WORLD

Born again in Syria

Evangelical Christian churches have been drawing Arabs across this Middle East nation

January 30 2006
WORLD

Born again in Syria

Evangelical Christian churches have been drawing Arabs across this Middle East nation

January 30 2006

Born again in Syria

Evangelical Christian churches have been drawing Arabs across this Middle East nation

WORLD

BY MICHAEL PETROU • A circling fleet ofyellow taxis, mopeds and overloaded minivans belches black smoke into the dusty air. The vehicles dodge donkey carts and brave pedestrians as they race around the traffic circle outside the Bab Kisan gate into the walled old city of Damascus. It was at this location in the first century that Saul of Tarsus was smuggled out of the city, lowered from its walls in a basket after he had enraged local officials by preaching Christianity in their synagogues. By that time Saul had already experienced his blinding revelation on the road to Damascus, becoming Paul the Apostle, and subsequently spreading Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.

Bab Kisan, therefore, might be an appropriate place for Christian evangelism. Indeed, a short walk away, past the tangled streets and alleys of Damascus’s Jewish quarter (now virtually empty of Jews), the Sunday night service at the al-Nazeriah evangelical church is in full swing in the old city’s traditional Christian neighbourhood. Pastor Rami, a 28-year-old man with a thick, well-trimmed black beard, is swaying beneath a six-foot, gold-coloured cross on the wall behind him. His eyes closed, he holds one arm aloft in front of him, palm upward, as he preaches in a rhythmic voice, half singing, half speaking, accompanied by a man on an electric organ that features a drum machine. “Jesus is Lord,” Rami says, tightly shutting his eyes and dropping his voice to just above a whisper. “Let him always be in our minds. Let there be no obstacles between Jesus and us. Amen. Amen. Amen.”

It’s a scene that has long been common in countless Nazarene churches across America, and in other evangelical churches in Europe and North America. But while Protestant churches have existed in Syria since the mid-19th century, it’s only in the past couple of decades that evangelical churches have sprung up here. Pastor Rami’s congregation is overwhelmingly Arab; at least one man wears the traditional red-checked kaffiyeh headscarf. The members sing as he preaches, and they too hold their hands up to the sky. “The evangelical church is very powerful in Syria,” Rami says after the service, noting that the Nazarenes have branches in every major Syrian city. “We speak about Jesus

Christ as the saviour. We don’t ask anyone about their religious background: Orthodox, Muslim, whatever. We believe Jesus is the saviour of all people. We are a kind of Pentecostal church. This church isn’t just for the Nazarenes. It’s for everyone.”

Members of the congregation speak openly about their desire to convert Muslims to Christianity, and to bring other Christians into their evangelical fold. This would not be possible in most Middle Eastern countries, where there are strict laws prohibiting Christians from proselytizing Muslims. But Syrian Christians are protected by Bashar al-Assad’s secular dictatorship and are allowed to preach in public, distributing Bibles and urging nonbelievers to worship with them. “We are evangelicals,” says John Samara, a young member of the al-Nazeriah church. “We believe in witnessing and bringing the message of Christ to the streets.” The al-Nazeriah congre-

‘We speak of Jesus as the saviour. We don’t ask about people’s background: Muslim, Orthodox, whatever.’

gation now includes several former Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this causes some resentment among members of Syria’s other faiths. “These churches secretly send people to our churches to recruit new members,” says one Syrian Orthodox priest. “They give people money to join them.” Allegations of bribery and secret recruitment are heard in other old churches across Damascus. How else, the critics ask, can one explain the number of poor Syrians who are joining the evangelical churches?

Samara has heard all this before. “We have this negative view,” he says. “It is a lack of knowledge based on ignorance. They call us Jehovah’s Witnesses. They call us Jews.” Samara says his church doesn’t bribe anyone. It does, however, give food to several hundred Iraqi Christians who have been forced from their homes by Islamists and have found refuge in Damascus.

It much is difficult between to see Syria’s relations evangelicals improving and the country’s more established churches. Christianity has deep and strong roots here. Jesus was born in the Middle East, and as many Eastern Orthodox Christians are quick to point out, this is Christianity’s spiritual home. The church’s long history in Syria is evident everywhere in the country. John the Baptist’s head is allegedly held in the Umayyad Mosque, which was once an ancient Christian church, and Byzantine-era monasteries still dot the desert wilderness.

But the past century has witnessed a massive exodus of the Middle East’s Christians— driven away by nationalism and religious extremism across the region. Christianity is comparatively safe in Syria, but many Syrian Christians fear their position might change under the threat of Islamist extremism if alAssad’s regime collapses. Hundreds of thousands have emigrated. “We have problems

with the youth who think that because we are a minority it is not our country,” Sister Dima Fayyad says at the monastery of Mar Musa, carved into the face of a cliff looking out over desert scrub north of Damascus. “We have to work on the idea that this is our country. This is where Christianity began, and it is where we want to stay.”

DAMASCUS NUN: Christians are protected by Bashar al-Assad’s secular dictatorship

Those Christian religious leaders who have watched the diminishing presence of their faith in the region are perhaps loath to see their flocks shrink further through conversion, even to other Christian denominations. But the resulting suspicion among some Christians in Syria is strangely at odds with examples of religious harmony between Muslims and Christians in the country. At the Convent of Our Lady in the village of Seidnayya, Muslim families, the women’s hair covered by hijabs, pray beside Christians before an icon of the Virgin Mary, reportedly painted by Saint Luke.

“Ten years married, no baby,” one of the

sisters says, nodding in the direction of a Muslim couple emerging from the shrine. The walls are covered with ornaments left as token gifts by women who conceived after praying before the icon. “Yes, Muslims pray here too,” the sister tells me, as if it is nothing out of the ordinary. “Mary is the mother of the entire world.” It is not unusual in the Middle East for such an intimately sacred space to be simultaneously used by members of both religions.

Christianity and Islam share a common and often intertwined history. This is still ap-

parent in Christianity’s Eastern home in a way that has been largely forgotten in Europe and North America. Indeed, Arab Christians are perhaps more uniquely placed than any other group to bridge the gap between Islam and the West—sharing, as they do, religion with one society and culture with the other.

Evangelical Christianity has roots in the West, which partially explains some of the hostility it faces in the Middle East. But both its supporters and opponents agree on one thing: its size, and influence, is growing. M