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Christian Syrians: Between the Past and the Future

Map of places in Syria with significant Christian populations. 

21 Mar 2014 On 9 March, CNEWA’s Michel Constantin, who directs agency initiatives in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, delivered an address to representatives of Aid to the Church in Need in Kaslik, Lebanon.

I. Historic background

In order to better foresee the future of Christianity in Syria and in the Middle East, it is indispensable to look back and learn how Christianity flourished and suffered, but most importantly it survived and remained an important component of the tapestry of the Syrian cultural, religious and economic society.

I will not dig too deeply into history, but rather just give a few examples to show the role of Christians in Syria under the first six decades of Islamic rule and also in modern history.

a) With the Umayyad state: Muawiyah, who was the founder, made little effort to convert Christians to Islam and cultivated the goodwill of Christian Syrians. He recruited them for the army at double pay, and appointed Christians to many high offices, and most importantly he appointed his son Yazid I by his Christian wife Maysun bint Bajdal al-Kulaibi al-Nasrania as his successor.

In the administration of law, the Umayyads followed the traditions set by the Hellenistic monarchies and the Roman Empire. The conqueror’s law — in this case Muslim law (sharia) — applied only to Muslims. For non-Muslims, civil law was the law of their particular millet (separate religious community, also called milla); religious leaders administered the law of the millet. This system prevailed throughout Islam and has survived in Syria’s legal codes.

During the 89 years of Umayyad rule, the country prospered both economically and intellectually, and educated Jews and Christians, many of them Greek and Syriac, found employment in the caliph courts, where they studied and practiced medicine, alchemy, and philosophy.

St. John of Damascus — a doctor of the church whose fields of interest and contribution included law, theology, philosophy, and music — had served as a Chief Administrator to the Muslim caliph of Damascus before his ordination.

In Islamic Spain, the cultural golden age was with Muslims, Christians, and Jews living in harmony. Spain was the only territory long under an Islamic rule where Christians did not (from the pressure of taxation, law and periodic massacre) eventually dwindle into a helpless minority.

b) Under the Abbasid caliphate established in 750 A.D., philosophy and religious discussion flourished for a time in Baghdad. How this struck more hard-line Muslims is shown in an account by a visitor from Spain, Abu Umar Ahamad ibn Muhammad ibn Sadi who said, “I witnessed a meeting which included every kind of group, Sunni Muslims and heretics, and all kinds of infidels: Majus, materialists, atheists, Jews and Christians.”

It is well known that the West rediscovered ancient philosophy, notably the writings of Aristotle, via Arabic translations. The majority of the translators of Greek texts into Arabic in the lively early Abbasid translation movement were Christians.

One major translator was Patriarch Timothy I of the Church of the East who ruled his church for 43 years. He lived in the generation after John of Damascus, and he transferred his See from ancient Ctesiphon in Persia to the new center, Baghdad. He translated Aristotle’s “Topics” for the caliph al-Mahdi.

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