This week’s lectionary blog takes its starting point from the challenging comments in the lectionary Gospel ‘If any want to become my followers.. let them take up their cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16.21-28) and lectionary Epistle ‘Bless those who persecute you’ (Romans 12.9-21).
Director of Lay Discipleship.
Mosaic, ‘Christ, the Land of the Living’, Chora Church/Kariye Mosque, Istanbul
Back in April 1979 my husband Alan and I made a memorable visit to the far south-eastern corner of the Diocese in Europe. I have to confess however that the diocesan connection wasn’t particularly in our mind as we made that journey!
We had travelled to the Tur Abdin region of South Eastern Turkey, from Beirut where we were then living, via Damascus (where Alan took a service on Easter Sunday afternoon), and Aleppo (where we stayed with our friends the owners of the famous Baron Hotel and took another Easter service). From there we took a surreal journey by train along the banks of the river Euphrates via Deir-ez-Zor and Hassake to Qamishli where we stayed with a family of Syrian Orthodox Christians. The son of the family, who would years later become the Syrian Orthodox bishop of Hassake had been a pupil of Alan’s at the Syrian Orthodox seminary in Lebanon. Qamishli is on the Syrian-Turkish border, and after staying with them for a few days with their assistance we crossed into Turkey, into the ‘Tur Abdin’.
‘Tur Abdin’ is an Aramaic (Syriac) name which means ‘the mountain of the worshippers (or ‘servants’) – of God – Abdin is Aramaic for both ‘worship’ and ‘serve’. It is the historic heartland of the Syrian Orthodox Church: until the massacres during the First World War it was where the Patriarch of the Church had his seat. Over the previous 50 years or so many of the Christians of the Tur Abdin had left the area, migrating either to Istanbul or eventually to a variety of western countries. However we were told that there were about 5000 Syrian Orthodox still remaining there, with the town of Mardin as their main settlement. There were also two monasteries which (among the many which had once existed in the region) still functioned as monasteries each with a very small but living religious community.
Life was very difficult for these Syrian Orthodox people of the Tur Abdin; not only did they encounter hostility from the Turkish government, but also they were frequently physically attacked by militant Kurdish groups. Because of our Syrian Orthodox friends we had been invited to stay as guests at the two monasteries, first at Deir Zafaran and then at Deir Mor Gabriel. It was an unforgettable few days. But in terms of the focus of this week’s blog what was most remarkable was the different ‘take’ on the situation of their co-religionists by the two different leaders of the two monasteries. The monk in charge of Deir Zarafan felt that his role was to help his fellow Syrian Orthodox Christians escape the very real difficulties they had to live with, by migrating if possible. The monastic leader of Deir Mor Gabriel by contrast explained to us passionately and at considerable length that it was important that they should stay, for the task of disciples of Christ was to be prepared to face difficult situations and to be ready to ‘carry their cross’. There was an honour and a glory to persecution.
Our host at the monastery of Deir Zafaran
Whenever those remarks about ‘carrying your cross’ appear in the lectionary I remember that experience and still puzzle over which of our two Syrian Orthodox friends was ‘right’. A readiness to suffer on the part of Jesus’ followers – especially for their faith – is an imperative which has been profoundly embedded in Christian theology for the last 2000 years. And yet we also affirm that Jesus came to bring life, and that God desires good and well being for all people. We are not being called to deliberate masochism.
It is of course an issue that these days has international implications. The Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, who has deep personal connections with the Diocese in Europe, produced a report on the issue of the global persecution of Christians which was commissioned by the UK Foreign Office.https://christianpersecutionreview.org.uk/
There is also a thoughtful response offered by the Anglican mission agency USPG, (an organisation which itself has close links with the Diocese in Europe). While accepting much of what the ‘Mounstephen Report’ suggests it does make clear that there is still more work to do in the area, and that a conversation with global counterparts from other faiths needs to be part of the discussion.
I myself am certainly aware, not least from my years of living in Lebanon, that Christians can be instigators of violence as well as the recipients of it. Indeed there was an example of it on that surreal train journey across North Syria back in 1979. We shared our compartment with an Assyrian Christian (the ‘Assyrian’ Church is a different church to that of our Syrian Orthodox friends). On discovering that Alan was a Christian priest he told us something of his family story. His sister, he said, had married a Muslim, so ‘of course’ he had taken his gun and shot them both. He was worried that another sister of his might do likewise and he would have to shoot her too! What was most remarkable about the tale was the way that he assumed that all right-thinking Christians, such as Alan, would agree with his perceptions on this topic.
Over the last few years however I have often remembered that train journey which took us across precisely those tracts of Northern Syria where for 5 years or so ISIS terrorised the inhabitants. The Christian population of the area has been decimated, either by murder or migration. Deir ez-Zor became an ISIS stronghold. The family that we stayed with in Qamishli is now living in Sweden.
I suspect too that the Christian population of the Tur Abdin is now considerably further diminished from the days of our visit. Both the insecurities of the wider Middle East and the current political climate in Turkey have hardly acted as an inducement to remain. I grieve for several reasons over the recent ‘change’ in status of the Kariye Museum (Chora Church) from museum back into a mosque in Istanbul. Perhaps the deepest reason for my concern however is the negative ‘signal’ it (like the change in the status of Hagia Sophia) seems intended to give to the tiny, but historic, Christian community in Turkey, including the Tur Abdin. Turkey is of course not a far away country of which we know nothing. As I said when I began, geographically speaking it is a corner of our Diocese in Europe.
Jesus, fellow traveller and friend,
you step out boldly on your journey,
chiding our fickleness and fear.
As you mark out the road ahead,
consecrate us as your companions,
so that we keep you in our sight,
as our pattern and guide.
Teach us to tread your path of service,
granting us courage to follow you,
even to the foot of the cross,
to the place where, in pain,
the glory of your way is revealed. Amen