The Light Is Clear In My Eyes: Damascus, Syria

Damascus, Syria: Day One

“Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus.  For three days he was blind.”

After an intense few days traveling from Beirut to Latakia then Yazdieh and Mharde and then a few days in Homs we awoke in Old Damascus to soft, warm sunlight. Many of us on the team had only dreamed of Damascus, and here we were here waking in one of the loveliest hotels in the world, Beit al-Wali. And this would be our home for the next four days.

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After breakfast we began our morning walking through the old city. Immediately it was obvious that Damascus evokes Jerusalem. Homes centuries-old, fabled stone streets and narrow, clamorous streets. With our able guides–Nuhad, Bashar, and Tarek–we set off to see the sights.

The morning was dedicated to the Apostle Paul. We made our way to the Street Called Straight, Paul’s destination in his state of blindness. We passed shuttered shops, elegant homes and ruined homes, and it seemed that we were the only ones on the street. Our guides told us, “Before the Syrian crisis this street would have been full of people and tourists from around the world.” Now we had the city to ourselves.

Turning left on Straight Street, also known as the Roman Decamunus Maximus, we could see a good portion of the ancient city East and West. It was difficult to take it all in because of the whirl of times and eras, nationalities, religions, and cultures. Damascus is a not as much a destination as it is a nexus.

We were met with groups of young people going to school, and they stopped and joked with us even though they didn’t know English, and most of us didn’t know Arabic. But of course we could still communicate, and they were thrilled to know that we were Americans, and we were there in Damascus. “Welcome. You are welcome here.” How many times had we heard this in Syria from just about everyone we met, and here we were hearing it again in Damascus.

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As we approached the renowned but tattered Eastern Gate, we turned left into a narrow and so beautiful street–Ananias. Of course this street is named after the Ananias spoken of in Acts, “The Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” This street ended at the tiny St. George chapel, and we descended 5-6 meters below to a cramped, shadowy grotto. This is traditionally viewed as the place where Paul regained his sight. The deeper we descended into the dark chapel the quieter we became. We found a small space lit warmly with candles while a few devotees prayed or sat quietly in the muted light.

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As soon as we left the chapel we went from the sublime to the monetary stopping to shop in Tony’s Anania Oriental Gifts where Nuhad and Marilyn helped us bargain and purchase some lovely gifts. Across the street we drank coffee and tea in a wonderful little cafe owned by an old friend of some of the team members.

We returned down Anania street and headed back to the Bab Sharqi (the Eastern Gate) this time to exit and walk along the ancient walls of Damascus paralleling the busy modern road. I have seen innumerable walls and ruins but nothing like this. The walls of the city are a random patchwork of ancient stones, a kaleidoscope of eons. In some sections I saw Roman, Byzantine, Mamluk, and Ottoman splayed in random patterns. My dear friend, Father Khalife tells me that the most impressive walls remain unseen and below the ground. We finally made our way to one of the most treasured sites in Christendom–the gate that commemorates Paul’s clandestine escape from Damascus. Ironically, Paul entered Damascus blinded by a brilliant light, but he would leave in danger under the cover of darkness. And lowered in a basket. The great apostle, the founder of Christianity, is let down by others in a basket, in the dead of night, only to disappear for years.

Entering the gate we found a simple but elegant Greek Catholic Chapel memorializing Paul’s departure. While we were there we learned that the Christians here ran an orphanage. While standing in the courtyard we were greeted by church officials leading children who greeted us with big smiles and shy curiosity. “Welcome. You are welcome here,” we heard once again. We could see the trauma in the children’s eyes, but there was light still, and the priest and nuns cared for them deeply. I wanted to stay and take photos and talk to them, but we had to move on.

For years now, I have watched the news about Syria on television and asked repeatedly, “Why doesn’t someone do something?” I found some of my answer here, in that courtyard, in the broad daylight of one of Paul’s darkest moments. In the midst of Syria’s dark night, there are priests and nuns and pastors and leaders and volunteers caring for these abandoned children and bringing hope where there is no hope. Millennia later, the apostle of the basket is caring for these most vulnerable.

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We continued our walk through Damascus by heading back to the Bab Tuma (Tuma’s Gate) toward the Syrian Multimedia Youth Team (or SMYT) led by the kind and talented Badih Koudmani. We met him in his artistic space and viewed his presentation and heard his vision for Syria and its youth. Once again we were able to see the imprint of the Outreach Foundation because this is just one more organization supported by Outreach. I received more of my answer: there are people doing something in the midst of chaos. Christian brothers and sisters, though worlds apart, unite in a common vision.

