By Milad Korkis Syriac journalist
When we research Syria’s long history, we stumble over a history full of cultures, peoples and religions. A mosaic within the borders of Syrian territory. No matter what subject we take, Syrian history comes to us in full and colorful surprises. We wouldn’t do justice to its ancient history, if we do not immerse ourselves more in Syria’s historical particularities – particularities which are always hidden by those who try to wipe out true Syrian identity.
This ancient and mosaic history of civilizations, peoples, and religions called Syria left many traces. Here we use our pen, and expose the Christian religion in Syria in all aspects; its spread, its existence, the many attempts to narrow it down and wipe out Christian presence, and its determining influences on contemporary Syria. This is what we will highlight in more detail in our weekly series on “Christianity in Syria”.
The Levant is the cradle of Christianity and Christianity is known to have originated from Jerusalem and had its first concentrated presence in the major cities on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, e.g. Antioch, Byblos, as well as on Cyprus. From there it spread to all parts of the world. The Levant is the center of several Christian churches, such as the Antioch Patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Rum Catholic Church and the Maronite Church.
Christianity in Syria is the second most common religion among the population after Islam, with Christians ranging from 8% to 10% of total population. Most statistics indicate that about half of them are Rum Orthodox, while other churches make up the other half.
The percentage of Christians in Syria in the late Ottoman era was about 25% of the total population but it decreased to about 10% after that. This was mainly due to systematic massacres, persistent harassments that have continued since the 1850s, and to Christian emigration. Subsequent to the end of the Ottoman Empire, Christian emigration increased significantly and was higher among Christians than among other sects, due to continuous policies of restriction and persecution to which Christians were subjected. Throughout their historical presence under the Ottoman Sultanate, they were forced to pay tribute and suffer insults over their beliefs. A constant sword over their head threatened their existence in their homeland.
When we talk about the importance of Christianity and its presence in Syria, there is great importance for Syria in the history of Christianity. Damascus is the seat of a number of Christian churches and patriarchates, most notably the Rum Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate, and the Rum Catholic Patriarchate. Many eastern and western churches have a presence there. The city of Aleppo ranks third in cities of the Middle East after Cairo and Beirut in terms of the number of Christians. Furthermore, a large number of Christian holy and historical important sites are located within the borders of contemporary Syria.
The Gospels speak of Jesus visiting areas in southern Syria and it is known that in Caesarea Philippi, current-day Baniyas al-Sham, Jesus Christ announced that Peter would be the head of the Apostles [Matthew 16:18]. St Peter was from Bethsaida, east of Lake Tiberias. And according to Christian beliefs, it was in the Bethsaida that Jesus performed one of his most prominent miracles, walking on water.
Christianity spread rapidly in some areas of the Levant and witnessed the nomination of a number of the 70 Apostles appointed by Jesus Christ, to the status of bishops of some of the Levantine cities. Damascus itself was the base where Paul of Tarsus launched his missionary journeys as one of the most important messengers of Christianity. And the remnants of the Church of Hanania, one of the oldest churches in Christianity, are testifies of an important early period in Christian history. The Church of Umm al-Zanar in Homs is also considered among one of the oldest churches in the world and is also a witness of first century Christianity. And many more churches and monasteries scattered all over the Syrian territory remain today to testify to this. As for Antioch, this city played a prominent role in the life of the first Christians, in producing a large numbers of Saints and Church fathers.
To be continued…