Robert Curzon, the English traveler, diplomat and author, while visiting a monastery in Lebanon in 1849 looking for ancient manuscripts for British museums, writes about a meal with the monks. “I have been quietly dining in a monastery when shouts have been heard and shots have been fired against the stout bulwarks of the outer walls … which had but little effect in altering the monotonous cadence in which one of the brotherhood read a homily of St. Chrysostom from the pulpit … in the refectory.”
The Lebanon, Greater Syria and Palestine of Curzon’s time was embroiled with violence and communal strive as the Ottoman Empire started its death spiral and western powers with arrogance and deceit carved up the region for their own national strategic interests. Bishop Kenneth Cragg, the veteran missionary and scholar, reflecting on Robert Curzon’s experience, writes of “Chrysostom [an early Church Father] of golden tongue, of Antioch and the fourth century”, still exhorting his listeners through his preserved sermons; listeners whose ancestors had survived the armies and empires of the Persians and Byzantines, Arabs and Turks, crusaders and Europeans through thousands of years. Bishop Cragg describes the times as “religions indulged and entrenched, immunities prized and threatened, liturgies and weapons, traditions and encounters, partisans and aliens, devotions and shouts, walls under siege.”
It would seems as if time has stood still and the turmoil that Curzon witnessed and recorded could well have been the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Yet that graphic verbal picture of a mundane meal eaten by candlelight in an ancient monastery, of violence and gunshots which could not penetrate the thick high walls, while all along the words of St. Chrysostom encouraged the faithful – is iconic and describes Middle Eastern Christianity. It has survived wars, rumors of wars and conquering armies. It has lived under emperors and dictators, some of whom saw Christians as threats while others protected them. Most of the time, the faithful were respected for their devotion, and often for their scholarship. They kept the faith when Europe struggled during the Middle Ages. They were vibrant in their witnessing; Marco Polo was to find Christians in the court of the great Kublai Khan in China. One of the largest churches in the then known world was in what is now modern day Yemen.
Yet time seems to have erased all of this from our collective memory. The veteran missionary, Ken Bailey, describes the Arab speaking Christians of the Middle East as the “forgotten faithful”. The 2003 invasion of Iraq forced an exodus of Christians from Iraq; the community of the faithful in that country went from over a million to less than 300,000 today. We are seeing something similar happen in Syria today.
The Christians in Syria number about 10% of the population and have along with the other minorities in the country enjoyed the protection of the regime. As the civil war has escalated, the Christian have been caught in the middle – torn between the supposed protection the regime offers versus an unknown future. While many of the Muslim moderates and secular elements in the Syrian opposition promise a pluralistic society if they come to power, the radical al Qaeda type groups which are growing in influence, want the Christians out.
While thousands have fled into Lebanon and Jordan, many have stayed and have opened their villages and churches to the thousands that have been displaced. There are reports of this happening in the outskirts of Damascus and even in parts of the city. There are other reports from the towns and villages around Homs and Hama and other town across the north. The stories of those who have stayed are one of remarkable courage – yet it does not make the media. They remain the forgotten faithful.
This time it is not the thick walls of their monasteries that will protect them, but their acts of indiscriminate compassion, which will enable them to find a place in Syrian society regardless of the outcome.