For days, Christians with ties to Syria waited for news about the fighting in Maaloula, a village near Damascus that is famous for being one of three in existence in which the locals still speak ancient Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
International reports were sketchy and American media reports were all but nonexistent. Then the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group critical of President Bashar Assad and his government, reported that the village had fallen on Sept. 7 in an assault led by rebels with ties to al-Qaida.
But no one was certain who controlled Maaloula. There were reports of continued street fighting between government troops and elements of the Free Syrian Army. Rebels kept lobbing shells at the village from surrounding mountains.
During the siege, an American bishop of the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church — based in Damascus for centuries — was called by Metropolitan Saba Esper of southern Syria, who in turn had just reached Mother Belagia, abbess of the famous St. Thekla monastery in Maaloula.
The Syrians wanted to know: Was anyone paying attention?
Syria and other lands in the Middle East are “where our spiritual roots are, the roots of all Christians,” the location of biblical sites that are “not in Disney World or Never-Never Land,” said Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita, Kan., in a Sunday sermon that was posted online.
“Our Savior walked there. The apostles walked there. ... These are not just places in books, brothers and sisters. These are holy places where Christians, your spiritual ancestors, and for many of you your physical ancestors, have lived Holy Orthodoxy for the past 2,000 years.”
At the time of his conversation with Metropolitan Saba, he said, reports indicated that Maaloula’s two famous monasteries were saved, but that two village churches — one Orthodox, the other Eastern-Rite Catholic — had been ransacked. The churches still existed — kind of.
“On the inside, the icons, the holy books, everything had been desecrated. Not just ripped off the walls, but covered in urine,” said Bishop Basil. Obviously, this must be seen as “real desecration — by that wing of the Free Syrian Army.”
Leaders of Eastern Orthodox Christianity — which is my own church — are not the only clerics in America and around the world worried about the plight of Christians and those in other minority religious groups in Syria. Global debates about President Barack Obama’s plan for a limited strike against the Assad regime, in response to reports of nerve gas being used on civilians, have only added to the tension.
In Rome, Pope Francis issued an urgent appeal for peace and asked Catholics and other believers worldwide to fast and pray for nonviolent initiatives in the Middle East. He also wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking him to urge Obama and other G-20 leaders to oppose military intervention in Syria.
In his own vigil service for peace, the pope proclaimed:
“Even today we continue this history of conflict between brothers. ... Even today, we let ourselves be guided by idols, by selfishness, by our own interests, and this attitude persists. We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves. As if it were normal, we continue to sow destruction, pain, death! Violence and war lead only to death, they speak of death!”
Among Protestants, ethicists on both sides of the theological aisle have debated whether a threatened U.S. air strike against Syria could be justified under “just-war theory.” On the theological right, 62.5 percent of those contacted by the Evangelical Leaders Survey said they now oppose direct U.S. military intervention in Syria.
The Rev. Rick Warren of the giant Saddleback Church in Southern California simply tweeted a series of Bible verses, including this from Isaiah: “Rushing to do evil, ready to kill innocent people, they cause destruction, not knowing how to live in peace.”
Anyone who prays for peace in Syria must acknowledge, at the beginning, that “vicious wrongs” have been done on both sides and that “there’s really no good armed force over there. No one we can trust. None,” concluded Bishop Basil.
“So the choice is between the evil that we know and that we’ve had for 30-40 years in that part of the world, or another evil we don’t know about except what they’ve shown us in this awful civil war.”
Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.