Saturday, 3 March 2012

Syria and its Christian past

Cardinal Daoud.

I heard Paul Conroy, the journalist injured and then smuggled out of Syria, speaking on the radio this morning from his hospital bed. The continuing tragic news coming out of Syria looks as though ordianry people are being indiscriminately massacred.

Quite by chance, apart from the news issuing out of Syria, I've been reading something of its Christian history in in Philip Jenkins' "The Lost History of Christianity", which charts the rise and fall of the flourishing Christian Churches for a thousand years in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Even today about 10% of the Syrian population is Christian and the town of Homs that is so much in the news is a particularly Christian area, especially the nearby Wādī al-Naṣārá, which means "Valley of Christians". Cardinal Daoud, who once attended Mass at a side altar in St Peter's Basilica that I was offering with my parishioners, was the Archbishop of Homs betweween 1994 - 1998, before going on to be Patriarch of Antioch and then Prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches. Cardinal Daoud, that is, not me!

It's a reminder that for many centuries there was a flourishing Christian Church throughout lands we now think of only as Muslim that streched far down into Africa and away to the East into China. To take just one example, from about 780 until 823 (about the time of Charlemagne here in Europe) Bishop Timothy was Patriarch of the Church of the East, then based in the ancient Mesoptamian city of Seleucia. He presided over about a quarter of the world's Christians with nineteen Metropolitans and eighty five bishops. He created bishoprics in Rai near Tehran, in Turkestan, Armenia, Dailumaye on the Caspian Sea and Yemen. Arabia had four bishops and new ones were appointed in what we would now call China, Tibet and India. Before Canterbury had its first Archbishop there were churches in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Malabar.

Between 640 and and 740 no fewer than six popes came from Syria and so it wasn't unusual that in the 660's when the Roman Church wanted to bolster the emerging church in England, it sent as the new archbishop of Canterbury Theodore of Tarsus, from Cilicia (southern Turkey), suported by the African abbot Hadrian.

Syria produced what has been called "the first hymn book" no later than the second century, the "Odes of Solomon". The sequence of eastern popes in Rome naturally imported customs and music familiar to them. The Ambrosian chant of Milan was ordered "to be sung in the Syrian manner."

By the tenth century the Byzantine Empire stil had fifty one Metropolitans supervising 550 bishops throughout Asia Minor. This Church spoke Syriac, close to the language of Jesus and, suggests Philip Jenkins, one that we could look to as taking us back to a Christianity not so tainted (as some put it) with westernized thought, but of course, this doesn't take us back to simple Agape's or some sort of hippy commune version of Christianity but rather to a rich and intricate liturgical and theological tradition that puts some of our modern ideas to shame.

That these Christain churches either no longer exist at all or are tiny fractions of what they once were certainly gives pause for thought.

The consecration, in 2002, of Mor Dionysius Thomas as the CATHOLICOS with the title 'BASELIOS THOMAS I' at a solemn function held at the St. Peter & St. Paul Cathedral in Mor Ephrem Monastery, Ma`arat Sayyidnaya, near Damascus.

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