In 2004, Father Elias Hanout greeted children in front of the now destroyed St. Elias Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the town of Ezraa, which sits in the Houran plain in southern Syria.(photo: Armineh Johannes)
Southern Syria is a fascinating place. When I visited there in 1998, Roman ruins in basalt littered the rural and village landscapes. Matriarchs hung their laundry from Corinthian capitals to carved posts. Ruined columns served as tables to hold platters of salads and grilled meats. Ancient churches, crude perhaps but ancient nevertheless, served their Melkite Greek Catholic and Orthodox parishioners as they had for 1,500 years. Attending a liturgy in Ezraa’s simple Melkite Greek Catholic church dedicated to the prophet Elias, I marveled at the cavernous vaults that sheltered Christians from the scorching sun and oppressive heat for more than a thousand years. Today, St. Elias is no more. The civil war in Syria is destroying people, villages, a way of life and humankind’s patrimony.
In an interview yesterday with our partners Aid to the Church in Need, Melkite Greek Catholic Bishop Nicholas Antiba of Basra and Houran noted that his flock were gathering around the center of his eparchy in Khabab, fleeing their villages — many of which developed in former camps of the Roman Legion — devastated by war. Sadly, the sixth-century basilica of St. Elias is one of them. Just nine years ago, ONE magazine visited Ezraa, reporting on its Christian community centered on its ancient Byzantine churches.
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. ?
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.
Sadly, little did Father Hanout know that war would come to Ezraa, destroy his church and scatter his community. It is all but a memory now.
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