November 29, 2013
by Mindy Belz
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,
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
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
“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.
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
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
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
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 distorsions 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
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
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
“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