Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 1st September 2013
1 September 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
A friend of mine from Syria tells the following story: a family arrived in the UK from Syria some years ago to settle and live here.
Coming from a deeply religious country, they were delighted to find that, when they took their children to school, faith was taken seriously. Indeed this was a Church school, and so – as you would expect – they not merely fulfilled their obligation to hold a daily act of collective worship, but did so with great reverence for the Christian tradition.
This school – like a number of Church of England Schools – had a significant Muslim minority, and in this case, rather unusually, separate provision was made for them. And so, as Arabic speakers from the Middle East, these new arrivals were duly ushered out with the group of Muslim students …
Of course, you’ve probably spotted the problem already. These children were indeed from the Middle East. They were indeed from Syria. Arabic was their mother tongue. They had a deep awareness of Islam, having grown up joining in their neighbours’ celebration of the Birth of the Prophet and Eid Al-Fitr at the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan.
But they were Christians: not recent converts influenced by the many Western mission agencies in the region. But ancient, indigenous, authentic Christians, indeed some worshipping in Aramaic, the language which Jesus himself spoke.
What this episode does is to point up an area which for centuries has been overlooked in our Western European consciousness of the Middle East. Namely that in many of the countries of the region – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the State of Israe the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Egypt and Ethiopia – all of them have ancient Christian communities whose roots go back over nearly 2,000 years to the very beginnings of the faith.
In a perverse and unwelcome development, the conflicts of the region in recent years have brought into the public gaze the fact that these communities are not foreign imports, or the result of missionary activity. But rather embedded, rooted, indigenous faith groups living alongside Muslim and Jewish communities, as they have done for many centuries.
And in this series of sermons at Matins in September, I want to explore some of their origins and say a little about the issues they are facing today. And I will begin by speaking today about Christians in Syria, but will move on in subsequent weeks to talk about Christians in Egypt, Iraq and Ethiopia.
On the 23rd April this year, a little noticed episode took place in the civil war that is raging throughout Syria. Alongside the bombings, gassings and other atrocities to which we have become inured, it seems at first glance to be of a lesser order, though of deep concern for those involved.
Two senior Christian clergy were involved in an attempt to secure the release of a priest who had been kidnapped while carrying out humanitarian work. Nearing the Turkish Border, Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Bishop Boulos Yaziji were not far from their home city of Aleppo, Syria’s second city.
Bishop Boulos Yaziji is the head of the Greek Orthodox Community, while Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim leads the Aleppo’s Syriac Orthodox Church.
To give some sense of comparison, it would be like the Bishop of Liverpool and his Roman Catholic counterpart being kidnapped – or the equivalent in Chicago or Cologne or Mumbai. Still fourth months later, there is no news of their release.
Between them, these two church leaders represent the main Christian communities in Syria which make up 10% of the total population – that’s about 2.5 million Christians.
So who are these Christians, and why are we blind-sided to them?
While many of us are familiar with the Western branches of Christianity – Roman Catholicism, Reformed Protestantism, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, not to mention the Church of England of which the Abbey is a part – a whole world of Christianity in the East exists, to which many of us have had little exposure. The two unfortunate bishops represent two of the main Christian traditions of Syria.
The Eastern Orthodox churches predominate in Greece, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine; and form significant minorities in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. They trace their roots back to the apostolic missions of St Paul, and are autokephalous – that is, each patriarchate is self-governing, and often covers a geographical area or nation.
The Great Schism of 1054 saw a decisive split between the Roman Catholic Church and Byzantine Orthodox Christianity – a division which lasts to this day. These Orthodox Christians in Syria look to the Patriarchate of Antioch: this is hugely significant, as Acts 11.26 tells us that ‘The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch’. This really does take us back to the roots of Christianity.
But for age, no one can really challenge the Syriac Orthodox Church. They are part of Oriental Orthodox Churches who split from the Byzantine Orthodox following the Council of Chalcedon in 451! They use the oldest surviving liturgy in Christianity, the Liturgy of St. James the Apostle, and worship in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ, as its official and liturgical language.
You get the point, I am sure. When we hear of the conflict in Syria, we should keep in mind that 10% of those involved are our brother and sister Christians. They are not new converts, Western imports, but the real deal: ancient, indigenous, authentic with direct ties which take them back to St Paul on the road to Damascus, and to the earliest language and liturgy of Christianity. They deserve our prayers and support, but we should be mindful of two dilemmas which face them.
Firstly, the regime of Al-Assad House has for decades protected the place of religious minorities. While 75% of Syrians are Sunni Muslim, the ruling house came from a small religious minority – the Alawites – who favoured other minorities as a form of political bargaining. That support has been repaid by the fact that many Christians in Syria have not joined the opposition and have been muted in the condemnation of the government atrocities.
Secondly, and closely related, what Christians in Syria fear is another Iraq – Syria having been a place of refuge for many fleeing from Sadam Hussain. The growing influence of Islamic fundamentalist within the opposition, and attacks on Christians, has raised the spector of Christians being caught in the cross-fire of a Sunni – Shia conflict.
So I ask you: when you return to your home cities, wherever they may be, seek out and support Christians from the Middle East, and assure them that our goodwill is rooted in practical aid.