The Christian Heritage in the Middle East

The monastry Deir Mar Musa in Syria, 585 AD. Photo: www.deirmarmusa.org

The present fate of Christian communities is one of the most sad histories, among many, in the Middle East. Christianity and its art, culture and churches dominated the region for many centuries. Until recently, the numerous Christian sects and Muslims lived peacefully together. The status quo didn’t alter during wars, struggles for independence or dictatorships.

The present political unrest changes this picture however. The closure of the monastery Deir mar Musa, in Syria, and the exile of Father Paolo, who managed and co-financed the monastery, puts an end to a history that began in the first centuries AD. The Christian world was linked to a wider Christianity world through a series of churches that stretched across Mesopotamia and Iran as far as China. This world came close to the territories reached by Alexander the Great nine centuries earlier. This Christian world differed from the Church as it is known today. Rome was not the Christian capital yet and the Muslim religion didn’t exist until the seventh century.

The ancient city of Dura Europos in Syria is one of the most outstanding examples of ancient religious tolerance. This ancient city, covered under sand in the last quarter of the third century, shows a Christian, Jewish and pagan religious building within a range of a few hundred meters. Christianity didn’t only bridge the gap between ancient society and the period after the fall of the (West) Roman Empire in the region. The Christian world also brought about the formulation of new and other aesthetic values and new social, legal and human ways of living, when western Europe could be regarded a distant and politically fragmented region after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifty century. It is necessary emphasizing the elements of change and continuity in Christian culture and society in the Middle East.

Syria was the cradle of Christianity. Some of the apostles came from this Roman province, Saul became Paul in Damascus, many early Christian martyrs and hermits lived and died in Syria, Homs, Antioch, Aleppo and Damascus were important Christian towns until the seventh century and Syria also had eight popes. Most Christian communities preferred Muslim rule rather than Byzantine despotism after the seventh century. The conquest by Muslims in the course of the seventh century didn’t change the tolerance or threaten the existence of Christian communities, although quite some Christian churches changed into mosques.  Winston Churchill said that persecution of minorities may convince some parts of the population, in the long run it is no sticker. (Source: A. Lazaridou, (New York 2011).