The de­struc­tion of Syria’s Christian trea­sures

The Is­lamists con­tinue a cru­sade to erase all traces of the re­li­gious be­liefs of oth­ers

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Al­fred S. Reg­n­ery

The Is­lamist ex­trem­ist de­struc­tion of his­tor­i­cal trea­sures in the Mid­dle East is noth­ing less than a crime against civ­i­liza­tion. News ac­counts do not do jus­tice to the loss th­ese bar­bar­ians cause as they work their way across Syria, de­stroy­ing any­thing that doesn’t fit into the world as they see it.

In June 2001, just three months be­fore Sept. 11, when Western per­cep­tions of Is­lam and the Mid­dle East were changed for­ever, I spent two weeks in Syria, vis­it­ing the very foun­da­tions of Western cul­ture and civ­i­liza­tion. To­day, it is slowly be­ing de­stroyed.

Bashar As­sad had just come to power, hav­ing been called in from prac­tic­ing oph­thal­mol­ogy in London when his Stal­in­ist fa­ther died, and to fill in for his older brother Bas­sel, the heir-ap­par­ent who had wrapped his Mercedes around a tree at 100 miles an hour in 1994. Poor Bashar ap­peared lost in his new role, and left con­trol of the coun­try to the bag­men and thugs who had run things for his fa­ther. Pol­i­tics, how­ever, was not why I went to Syria. Syria was then a gold mine of Ro­man and Greek ru­ins, Christian monas­ter­ies and churches, an open-air mu­seum with some of the most im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal Christian shrines in the Mid­dle East.

My first stop was the third-cen­tury vil­lage of Sed­naya, the most holy Christian city in Syria, where Ara­maic, the tongue of Je­sus Christ, is still the dom­i­nant lan­guage. A nun showed me into a chapel, where a por­trait of the Vir­gin Mary, said to have been painted by the Apos­tle Luke, held spe­cial pow­ers for both Christian and Mus­lim young women un­able to have chil­dren. Here, prayer would en­able them to con­ceive a child. Sed­naya, and the icon, had been the cause of Christian mir­a­cles for cen­turies, and would pre­sum­ably con­tinue to be for cen­turies more.

But it is not to be. Mus­lim ex­trem­ists, in­tent on de­stroy­ing ev­ery­thing that is not to their lik­ing, have this year sim­ply liq­ui­dated Sed­naya. Ac­cord­ing to one press re­port, “the an­cient monastery church and side chapels were stripped com­pletely of their price­less re­li­gious icons and other re­li­gious ob­jects were uri­nated and defe­cated upon. Christian vil­lagers who were caught in the midst of the rebel as­sault had their throats slit, or were shot ex­e­cu­tion-style at close range.”

Maalula, just a few miles far­ther north, is a beau­ti­ful lit­tle an­cient Christian vil­lage, built into a gorge, with sev­eral third- and fourth-cen­tury churches, or­phan­ages and re­treat cen­ters. Ara­maic is the prin­ci­pal lan­guage, th­ese two vil­lages be­ing among the very few places in the world where the lan­guage of Je­sus is still spo­ken. At the top of the hill is the monastery St. Sergius, named for a Ro­man of­fi­cer who was mar­tyred in the fourth cen­tury for re­fus­ing to re­nounce his Christian faith. A Catholic priest from Le­banon en­gaged me, in pass­able English, in a lengthy dis­cus­sion about early Chris­tian­ity, ap­pro­pri­ate, as he told me that our con­ver­sa­tion was tak­ing place in per­haps the old­est Christian church in the world. The semi­cir­cu­lar stone church al­tar pre­dates the Coun­cil of Ni­caea (325 A.D.); after Ni­caea, al­tars were rec­tan­gu­lar. And, he ex­plained, the lit­tle stone lip around the al­tar caught the blood of sac­ri­ficed lambs in pa­gan cer­e­monies be­fore the birth of Christ. The lit­tle church ex­uded peace­ful­ness and quiet, and I got the sense that it would prob­a­bly re­main un­changed for­ever.

Un­for­tu­nately, not so. Ac­cord­ing to a London Tele­graph story ear­lier this year, Maalula was “lib­er­ated” by the Is­lamists, many of its in­hab­i­tants, among the few souls still speak­ing the lan­guage of Je­sus, were as­sas­si­nated and the rest fled. Shell­fire breached the lime­stone walls of the old­est Christian church in the world and, inside, what had long been seen as a sym­bol of Syria’s re­li­gious free­dom bro­ken icons lay on the ground along­side crosses, cat­e­chisms and images of the Vir­gin Mary.

The Syr­ian Ortho­dox Monastery of St. George was just a few miles from the Cru­sader cas­tle Krak des Che­va­lier where, ac­cord­ing to legend, St. George is buried. Among the build­ings in the com­plex was a 13th­cen­tury chapel, still in­tact and good re­pair, and another built in 515 A.D. was also amaz­ingly well pre­served. The 20 or so monks, all in their 20s and 30s, were over­joyed at hav­ing an English-speak­ing guest and gath­ered around, after evening prayers, to prac­tice their English and speak of their faith. The place had peace­ful­ness and quiet about it that made it seem almost part of another world.

The monastery was at­tacked in Au­gust of last year by ji­hadist ter­ror­ists, but de­fended by lo­cal Christian vol­un­teers, many of whom were killed. Dur­ing Holy Week this year, a school on the monastery grounds was at­tacked with gun­fire and mor­tars leav­ing sev­eral chil­dren and teach­ers dead or wounded. It is just a mat­ter of time be­fore it meets the same fate as Sed­naya and Maalula.

A cou­ple of days later, in Aleppo, I had lunch with Met­ro­pol­i­tan Gre­go­rios Jo­hanna Ibrahim, the Syr­i­acOrtho­dox arch­bishop of Aleppo. A worldly and strong­willed man in his 60s, with a grad­u­ate de­gree from the Univer­sity of Bris­tol in Eng­land, he was au­thor­i­ta­tive and gra­cious; nearly every­body who passed the ta­ble, Mus­lims and Chris­tians alike, stopped to greet him and ex­change hugs. As we parted, we agreed that we would no doubt see each other again some­time.

It won’t hap­pen. In April 2013, while re­turn­ing from Turkey with another bishop, his car was at­tacked by Is­lamist ter­ror­ists, the driver was shot and the two bishops kid­napped. They have not been seen nor heard from since, and are pre­sumed dead.

As Is­lamist ex­trem­ists con­tinue to ter­ror­ize Syria, more Christian vil­lages will be “lib­er­ated,” more price­less his­tor­i­cal sites de­stroyed, and many of Syria’s nearly 2 mil­lion Chris­tians will be killed. It’s a tragedy for civ­i­liza­tion. Al­fred S. Reg­n­ery is the for­mer pres­i­dent of Reg­n­ery Pub­lish­ing.


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