After an afternoon rest, we had the honor of meeting the patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church based in Damascus–Ignatius Aphrem II. Most of us had no idea what to expect, but we were quickly relieved to discover a kind, warm, affable man who spoke directly to us and answered our questions with alacrity.

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But then something remarkable happened, something I shall never forget. In many ways this capped our remarkable day tracing Paul. The patriarch, within a few minutes of our meeting, mentioned that there was someone else here and perhaps we could meet him. He mentioned his name, but I had no context. Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf was visiting. Bishops Sharaf. The Bishop of Mosul.

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He entered the room and sat a few seats down from the patriarch. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He said nothing, but his presence was solid and reassuring. He has this strange eternity in his eyes as if he has seen things most humans have never seen. The Bishop of Mosul? I couldn’t believe it. While we sat there with him in Damascus what must be going on in Mosul as we spoke? What this man has been through. What this man has seen. How many modern Christians have stared into the dark and glimpsed the deepest human abyss? I dare say, the Bishop of Mosul is one.

Then it happened. Coffee was served to everyone. As the patriarch was talking, and we were asking, the Bishop of Mosul was watching something intently to my right, his left. He waved the assistant over and whispered in his ear. What on earth? The Patriarch’s assistant left the room and returned with another cup of coffee. My friend and colleague, Ron Gatzke, had been missed. But the Bishop of Mosul caught it. He saw what we all missed.

Silly, I know. But this vision of the Bishop will not leave me alone. Who sees such things? Mosul is a burning hell on earth, and the Bishop was returning the next day, but he saw the tiniest lack and cared for those within his purview. Once again, I received another answer to my question, “Why doesn’t somebody do something?” He does–he’s here–the Bishop of Mosul. Down to the smallest detail with the least of these.

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Given God’s resolute absence, the church is alive and thriving in Syria. Our brothers and sisters there remind us that true faith is possible even in the midst of darkness.

Faith is blind if faith is only bright light. Paul, on his way to Damascus to destroy the church, is blinded by the light, and it is within in this darkness that he begins to see what is real and true. The destroyer of the Church leaves Damascus as the founder of the Church. Paul, in Damascus, becomes the embodiment of “invisible things confounding the visible.” Sadly and inexplicably, Syria has seen some of its darkest days. But this day in Damascus reminded me that, in the Christian Gospel, darkness is not destruction. Death is not the end. Because darkness traces the light just as absence evokes presence.

“Why doesn’t somebody do something?” They are–they are there. And they see.

“Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized.”

 

Religion in a Vacuum: How Central Asian Islam was Radicalized

This latest post written by Christopher Buttner for the course Religion and Politics in a Global Context Fall 2014. Please take the time to read this post. Chris is an excellent student and has a very promising future.

Chris Buttner is currently a Junior at King University where he majors in Security and Intelligence Studies.  He hopes to continue his studies into graduate school and then transition into a career with the intelligence community where he plans to become an intelligence analyst.

 

Christopher Buttner
Christopher Buttner

Central Asia’s historical narrative is one of political turbulence and volatility. The region’s rich history has been formed, in part, because of several geological factors that make Central Asia a unique landscape to attempt to rule. Being landlocked in the center of the Eurasian continent set the region up to be the crossroads of civilizations. Trade routes that would take caravans through Central Asia made the region attractive to civilizations from the East and West alike, presenting an economic prize to whoever could hold on to the territory. The extreme topography and harsh deserts that exist in this region keep Central Asia sparsely populated with its inhabitants clinging to the lush mountain valleys. All of these features are fit neatly between two rivers that separate the region from the rest of the world, offering a final warning to any potential conquerors who may be too shortsighted to not recognize that they too would see many similar attempts at this land if they were to be successful.

Indeed, these factors have made Central Asia a region that has been traditionally “ripe for conquest but difficult to rule”. (Rashid 17) These traditions of trade and conquest exposed the Central Asian people to a myriad of cultures, creating a unique melting pot dynamic. A significant characteristic of this melting pot of cultures has been its religious tolerance, which accepted Islam that came with Arab people around the year 650. (Rashid 21) The region would go on to become a beacon of Islamic intellectualism and produce several widely recognized religious leaders and monuments of religious importance. Bukhara, between the ninth and sixteenth centuries, was the largest theological center for Islam. Takht-I Sulaiman, “throne of Solomon”, has long been a sight of pilgrimage for Muslims in the region for its historical status and association with the ancient prophet from which its name is derived. (Crews 252) Islam, since its introduction to the region, has been a significant part of Central Asian identity. It is only recently, since the Russian overtaking of the region, that Central Asian Islam has become marginalized in the global context.

