be a summer resort for those wishing to escape the city’s heat in the days before easy travel to other locations became widely available.

Today, the suburb has undergone a major transformation, from refreshing resort noted for its gardens to urban center filled with skyscrapers. Most of Doumar’s population live there year-round.

According to Syrian law, when a new community is being developed, the government allocates a plot of land for Christians, free of charge, so a church can be built. The thinking behind this ensures a just and equitable balance between newly constructed mosques and churches.

In the past, however, when land was to be allotted to Christians, different denominations would try to monopolize the land and build its own church. The government always rejected this, stating that the land was for the use of the entire Christian community, not a single denomination. Such a deadlock usually led to the withdrawal of the land offer.

However, when the latest land offer was made in Doumar, according to Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Isidore Battikha, the patriarchs representing the two major Christian communities in the country – Greek Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholic – decided they should avoid previous conflicts and share a single church.

“This time the land was allotted without encountering discord. The two patriarchs agreed to build one church in Doumar, which would be shared by both communities,” said the Damascus-based Archbishop, who is Patriarchal Vicar.

“The two communities share the same faith, the same history and the same traditions – all rooted in Antioch. But there are two different jurisdictions – a parting of the ways came about in 1724, when one part of the church decided to enter into full communion with Rome,” he added.

The dual use of a single church is now in practice in the suburbs of Aleppo, where the Greek Orthodox and the Melkite communities share the newly constructed Church of St. Joseph.

“In Doumar, the two sister churches, Melkite and Greek Orthodox, to which the majority of Syrian Christians belong, thought it would be better to share a single church rather than to have none at all,” said the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV, who resides in Damascus.

“We will celebrate the Divine Liturgy at different times, for example, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.”

After the allocation of the land in 1996 and the decision to construct a shared church, a number of logistical difficulties were encountered.

A major problem was that the allotted plot was much lower than street level and had to be excavated before its foundation could be laid. Habib Betenjani, a Melkite donor who had generously offered to finance the construction of the church, was not able to provide the extra funds required for the three-story foundation. Also, the sewage system of a nearby military barracks passed through the lot and needed to be diverted.

Because of these difficulties, Archbishop Isidore, who spearheads the project for Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III, had to solicit extra funds. CNEWA helped to offset some of the additional cost.

“The two churches – Melkite and Greek Orthodox – each contributed $100,000. The gift of Mr. Betenjani, our largest donor, combined with gifts from CNEWA and its friends in Europe, Missio and Church in Need, were enough that construction – estimated to cost $883,000 – began in 1999.”

Most of the construction is now complete; the church is expected to open in October.

“Two of the below ground levels still require work, but we will soon finish the primary portion of the edifice,” said Archbishop Isidore.

These underground levels at St. Paul’s will be used for pastoral activities and will include a school, theater and living quarters for priests.

The inhabitants of Doumar and the surrounding area are impatiently waiting for the opening of the church.

“We usually travel about half an hour to attend liturgy at St. John Damascene Church in Damascus, so we are really looking forward to the opening of St. Paul’s, a 10-minute walk from our home,” said Sami Wardeh, a lawyer and one of the six lay members on the committee for the construction of the church.

“This is voluntary work and there are three Melkite and three Greek Orthodox members on the committee. Each member needs the approval of both patriarchs. The members supervise the logistics, material purchasing and the construction of the church,” said Mr. Wardeh.

Hadoub Fouad, a pharmacist living in Doumar, warmly welcomes the project.

“I am very happy because this is a church for all Christians,” he said. “I am Syrian Orthodox and I attend St. George’s Church in Bab Touma. This church will provide the possibility for all Christians in Doumar to get to know each other.

“It is not important whether the priest is Orthodox or Catholic,” Mr. Fouad continued.

“What is important is that this church will bring Christians closer together. I hope this will not be the last time the two churches decide on a common project.”

According to Elie Ziat, an engineer and member of the committee responsible for records and registration, “In the 1980’s, the Christian population of Doumar was larger – perhaps 40 percent of the population. Due to the absence of a church in the area, however, many Christians moved away.

“Ever since the foundation of the church was built, we note that Christians have stopped moving. And with new home construction in the area, we are expecting another 200 Christian families to relocate here soon.”

Doumar is already home to some 500 Christian families.

“I have been living in old Doumar for the past 18 years. I drive about half an hour every Sunday to go to a Russian Orthodox church,” said Minerva Nakazidip.

“I know many people in this area who do not go to church because of the distance. Now, I am absolutely delighted, and, above all, I feel very happy that two sister churches have united in this project.”

“Collaboration, common pastoral work, respect for the other, unity in diversity, peaceful coexistence are the only paths for achieving unity today,” said Archbishop Isidore.

“There is no other way.”

Armineh Johannes is a frequent contributor to CNEWA WORLD.

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