The Christian Church in Syria

christians in syriaAs we continue to pray for a diplomatic rather than a military solution to the crisis in Syria, I thought you might find it helpful (as I did) to learn more about the Christian Church there. Did you know that even before the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (ca. 34 AD) there were Christians in Syria? The followers of Jesus were first known as Christians in Syrian Antioch (ca. 46 AD). During the 2nd-4th century a school of theology developed in Antioch, one of whose most prestigious disciples was John Chrysostom. Monasticism flourished from the 4th-5th century with thousands of ascetics, monks and cenobites. St Simeon the Stylite and St Maron lived not far from Aleppo. 5th century Syria was at the heart of the Monophysite controversy. The Council of Chalcedon failed to end the disputes. St Maron’s monks, faithful to Rome, began to seek refuge in Lebanon. In the 7th century Caliph Omar dismissed Christian officials and his successor obliged them to wear distinctive dress. In 722 there were still 3.8 million Christians in Syria out of a population of 4 million.

During the 8th century Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi forced Arab-Christian Tannukhs to convert to Islam. In 855 Christians in Homs revolted and their leaders were crucified at the city gates. By the 9th century Islam was gained the upper hand and many churches became mosques and, by about 900, half the Syrian population was Muslim. During the 12th-13th century Christians in Syria had problems in areas controlled alternately by crusaders and Muslims. In 1124 the Aleppo cathedral was made into a mosque, but it still contends that it possesses the head of John the Baptist. In 1350, out of a population of one million, 100,000 were Christians (about the same proportion that exists today). In the 16th century, the Orthodox, Jacobite and Armenian Christian communities were recognized by the Ottoman sultan as nations with their own courts and laws. In 1860 there was a massacre of Christians in Mount Lebanon and it spread to Damascus: thousands died. In 1915 vast numbers of Armenians fled to Syria from massacres in Turkey.

Just as Islam is made up of a variety of groups, so the Christian church in Syria is composed of the following, from largest to smallest:

Greek Orthodox There are 500,000 divided into six Dioceses. Their leader is the “Patriarch of Antioch and all the East”, and their liturgy is in Arabic. Damascus has been the Patriarchal See since 1342. Greek Catholics (Melkites) The Greek Catholic Church of Antioch was born of a return to Catholicism by part of the Greek Orthodox Church in Antioch. Armenians The Armenian Church was inspired by St Gregory the Illuminator who made Armenia Christian in the third century.

Syriac/Syrian The Syrian Church was born in the mid-6th century from the dispute about the two natures of Christ. Jacob Baradai ordained Monophysite priests and Bishops, setting them beside the Catholic hierarchy. This Jacobite Church was joined by most of the Syrians who opposed Byzantine rule. Assyrians and Chaldeans Assyrians are Christians who belonged to the Nestorian Church established in Mesopotamia, and the Chaldeans are those who returned to Catholicism in 1681. Maronites The monks of St Maron founded the Church in Antioch by the Orontes River. Maronites are Catholic; persecuted by the Monophysites and then the Arabs, the majority were forced to take refuge in Lebanon. Latins The 3,000 Latins, mostly Catholics from Palestine or Europe (French and Italian), are under the jurisdiction of the Vicariate Apostolic of Aleppo for Latins, established in 1762. The majority of these Latins live in Damascus and Aleppo. Protestants A few thousand members of various denominations form the Superior Evangelical Council of Syria and Lebanon. Evangelical congregations are less than 1%. (This historical and statistical information was taken from L’Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English)

In Syria, Islam is not the state religion. The country is secular, which ensures equality for members of other religions. Christians can buy land and build churches. Clerics are exempt from military service and schools provide Christian and Muslim religious instruction. This is why Syrian Christians have been generally supportive of the Assad regime and why they were not calling for the proposed American missile strike. Syrian Christians believe that the government guarantees their survival. They fear extermination if Muslims take over and force Islam on the country. They have already seen what happened to Iraqi Christians. If you have time, I invite you to watch a news special by CBN from two years ago, just at the beginning of the uprisings. I think you will find it insightful.

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