A long war has left Syria ill prepared for COVID-19—and outside forces, including the United States, might be making the battle more challenging
The air bites, a chill signaling winter is coming, as Antoine Audo sets off from his home in Aleppo. It’s important to take advantage of the daylight hours in Syria’s largest city, where in recent months electricity has been off more than on, and an unbroken blackout has persisted for the last five days.
A morning walk is no stroll for the 67-year-old Chaldean bishop of Aleppo. Rubble and cratered buildings are around nearly every corner he takes. The refuse from more than two years of civil war is so pervasive that even when the bombs aren’t falling, the stone and concrete dust is rising. On a day of bright sun and blue sky in early November, the air hangs thick with rubble debris, the crumbled buildings exhaling their losses so persistently that satellite imagery captures the dust clouds from space.
Syria may be a majority Muslim nation, but Aleppo, despite repeated pogroms, is a city that’s never outrun its Christianity—until possibly now. It has 45 churches. They range from an evangelical church and new Greek Orthodox congregations established only in the last decade, to the Armenian Cathedral of the Forty Martyrs founded in 1429. (It replaced a chapel believed centuries older.)
From the heart of Aleppo’s Old City to the suburbs beyond its ring road, these form an array of Middle East Christendom with its layers of history and conquest—Armenian Evangelicals and Armenian Catholics, Melkite Greeks and Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholics, Maronites, Chaldeans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Baptists, and more.
Middle-aged churchgoers remember the city as one-fourth Christian when they were young. Now Christians make up perhaps less than 10 percent of the population. But the churches, even the oldest ones, are far from relics—full for regular services and many operating schools and charities, and now with war, relief work and medical care.
Audo presides over Aleppo’s Chaldean church, a denomination that traces its roots back to the Church of the East and the Nestorians, a church that once worshipped—and in some places still does—in Aramaic, the trade language spoken by Jesus. Audo also heads nationwide the work of Caritas, the Catholic relief agency. As a lifelong resident of Aleppo and bishop for 25 years, he is one of the longest-serving church leaders in the country. And in time of war, he is not only a veteran but also a survivor.
At least six top Christian clergy have been kidnapped since Syria’s civil war began in March 2011, plus dozens more laymen. Rebel groups seized Aleppo’s Orthodox prelates in April—Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos Yazigi—both men Audo considers close colleagues and who leave the two large denominations leaderless.
Audo knows there’s danger for him, too, but has changed little about his daily schedule—except that he no longer wears vestments on the street and avoids being alone. “When I walk, I walk without official dressing. I’ve been advised and know that I have to be careful.”
Without formal security he moves freely every day, visiting parishioners, overseeing relief work that now serves thousands in the city, and holding a Eucharist celebration every evening at St. Joseph’s Chaldean Cathedral. Twenty or 30 people come each evening, he said, even though the church at the moment lacks power and water.
The last time I spoke with him, by telephone on a Sunday evening in November, he had just returned to his home from officiating at a wedding. Heat and lights were out, he said, forcing him to prepare “by candle” his sermons for the week ahead.
“I am not afraid. It’s a question of confidence. I am confident of God’s provision as I am doing my job, and I like to go in the streets to feel the situation and the suffering of the people.”
Recognized internationally, Audo normally keeps a brisk travel schedule with meetings in Rome, London, and elsewhere. War and wartime responsibilities make travel a challenge: The last four months, he says, he has not left the city.
As we spoke, fighting between rebel groups and the government army encircled Aleppo. On Saturday, Nov. 9, the army launched a barrage of pre-dawn artillery fire and air strikes, retaking a military base near Aleppo’s airport.
On Sunday a government rocket killed six civilians walking near a traffic circle in the city. At a vegetable market five more civilians were killed by a rebel mortar shell. As rocket fire punctuated the Sunday quiet, jihadi fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) killed and decapitated a man they claimed was an Iraqi Shiite fighter for the government. They held high his severed head to civilian onlookers, as a lesson, only to learn themselves that he was a rebel from another militant group fighting on their side.
On Monday the ISIS and six other Islamist rebel groups announced a new call to arms against Aleppo “to face off against the enemy which is attacking Islamic territory.” Those with a valid excuse not to fight, it said in a statement, “must supply weapons and money.”
