Letting Christians Down

by Marilyn Raschka
photos: CNEWA-PMP, Beirut

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The first recorded “Christian” act the people of Damascus ever undertook was to allow Saul – the future Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles – to escape the wrath of his fellow Jews by being let down, on a rope, in a basket, to safety outside the city walls.

The walls of that period have long since been destroyed. The present structure, however, which runs around old Damascus, is no less impressive.

Today’s Christian tourists pour into the old city from Baab Sharqi, the Eastern Gate, which leads to the Christian quarter. Herded by a guide, these visitors chatter among themselves, unmindful of the Arab Christians who live there. The tourists head for well-known Christian sites: St Paul’s Gate (marked Baab Kissan on present maps), the house of Ananias (the man appointed by the Lord to assist in restoring Saul’s sight) and the Street Called Straight, on which Saul stayed. Usually, these visits include a shopping spree.

I asked a group of Damascene Christian youths if Western Christians ever showed any interest in meeting them. All heads nodded “No.” This lack of concern cannot be meant as respect for a low profile, as the Christians in the quarter keep a high profile indeed. Their churches are stately beauties with bells that ring out and schools whose children are as noisy at play as any.

Do these Westerners not wonder for whom those bells toll? Do they not notice the crosses on gold chains around the children’s necks? Does their chatter keep them from seeing the sisters and priests moving through the streets? Here, right in Damascus, now a sprawling city of 3.5 million that serves as the capital of the Syrian Arab Republic, are the descendants of some of the first Christians. Many are shopkeepers who depend on visitors for a livelihood.

An ideal Christian tour of Damascus might start with the Greek-Melkite Catholic Patriarchal Vicar, Archbishop Isidore Battikha. His office, not far from St. Paul’s Gate, is a treasure of Eastern art – a room beautifully decorated with carved wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. During our conversation the Archbishop’s warm smile disappeared. A furrowed brow warned that serious conversation lay ahead.

“Yes,” he said heavily when I asked him the same question I had asked the youths, “Christian groups do stop by and visit.” But I gathered that the visits were perfunctory and that issues affecting the Syrian Christian community were rarely discussed.

Those issues would find easy parallels in the West. Archbishop Isidore talks of school choice, of youth straying from religion, of the modem world’s hold on them, of temptations that come from magazines and newspapers, television and videos, in material often inappropriate for the present-day culture in these ancient stomping grounds of Christianity’s star missionary.

The beauty of Archbishop Isidore is that he sees these problems as challenges. Still a relatively young man, his charisma and obvious delight in working with youth has paid off. He speaks of nashataat shabibi, or youth activities, not limited to the younger generation in Damascus but also including that of nearby villages. Post a Comment | Comments(0)

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Tags: Syria Children Christianity Damascus Syriac Christians