Sunday, 27 April 2014

Remembering the Holy Land, by Matthew Cooper

Maaloula, the Christian town in Syria which had been taken by the extremist Muslim rebels in September of last year, has been recaptured by Syrian government forces as of Holy Monday.

There is definitely cause for thanksgiving in this, since some of the original townspeople are now returning home.

But the images and stories that have come out of the town show how heartbreaking the legacy of this civil war has been and continues to be.

All of its 32 churches have suffered some form of damage: vandalised, burnt down or damaged by munitions. 

The Melkite Catholic monastery of S. Sergius has suffered incredible damage – icons broken, the roof destroyed, the altar in the church smashed in two, graffiti spray-painted on the walls.

In September, after the rebels (most of whom hailed from outside Syria) entered the town, they forced most of its 5000 inhabitants to flee, shot several dead in the streets, took children and nuns captive and threatened civilians with beheading if they did not convert to Islam.

Many of the young men of Maaloula ended up joining the Syrian army, whether out of desire to retake their home, out of grim necessity in a country where the protections Christians once had are now often counted against them, or out of understandable anger at the rebel forces.

Maaloula, it is well to bear in mind, is one of three towns where Western Aramaic – the language in which Our Lord preached and taught and argued – is still spoken.

The community and its people are the ‘living stones’ of the Christian tradition and of all the cultures it touched, and the tragedy which has befallen them ought rightly to be considered a tragedy for all of Christendom and all of world civilisation.

And yet, the consistent, deafening nonchalance with which the plight of the Christians and the Christian heritage in the lands of Holy Writ is treated by European governments and by the American government appears to be a tragedy of a very different nature.

Though the governments of Western Europe and the United States do each have some justification for caring about the fate of Middle Eastern Christians, at times the record has been somewhat less than stellar, beginning with the great crime against the Armenians.

Nowadays Armenia is located in Central Asia, but at the time of Christ and for a long time after, the Armenian people lived in a broad swathe stretching from the current borders halfway into the Anatolian highlands and southward into what is now Syria and Lebanon, where significant communities of Armenians still live

The Armenian genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire was roundly condemned by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Morgenthau, Sr. and William Jennings Bryan in the United States, as well as by British scholars like Arnold Toynbee.

But it was done with the knowing acquiescence, material and logistical support and possibly direct involvement of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, both of which broadly considered themselves inheritors of the Christian legacy – and both of which, in this instance, betrayed it ironically in the name of a war they were fighting for enlightened modern European civilisation.

The contemporary plight of the Middle East’s Christians takes something of the same flavour.

It is generally thought in the West that the Palestinians of the Holy Land itself are Muslim; and, it is true, the vast majority of them are.

But a sizeable minority – six percent – of Palestinians belong to the Catholic and Orthodox faiths.

Even as the United States still supplies Israel with three billion dollars in annual military aid, the local Christians in Israel and in the Palestinian lands are still treated with casual contempt – it is apparently commonplace in Jerusalem for boys to spit on priests, whilst the police stand by and do nothing, or for grown men to desecrate churches with urine and offal, or occasionally for churches to be set on fire.

Also, the war of 2003 led to the systemic harassment, displacement, abduction, torture and killing of the Christians in Iraq.

Nine churches were bombed in January 2008 alone. Reports of these crimes were met – this time by the governments of the US and Britain – with studied indifference, to the point where one Iraqi Christian, Rosie Malek-Yonan, testified before Congress that the Bush Administration was acting as a ‘silent accomplice’ to ‘incipient genocide’.

Given that Iraqi Christian applications for asylum in the United States were rejected, often out-of-hand, they had to flee to other countries: primarily to Jordan and also to Syria – where the same nightmare would await them all over again.

In Holy Week, we were called to fast and remember solemnly the tale of Our Lord’s execution as a political subversive at the hands of the world imperium of his day.

His followers and his disciples were scattered, mocked, hunted and killed by the powers and principalities. But we are also called to remember with joy that the tomb was found empty, and the living Christ risen from it.

There is hope, there is pardon from Sheol, and there is a resurrection – one whose passing we mark this week.

If we have ears to hear or eyes to see, let’s listen and keep watch now, and pray and bear witness for Maaloula whose citizens are beginning to return, for all the living stones and for all the afflicted peoples of the Holy Land.

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