As jihadist groups have taken control of the rebel onslaught in and around Aleppo, life for Christians has become, if possible, more hellish. YouTube videos show Christians forcibly converted to Islam, and kidnappings and rapes are prevalent. Attacks on Christian villages include reports of beheadings and dismemberments, even of young children. In recent weeks rebels have targeted Christian schools in Aleppo and elsewhere. An attack on an Armenian school in Damascus on Nov. 11 left six elementary students dead.
Over 100,000 civilians have been killed since 2011. About 2 million Syrians have been forced to leave their country and another 5 million are displaced but still living in Syria. Those high numbers overshadow another statistic: the uncounted number of Syrians who choose to stay.
For Christians the stakes are not only to preserve a homeland but also to preserve Christianity in the land of its birth and early flourishing. Even as the desperation of Islamist groups fighting the government has intensified attacks, these believers remain determined: “It’s important for us as Christians to be alive in the original lands of our fathers,” said Audo. “And not only for us but for the church in the world.”
“We as Middle Easterners don’t want our Christian churches to empty,” said Dativ Michaelian, a priest in Aleppo’s Armenian Orthodox church. Other Christians—doctors, teachers, hotel operators, and business owners—say the same. Many have lost their livelihoods due to a civil war they never wanted, but are fighting on by holding on—fearing the war less than they fear an Islamist future, a future where Christianity is banished from public life. With Bishop Antoine Audo, these Syrian Christians are WORLD’s 2013 Daniels of the Year.
THE FREE SYRIAN ARMY and affiliated rebel groups moved into Aleppo—about 7,000 fighters—in February 2012. Islamic fighters, most experienced in creating insurgency in Iraq, have overwhelmed their ranks.
Abu Omar is one such fighter. An Iraqi national, he was among hundreds freed when al-Qaeda militants staged a jailbreak at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad in July. Quickly recruited to fight in Syria, Omar made his way there via Turkey, linking up with ISIS leaders who gave him a cellphone and $10,000, “meant for the mujahideen of Syria.”
In September Omar told reporters with Foreign Policy he considers jihad against the unbelievers (e.g., Christians) in Syria “holier” than jihad in Iraq. “The Quran and the hadiths already predicted that Satan will be defeated in Damascus,” he said.
Foreign jihadists like Omar are bringing grisly determination against an also-determined President Bashar al-Assad and government forces. Rebel forces claim to hold about 35-40 percent of Aleppo, but the government in recent weeks has retaken some areas. The fighting has brought important industries, like pharmaceuticals, to a standstill. And it’s destroyed areas of the Old City, whose gates and Crusader-era Citadel are World Heritage sites. More importantly, it’s an area where Christians, Muslims, Kurds, and others over centuries of conflict, had found a way to live side by side.
AND THE LORD GOD planted a garden in Eden, in the east.”
The Scriptures speak of four rivers that watered the Garden of Eden, but we can locate only the Tigris and Euphrates. They poured down from the Taurus Mountains of modern-day Turkey into Syria and Iraq, and likely watered the ground from which God drew mud to form a man. In the cuneiform of the Sumerians and in Hebrew, he was called Adam, meaning “ground” or “earth.”
Adam lived only for a time in the garden, but the civilizations that grew in the fertile plains of the Tigris-Euphrates river system—the Sumerians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Babylonians—drove the earliest development of cities and empires.
These were landlocked people obsessed with water. The Chaldeans were skillful shipbuilders “and exulted in their ships,” wrote the prophet Isaiah. The Assyrians depicted a river and vessels in all the bas-reliefs discovered at Nimrud, modern-day Mosul in northern Iraq.
By the time Terah the father of Abram took his family “from Ur of the Chaldeans” on a journey to the land of Canaan, it was sensible to travel along a network of canals and cities that grew up in the Tigris-Euphrates valley rather than make a direct trek across the desert. They headed north and then south along what would become known as the Fertile Crescent.
They settled in Haran (later in Scripture called Paddan-Aram), an important crossroads east of the Euphrates and not far from today’s Turkey-Syria border near Aleppo. Clay tablets discovered in Syria in the 1970s confirm these settlements, and also make reference to Canaan. Abram would eventually resume the journey, along the way acquiring a servant in Damascus named Eliezer so trusted that Abram named him his heir (Genesis 15:2).
THE SAME ROUTE would be taken by invaders from Mesopotamia against the tribes that descended from Abram (now Abraham): Assyrians captured Samaria in 722 B.C., then Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 597 B.C. They burned and destroyed it, along with Solomon’s temple, 10 years later.
