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Employment opportunities, in addition to the power of television with its depictions of city life, have lured large numbers of the villages youth to Syrias cities. There, the pressures to conform to an Arabic-speaking, Islamic environment are great.

Sensing these pressures to assimilate, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch in the 1940s instituted a program of Christian education and renewal; the youth are the patriarchates primary audience. “The Greek Orthodox Church is no longer a church for only adults,” declares the Patriarch. “Our youth see in the church the road to liberty; every year more than 60 young men enter our seminary.”

In addition, religious houses for women are filled with novices and aspirants. And youth programs are essential elements of parish life.

The long-standing tradition of Syrian monastic life continues at the monastery of St. Tekla in Maaloula. A destination for both Christian and Muslim pilgrims, the monastery is named for an early Christian saint – Brikhta, or “the blessed” in Aramaic – who embraced Christianity after hearing of the words and deeds of St. Paul the Apostle. She died a martyrs death near the present village.

Rania is one young laywoman at the monastery who has chosen an ascetic way of life. Dressed in a simple blue robe, she assists in the kitchen, cleans the stairways and helps with the religious communitys ironing.

“I have made a vow,” the young woman offers. “In order to thank God, I came to the Monastery of St. Tekla in order to help the sisters in their daily chores and duties.”

Hosting pilgrims, hundreds of whom visit the shrine of St. Tekla daily, is an important work of the community. Lodging is also available to those pilgrims who wish to sleep at the monastery on their way to the holy city of Jerusalem.

“About 300 people can sleep here every night,” reports the Mother Superior, Sister Belagia Sayaf. “We do not ask for money, but gifts are always welcomed.

“We retire to our rooms at 9:30 p.m. If a pilgrim happens to arrive at midnight, however, or even in the early hours of the morning, one of us will get up to welcome him.”

At the Monastery of St. Tekla, 15 nuns and three novices also care for 30 orphaned girls ranging in age from two to 17 years of age.

“Some of our children, all of whom were born in Jordan, Lebanon or Syria, have joined our religious community; others have gone to university and have started careers and families,” adds Sister Belagia.

About 20 miles north of Damascus, perched on a hill high above a village, lies a monastery dedicated to Our Lady, or Seyed Naya, which in Arabic means the place of the hunted gazelle. According to tradition, the monastery was founded by the sixth-century Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I.

When passing through the Syrian desert with his thirsty troops, the Emperor spotted a gazelle, which he pursued. The hunted animal led the imperial party to a spring, where the gazelle was miraculously transformed into an image of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin commanded Justinian to build a church on that spot.

Today, enshrined within these monastic quarters, is an icon of the Virgin Mary reportedly created by St. Luke.

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Tags: Syria Christian-Muslim relations Orthodox Church of Greece Orthodox Church of Greece Antiochene church