Roberta Green Ahmanson
Over the weekend in Syria, rebel soldiers took control of the Christian town Maaloula near Damascus. This ancient town is strategically located in the mountains overlooking Damascus and is one of the last places in the world where the language of Aramaic is spoken.
According to Al Arabiya, militants of the jihadist group Al-Nursa entered the Christian town during the night. “Maalula is considered a symbol of the Christian presence in Syria, and many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ that only small, scattered communities around the world still use,” the report said.
Maaloula is also home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria, which many believe are now under threat of destruction, as one church on the western side of the village was already burnt by the rebels.
The attacks came as Christians around the world and in Syria gathered over the weekend to pray and fast for peace in Syria. In Damascas, the Syrian clergy implored Christians to remain in the country. “I beg you to remain here,” the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Laham was reported as saying. “We’re staying. If you leave, we leave. So we beg you, stop coming to our priests asking for a visa. If you leave, who will remain? Only our brethren the Muslims.”
Many Christian inhabitants have already fled the little town of Maaloula, but its capture highlights growing concern among Christians—in Syria and neighboring regions—about the growing role of Islamic extremists in the rebel groups. Maaloula is but one prominent example of the general attack on Christians in Egypt and Syria since the “Arab Spring” and the ouster of Mohammad Morsi in July.
St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula, for example, is one of Christianity’s oldest sacred sites continuously in use since at least the 6th Century but was closed by the Egyptian government at the beginning of July.
Now a few thousand people and around 800 camels in the nearby City of St. Catherine are struggling to find the food to stay alive.
Father Paolos, a monk at the Egyptian monastery since 1972 and a member of its Holy Council, told Mohammad Sabry of Al Monitor that “After the attacks on churches around the country in the past two months, we received orders from security authorities to shut down for security reasons.”
The Hudson Institute’s Sam Tadros, author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, (August, 2013), has said Coptic Christians, descendants of the Pharaohs who trace their faith back to the witness of St. Mark in the 1st Century, are facing the worst pogrom they have experienced since 1321.
Egypt’s Maspero Youth Union told Lela Gilbert, author of Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner and co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, that between August 14 and 16 some 38 churches were completely destroyed, burned, and looted and 23 additional churches were attacked and partially damaged. In addition, 58 houses owned by Copts in different areas were burned and looted along with 85 shops owned by Copts, 16 pharmacies, three hotels, and 75 cars or buses owned by churches. The group reports six people killed for their Christian identity and seven Copts kidnapped in Upper Egypt (the area south of Cairo).
In Egypt, “the Christians in Delga in Upper Egypt have been under assault for several weeks and Egypt security forces had still not shown up as of [September 4]” according to Paul Marshall, author of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwideand a frequent witness on behalf of Christians seeking asylum in the United States.
American press coverage of the ongoing pogroms against Christians has been scant at best. And, as Marshall and Fradkin assert, American Christians and churches have not raised a common voice of protest to these atrocities.
“Frankly, as a Jew, I have difficulty in understanding the complaisance,” said Hillel Fradkin, Hudson fellow and editor of “Current Trends in Islamic Ideology.” “After all, it is no longer merely a matter of public policy but the life and death of fellow Christians and the possibility of continuing Christian witness.”
Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, has raised the issue of why Christians are (comparatively) silent as have other Jewish friends, Marshall added.
At St. Catherine’s, the monks and their monastery have been protected by the now-Muslim Jabaleyya Bedouin tribe, which moved from Upper Egypt to the Sinai about 1,600 years ago.
Today monks as well as the Muslim Bedouins and their camels, necessary to their work as guides for tourists to the monastery high above the town, are wondering how they will survive.
Operating at full capacity from 2004 t0 2011, the monastery and the town welcomed some 4,000 visitors, mostly foreign, a day. On days the monastery was closed, tourists stayed around to climb Mt. Sinai or take Bedouin safari trips. The monastery itself employed some 400 workers in its olive groves, farms, honey bee farms, and processing facilities including an olive press. With monastery reserves down to two-months-worth of expenditure, some Bedouins have sold their camels in order to eat. Since 2004 when the Egyptian government imposed a $5.00 fee on every person entering the town of St. Catherine’s, Sabry said, the government has given none of that revenue to the town itself, contributing to the dearth of resources its citizens now face.
Sabry also reported that the monastery has closed twice in the last 50 years, in 1977 when Anwar Sadat went to Jerusalem, and in 1982 when the Egyptian military entered the Sinai after Israeli forces left. The monastery was open throughout Israeli occupation.
There has been a chapel to Egypt’s St. Catherine of Alexandria since at least the 4th Century when the Western European pilgrim Egeria visited the site and worshiped there. In the 6th Century, Byzantine Emperor Justinian built the monastery and outbuildings that still survive. The library contains ancient manuscripts and revered icons of Jesus Christ and many saints dating from the 6th Century. At the time of the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 7th Century, the monastery was given a document guaranteeing its protection under the new regime. The document is one of the first things a visitor to the monastery is shown.
“Usually, I find there is little to be gained by berating people,” said Marshall, but I am haunted by what the above means for [the Scripture] ‘By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another,’ and a telling offshoot, Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’”