By Heleen Murre-van den Berg Professor of Global Christianity, director Institute of Eastern Christian Studies (hlmvandenberg.me)
One of the major challenges of Syriac and other Middle Eastern Christian communities is how to keep their younger members actively involved with the church. Secularizing tendencies, intermarriage with non-Syriacs and even political activism within the Syriac/Assyrian/Aramean community may keep young people away from commitment to the local and transnational church.
At a more fundamental level, the way the church used to function in the Middle East is not easily transposed into western societies, and if fact also poses problems in the current Middle East. The days are over when religious belonging was just an inescapable element of one’s societal status that no one thought of changing – whether you actually were a believer or not. Ritual participation, chanting the songs in Syriac, making the movements, smelling the incense, tasting the bread and the wine, formed a strong basis upon which communal belonging and individual faith could foster, making sense of the world without having to explain it.
Increased levels of education, intellectual challenges to the faith, internal and external migration have put all of that into question: why participate in a ritual that you do not understand? And these questions are put to a clergy that has not always been able to keep up with the changes in society: the lower clergy is not educated to address the issues raised by the young, the higher clergy is accused (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) of power abuse, of being too obedient to the powers that be, and of preferring to talk to the rich and famous rather than to their own communities.
All of these issues must have played a role in the decision of the current patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Mor Ignatius Afrem II, to start organizing global youth conferences. The first of these was organized in Lebanon last year, directed by dr. Malko Dunya. He supported the group of young Dutch Syriacs who organized it this year, with the further help of the archbishop of the Netherlands, Mor Polycarpus Augin Aydin, Dayroyo (monk) Youhanon Habil, Dr. Kees den Biesen and Andy Pettman. This second conference, in Stadskanaal, attracted several hundreds of young people (ages 18-30) from all over the world. The majority of the participants of the SYGG came from Europe, from Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands. They were joined by small groups from the USA, Australia, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia – so I learned during the opening ceremony that I was privileged to have been invited to.
It was very inspiring to watch how engaged the patriarch addressed the youth in his opening lecture, and how he took the time to answer their questions. Lots of interesting issues were raised during this first night, the most important perhaps that of the general situation of the Christians in the Middle East and the diaspora. Here the patriarch clearly took a double stance: on the hand urging everyone to contribute to helping those that could and wanted to stay in the region, on the other to encourage the youth at the gathering (who in vast majority were from the diaspora) to help strengthening their communities here in the west. ‘Mission’ in that sense was to be directed as close to home as possible: no need to go to Africa to do good. Another important issue, raised by one of the participants, is that of how the church should go about commemorating the genocide, the Sayfo as it is called among the Syriac Christians. Mor Aphrem talked quite extensively about the problem of finding a suitable date for a yearly commemoration: with the Armenians at April 24, with the Assyrians on August 7, or some other date? Of late, Syriac Orthodox have started to organize activities mostly in June, as the month in which (in 1915) most people were killed or deported. Although the discussion is still ongoing, June 15th is the date the patriarch prefers, and he clearly hoped the youth in Stadskanaal would join him in that. In the context of commemorating the Sayfo, he also emphasized the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation. He later illustrated his position by a moving story about a Muslim guard who recently died while protecting the patriarch.
The conference adhered to an almost monastic discipline, similar to the spirit and set-up of the summer courses in the monasteries all over the world where Syriac children receive basic training in language and liturgy. Inducing the young in the spirituality of the church, that is so closely linked to that of its monasteries, clearly is an important part of what this conference tried to achieve. During the two prayers that I attended, the traditional liturgy was followed, though some of the psalms were said in English rather than in Syriac. Notably, in the choir performance on the opening night, traditional unison Syriac hymns were provided with new harmonic settings (replacing wide tuning) that reminded one of Slavic church music.
Gatherings such as this one undoubtedly cater for those Syriac students and other young people that are committed to serving their church. For them, these meetings provide a much-needed opportunity to bond with each other as well as to getting to know the leadership of the church up close (the patriarch was to stay for the whole conference, as were several other bishops and clergy). At the same time, however, it will probably not succeed in engaging the wider group of Syriac youth: those that do not come to such meetings because they already are moving away from the traditional church structures.
How to find new ways to build the community, strengthen it in the diaspora as well as in the homeland, without putting everything to either ‘church’ or ‘nation’, will be the biggest challenge for a new generation of Syriac leaders – leaders who, as far as I could see, will rise up from among the young people that participated in this important gathering.
Heleen Murre-van den Berg is Professor of Global Christianity and director of the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies (Instituut voor Oosters Christendom) at the Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands. You can follow Heleen Murre-van den Berg on her personal blog hlmvandenberg.me.