It was not the vision of the Risen Lord that nearly blinded me on the road to Damascus. It was the searing light and clouds of dust thrown up by the unusually hot October, and the fact that my driver believed in natural air conditioning: windows wide open.
While it was romantic to imagine I was on the route traveled by Saul two thousand years ago, I was actually coming, not from Jerusalem, but Beirut. As soon as the border is crossed—in fact, while still at the border crossing—the ubiquitous face of Bashar al-Assad appears everywhere. Sometimes his smiling face beams from the billboards; elsewhere, he’s seen in sunglasses and military uniform. As you drive along, there are still pictures of his father, Hafez al-Assad, along with joint portraits of Bashar and the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
There are many checkpoints along the road to Damascus and as you enter the city. I was heading for the Bab Touma, or the Gate of Thomas, and the Christian quarter of the Old City. I did, at this stage, begin to feel some companionship with Saul (soon to become Paul) as I was taken in an unknown direction. The roads and alleyways of the Old City can barely take a car, especially when all the schoolchildren are spilling onto the streets, laughing and shouting and dressed in what could easily be parochial school uniforms. My little hotel was one street away from the street called Straight, where Ananias was instructed by Christ to go to the “house of a certain Judas” where Saul would be awaiting him.
The street is indeed fairly straight, lined with little shops and a number of churches. At the end, just before the Bab Sharqui, you turn down a little alleyway called Hanania Street, at the end of which is the Chapel of Ananias. Hallowed as the house of Ananias, who baptized St. Paul and became the first bishop of Damascus, it is deep below the level of the modern street, for Damascus is not only previous ages, but also upon memories. It has been a sight of pilgrimage from the beginning. As I prayed one evening on my own in that sacred place, the greatness of both St. Paul and the city which contained one of the earliest Christian communities almost overwhelmed me.
From Damascus, as the early Christian community grew, there emerged the great Syrian church of martyrs, theologians and saints. Popes and bishops came from Syria, and there would be no western Church without the Church of the East. I have never forgotten the words of the great Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, Jean-Clément Jeanbart, who told me in 2014, as jihadis rained bombs on his Cathedral: “We are the Church of Pentecost. The Church was born here.”
After the rise of Islam, the Church of Syria, as in all the lands where the Mohammedan creed was dominant, became a suffering and martyred Church. That suffering continues today.
Having tea one morning in the Armenian Cathedral on Straight Street, with the youthful Armenian Bishop of Damascus, he told me in perfect English how, because of the war and migration, he had lost half his congregation. The Christian quarter—particularly the area near the sites associated with St. Paul—was heavily shelled by the jihadists (or “rebels” as the western media liked to call them) for more than five years. It is common to see people missing one or both legs: mortars landing in narrow streets spread their destruction from below, so lower limb injuries are the most normal. I had dinner one night with an English friend who’s married to a Syrian; they stayed in the city throughout the bombing. He told me of the horrendous injuries he had seen, and the enervating effect of the constant fear of death. People would be killed or injured going out to buy a loaf of bread or visiting friends. His wife said that each day she would put on her best clothes because she wanted to die well dressed. Quietly her husband said that she was suffering from PTSD. In fact, he said, “everyone has PTSD.”
Now the bombing has stopped, and the people of Damascus are trying to rebuild their lives. In many ways, as I walked through the Old City to the Great Mosque and the Souk, it was hard to believe that this was a highly dangerous place to take a walk (never mind a pilgrimage) just a short time before. Everywhere I was met with kindness and generosity, from all sections of the population. For someone with such a poor sense of direction that I need a map to find my own house, the winding alleys of the Old City were a challenge. However, everyone I asked smiled and helped, enjoying, it seemed, the sight of a lost and confused English priest.
Syrian Christians—and the whole Syrian people—will not be able to rebuild and be secure until the economy improves. The people are suffering because of sanctions, not the regime. Everywhere I heard the same plea: As petrol is rationed, medicine is in short supply. The average salary is around $250 a month. “Lift the sanctions,” they plead, “or we will not recover.” It’s controversial, sure. But we’re not the ones suffering. It’s easy, in the latte-sipping salons of Manhattan or London, or in the control rooms of television and editorial suites, to pontificate about the rights and wrongs of Syria. But realpolitik involves difficult decisions, and the suffering of the Syrian people needs to be relieved.
On my last night, as I met with a Melkite bishop—who had once been stationed in New Jersey and who greeted me with the phrase How ya doin’, which was slightly disconcerting—I asked him what message I could bring to the Christians of the West who seem to be either ignorant or indifferent about their roots in the East and the suffering of their brothers and sisters in the Faith.
First, he said “pray for us”; secondly: “Do not give us weapons but help us find peace.” I told him that it is hard sometimes even to get Christians in the West to pray for the persecuted. “I know that very well,” he responded. “That’s why I asked first for prayers.”
Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images