In Babylonian captivity, the first Jewish Diaspora found bitter and sweet labor. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon weren’t Nebuchadnezzar’s only wonder: He built a bridge across the Euphrates supported by piers of brick covered with asphalt and designed to take into account river flow and turbulence.
Yet with their stores of Jewish teachings and law—plus their zeal to preserve both their history and their faith in a Messiah to come—the Babylonian Jews made the area the center of Jewish scholarship. Near present-day Fallujah in Iraq sprang Talmudic academies that produced the best translations of Jewish law, and where religious authorities served out justice as the Sanhedrin once had in Israel. They adopted present-day Hebrew script. Jehoiachin, the captured king, built a synagogue using stones carried from Jerusalem, and Ezra the scribe opened a synagogue and an academy. All survived the fall of Babylon to Persia.
Astonishingly, with exile and the destruction of the temple, the “spiritual supremacy of Judaism removed to the Euphrates valley,” writes Baptist missionary and author C. W. Briggs.
SOME SCHOLARS SPECULATE that the apostle Paul, who “went away into Arabia” after his conversion near Damascus (Galatians 1:17-18), traveled to the Babylon academies to present the Jews of the Eastern Dispersion with the gospel. The term “Arabians” by then had come to signify those Jews. These scholars argue that as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” Paul would seek ways to testify to the truth of Christianity in a bastion of Jewish learning. (As Briggs put it: “Paul was not the man to seek to learn to swim by reading books about the subject, but by plunging into deep water.”) Paul later adhered to a similar pattern on his missionary journeys, they contend, entering first the synagogue in any new city before preaching to the Gentiles.
Whether Paul made the trek to Babylon or not, we know that Christianity spread rapidly east, buoyed by the trade routes and commerce that ran from northern Mesopotamia into central Asia. In Edessa, Christian scholarship fostered early Syriac Christian writing. South in Tikrit, known widely now as the hometown of Saddam Hussein, Christianity dominated the city for hundreds of years after the coming of Islam. “Iraq was through the late Middle Ages at least as much a cultural and spiritual heartland of Christianity as was France or Germany, or indeed Ireland,” writes religion scholar Philip Jenkins in The Lost History of Christianity.
Yet for most Westerners it’s as though no legitimate eastward expansion of the church existed. The Bible maps we study in Sunday school show Paul’s missionary journeys around the rim of the Mediterranean, ever westward. We know “how the Irish saved civilization,” and how a German monk named Martin Luther wrested it from Rome, and how Reformers made their way to a Protestant New World. But we know little about how the Babylonian academies and the Edessan patriarchs made possible a culture of Christian learning that would affect global Christianity in also profound ways. As Jenkins points out, as late as the 11th century at least one-third of the world’s Christians lived in Asia. Their culture dominated the arts and sciences. Even the development of Arabic, the language of Islam, began as a branch of Aramaic.
Without this historical context, reports of contemporary persecution by the dominant Muslim culture dribble out of the region in isolation—treated as sectarian conflict or predictable oppression of minorities.
Given the length and breadth of Jewish and Christian influence that fanned out from the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the reductionist perspective distorts the enormity of present-day persecution—like writing George Washington out of the American Revolution. The notion of Christianity as a mostly Western inheritance leads to a poor understanding of its spread into Africa and Asia. And it ignores the historic diversity of Christianity—far more than “white man’s religion” spreading through colonialist expansion.
IN SPITE OF THE DISTORTIONS, the faith of Christians in the Middle East, like the history of the Jews, has been shaped by removal and destruction. Within five years of Muhammad receiving a revelation from Allah, he unleashed his Muslim armies upon the ancient empires of the Near East.
The prophet of Islam divided the world into two spheres—Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (House of War). His armed followers went to war against all that was not in the House of Islam. Arabic replaced Greek (and Aramaic) as the language of the day, and Christians who by race were Assyrians or Chaldeans became—by force and by choice—Muslims and Arabs.
Muslim armies quickly moved toward Syria. Aleppo, influential as the end point of the Silk Road and surrounded by Christian centers of learning (with Edessa about 100 miles away), fell to the Arabs in 637, Damascus soon after. Christians in Aleppo, today Syria’s largest city, managed to remain a durable if declining demographic. In 1944 they made up 34 percent of the city population (then 325,000). Before the war began in 2011, they made up about 12 percent (of 2 million residents). By some estimates that number now may have dropped as low as 6 percent.
