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Is Syriac Christianity dying?

June 3, 2015

The survival of Syriac Christianity, across almost two thousands years of history, is in peril.

 

Nour is a young Syrian Christian living in Canada.

 

He left Syria to escape the civil war.

 

The churches that make up the Syriac Christian tradition boast some of the oldest liturgy in Christendom.

 

They believe themselves to be the first non-ethnically Jewish people to believe in Christ and, as Nour, reminds me, ‘Of course, what every Aramaic person brags about is the fact that Jesus spoke our language.’

 

Aramaic, of which Syriac is a major dialect, was the lingua franca of the Middle East (along with, in places, Greek) from the 6th century BCE until the sudden rise of Arabic in the 7thcentury CE.

 

Survival

 

The civil war which has engulfed Syria since 2011 has taken a severe toll on Syriac Christians.

 

Thousands have been killed, churches and ancient monasteries have been dynamited, whole neighbourhoods forced to flee and Bishops and clerics abducted (Father Jacob Murad, Bishops Hanna Ibrahim and Paul Yazici, to name a few) and sometimes executed.

 

Torture, beheadings and even ‘crucifixion’ (i.e. hanging the bodies of those who have been executed on crosses) is commonplace.

 

Nour is just one of many thousands of Christians who have fled their ancestral homes to save their lives.

 

He remembers the reaction of the church to the outbreak of the fighting.

 

‘The main question in the church was whether we should get involved in the fighting, I mean literally our boys going off and joining the army.

 

‘As I remember, the clergy said no, but not directly so they would not get into trouble with the regime.

 

‘Instead they preached more about coexistence and love and staying strong and not joining in the killing of our brothers.’

 

Cooperation

 

The fall of Syria into violent sectarian warfare is made all the more tragic by the history of Syriac Christianity which included long periods of tolerance and co-operation with other religions and minorities.

 

Syriac Christianity has historically been close to Judaism.

 

Jews were almost certainly involved in parts of the translation of the Syriac Bible, the Peshitta.

 

Early Syriac biblical exegesis is notable for its familiarity with Targum and Midrash.

 

Robert Murray, in his seminal work Symbols of Church and Kingdom, is clear.

 

‘Though Syriac Christianity appears definitely separated from Judaism by the fourth century, in certain important respects it still remained spiritually close to the parent Synagogue.’

 

Syrian Christianity

 

The numerous churches that make up Syriac Christianity are bewildering and fascinating in their differences and practices.

 

In theology, the churches are similar to the Armenian and Coptic churches.

 

They differ from Latin Catholicism in their rejection of the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) which, in the eyes of many Bishops, endorsed a view of the nature of Christ which was no different from Nestorianism.

 

For Syriac Christianity, 1 Timothy 3:16 is seen as exemplifying the true nature of Christ.

 

Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great; He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.

 

It was only in the late twentieth century that the rift between the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches was healed.

 

This was formalised in an agreement signed in 1994 by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Dinkha IV.

 

The one uniting factor in Syriac Christianity is its use of the Syrian rite.

 

This is generally split into two liturgical traditions.

 

The ‘East Syrian Rite’ (based upon the liturgical tradition of Edessa, the ‘Athens of the East’) is used by (among others) the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic church.

 

The ‘West Syrian Rite’ developed in Antioch and, for the most part, a translation of the old Greek liturgy into Syriac, is used by the Syriac Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Maronite church.

 

Syrian Christianity also places an emphasis on saints unfamiliar to many western Christians; Ephraim, Ignatius and Aphrahat.

 

War

 

The war, while not altering the basic tenets of Syriac Christianity’s theology, has taken a hard toll on its believers.

 

Nour explains,

 

‘Once, an American missionary shamed me and told me why I lost the faith.

 

‘I told him, just look at Syria. I told him, look at your life and look at mine.’

 

Under the Assads, Syriac Christianity enjoyed a measure of protection.

 

The Assads were Alawites, a minority Muslim sect who looked to strengthen their unstable power base by favouring other minorities under their rule.

 

In the current war, with the authority of the government much reduced, Syrian Christians have few powerful backers.

 

Syrian Christians living in IS controlled areas are forced to convert or pay the punitive jizya tax.

 

Their churches and monasteries are vandalised and sometimes completely destroyed.

 

In the confusing, multi-dimensional conflict some have started defending themselves. The Syriac Military Council was formed in 2013 and fights to defend and recapture Christian lands.

 

They have enjoyed some success. In recent weeks joint Assyrian and Kurdish forces recaptured a number of Christian villages in northeastern Syria from IS.

 

Future

 

These moments of victory are brief however.

 

As Nour says of his co-religionists, ‘All of them want to get out and never come back.’

 

On the basis of Nour’s most harrowing story, it is not hard to see why.

 

‘I remember one day in Aleppo the rebels and Islamic fighters closed in on my neighbourhood.

 

‘If they had got in, God knows what they would have done.

 

‘The whole neighbourhood was scared and frightened and thinking that this was the end, we are all going to die tomorrow.

 

‘I remember there was the regular Tuesday mass and the Church is never full on Tuesdays.

 

‘I went, as I usually did, and the church was full to the last seat.

 

‘There is this hymn that the fathers only rarely use in the mass.  That night they decided to sing it.

 

‘The father stood up and, with tears in his eyes, started saying the first words and everybody followed him.

 

‘Oh Christ, our Lord and Creator, for the love of your mother Mary save us, from the domination of Satan release us, from his evil soldiers save us, we are your servants, we are all in your hands, we await your mercy, there is only you for us, forgive us and forgive our dead, the amending of our sins grant us.’

 

That night, Nour says, he and his neighbourhood were spared.

 

‘The next day the rebels did not come, the army arrived and protected the area,’ he goes on.

 

‘That is my little spark of faith that I still have to this day.’

 

Perhaps Nour’s experience sums up the story of Syriac Christianity today: an ancient faith caught up in aviolent and cruel civil war.

 

Syriac Christianity is made up of thousands of years of tradition.

 

In the darkness of the civil war it is sustained only by a‘little spark of faith.’

 

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