Audo argues that the risk of Christian extinction poses a danger for Muslims as well. The experience of Christians living alongside Muslims, even as second-class citizens, has made the church in the East what it is:
“It is very important for us as Oriental churches to have this presence in the lands of revelation of our faith, for ourselves and for other Christians. … We as churches have the experience of living with Islam. It will be very negative if we go abroad, and if we no longer have the presence of Christianity with Muslims. It is important to give Islam the opportunity to live with another religion.”
AUDO IN MANY WAYS is emblematic of the Christian’s journey in the Middle East. His father migrated to Aleppo from Al-Kosh, a town in Iraq perched in the hills above the Nineveh Plains. Al-Kosh was the home of Nahum, who prophesied Nineveh’s destruction and the fall of the Assyrian empire. A tomb reportedly containing his remains rests in the middle of town above the ruins of a synagogue, surrounded by Hebrew inscriptions. The last of the town’s Jews left in the 1940s, but churches and a Christian cemetery predominate.
Audo was born in Aleppo. He trained as a Jesuit priest, and received his doctorate in Arabic literature from the Sorbonne. For 10 years he worked in Beirut as part of a Bible translation project, producing what’s now called the New Arabic Version, an Arabic-language Bible similar to the original New International Version in English. Audo speaks haltingly in English, but only because it’s down his list of languages: He speaks first Arabic, then French, Italian, and English, as well as being fluent in Hebrew and Syriac.
The church in the Middle East may be in “terminal regional decline,” according to Habib Malik, associate professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University. But the leadership provided by clergy like Audo is spurring spiritual renewal among youth and continuing interest in clergy vocation. This has been the case particularly in Lebanon and Syria, unlike places like Saudi Arabia, but is threatened by the outside Islamist groups now vying to oust the Assad government.
Malik admits of the three monotheistic religions in the region, “Christianity is most beleaguered.” Muslims have captured territory and control political power. Jews have found sanctuary in the modern state of Israel. “But native Christians in the region have none of this. They tend to be weak and scattered communities … repeatedly subjected to pressure from oppressive regimes and Islamist groups.”
Audo is too busy to fixate on bleak outlooks. Through Caritas volunteers, his church is feeding 3,000 families every month and providing them stipends. They have organized ambulance care and medicine for the sick and wounded. And they are supporting over 3,000 students who need help with school costs and transportation.
Thousands of displaced Syrians arrive in Aleppo needing help, Christians and Muslims, plus many within his own parish have lost their homes and are suffering. Every necessity you can think of is in short supply, including bread, and more expensive by the day. “It is a big economic crisis,” Audo said. “People are becoming more and more poor and needy.”
“Will you stay?” I ask.
“Of course. It’s my country, the place I live, and I have to give a testimony. I respect everybody who chooses to leave. But I will continue.”
—with reporting by Kaitlyn Speer
Listen to WORLD founder Joel Belz discuss past Daniels of the Year on The World and Everything in It:
Listen to Mindy Belz discuss this year’s Daniel of the Year on The World and Everything in It:
Oct. 25, 2012: Greek Orthodox priest Fadi Haddad, 43, was found dead in Damascus after he was kidnapped while trying to negotiate the release of a parishioner in Qatana. A bomb exploded at his funeral, killing two civilians and some Syrian soldiers.
Feb. 9, 2013: Armenian Catholic priest Michel Kayyal, 27, and Greek Orthodox priest Maher Mahfouz were kidnapped when rebel gunmen stopped their bus from Aleppo to Damascus. No word on their status.
April 22, 2013: Armed men on the road between Aleppo and the Turkish border kidnapped Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo Yohanna Ibrahim (left), 65, and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo Boulos Yazigi (right), 58, as they returned from negotiations to release Kayyal and Mahfouz. The gunmen, reportedly Chechens affiliated with rebels in Syria, murdered the driver. Negotiations by UN-Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for their release have continued, with last word of their well-being coming in a six-minute phone call with alleged captors in late October.
July 28, 2013: Paolo Dall’Oglio, 58, an Italian Jesuit priest who worked for over 30 years in Syria, disappeared in Raqqa while attempting to negotiate peace between Kurdish and Islamist groups fighting the Assad government. Initial reports claimed he had been executed, but in October he was reported alive and seen in an area controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).