Russian attempts at colonizing Central Asia, as part of the Great Game between Russia and Great Britain, were successful in a limited sense and also the first steps towards a collapse of Central Asian Islam. The Russians sought to civilize the Central Asian people who they considered to be backwards. An Orthodox-Christian state, Russia feared that a failure to civilize the Central Asians “would bring the seeds of pan-Islamic fanaticism to fruition and compromise the security of the region.” (Thrasher 13) These efforts to destroy the Central Asian identity and force them to force them to accept their subordinate nature would create tensions that would build up to the Basmachi revolts. These largely Islamic revolts would occur alongside the Bolshevik revolution.

The Bolshevik revolution would divide the people of Central Asia about which side to support. While the Russians had been oppressing the Central Asian people, they had no interest in becoming Soviet either. One notable supporter of the Bolsheviks were the Jadids, who believed that they could obtain more freedom from the Bolsheviks. (Rashid 31) These supporters of the Bolsheviks would prove to be wrong and would go on to be wiped out in the massacres of 1937. (Rashid 31) The Soviet Union would prove to be militantly anti-religion. The Soviet Union would denounce religion as the “opium of toiling masses, distracting them from the social struggle against the exploiting parasites”. (Ersahin 9) Islam in Central Asia would be harshly cracked down upon by the Soviet Union. That which remained would become politicized and used as a tool by the Soviets. (Ersahin 20) This oppression of Central Asian Islam would create a void in the Central Asian identity. This essential characteristic of the identity would be missing until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Once the fall of the Soviet Union occurred, the creation of five new states in the region marked the beginning of a new chapter for the region. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were all given a choice between their old identities and communism. To the surprise of many, the transition from communism to an autonomous identity lasted well into the independence period. (Cooley 19) The patrimonial system of governance adopted by the Central Asian regimes set these states up to be characteristically oppressive and power-hungry. (Cooley 16) This system of governance is a relic of Central Asia’s Soviet history. Ironic that it has left these regimes in such a weak state that they are forced to resort to quasi-colony behavior just to survive. The regimes of Central Asia have been particularly oppressive of their people in an attempt to maintain their control of the power structures in the region. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Central Asian states have always ranked towards the bottom with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan being particularly horrible.

The oppressive nature of the last 150 years for the region of Central Asia has perverted its cultural identity and, with it, its ideas of Islam. Islam in Central Asia was once a proud theological culture that preached religious toleration and acceptance of other cultures. It is now represented by a militant interpretation of the Quran and propped up by terrorist organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. It is difficult to fault the general population for this shift in ideology. Extreme issues call for extreme solutions. There is a reason Hizb ut-Tahrir is not a major player among those who seek a caliphate. There is no basis for believing that these oppressive regimes will suddenly begin to listen and accept the ideology they have worked so hard to quell over the years through peaceful means. This does not condone the methods through which terrorist organizations operate. It only attempts to understand the thought processes that drive people to these murderous organizations.

With only the Kyrgyz Republic being a bastion of hope for legitimate change in the region, progress in this conflict should not be expected. Barring another revolution in the region, oppressive regimes will remain in power in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan and continue to push people to seek a solution through any means possible. Ideology can only be defeated by a better ideology. As long as the reality presented by state officials is worth suffering to get out of, people will flock to these terrorist organizations, whether they adopt the perverted ideology or not. It is also worthy to note that two of the region’s neighbors to the south are some of the most active states in the world when it comes terrorist activity. In 2013, Afghanistan and Pakistan ranked second and third respectively in the world in terms of terrorist activity according to Vision of Humanity’s Terrorism Index. Central Asia is a known transit region for opiates grown in Afghanistan. (Cooley 158) It logical to believe that if drug traffickers can enter and exit through Central Asian state borders easily then so too can terrorists. If the problem is not domestic, it could become foreign.

Of course, terrorism is only a symptom of the perversion. That being said, it is a good measuring tool considering that terrorist organization are only able to operate effectively on a large scale with the support of the public. The fact that these organizations are able to thrive is an indicator of the broader issue. Central Asian Islam has been radicalized.

Works Cited

Cooley, Alexander. Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia.

New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Crews, Robert D. For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009. Print.

Ersahin, Seyfettin. “The Official Interpretation of Islam Under the Soviet Regime: A Base for Understanding Central Asian Islam.” Hamdard Islamicus 28.4 (2005): 7-20. ATLA Religion Database. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

Rashid, Ahmed. Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Thrasher, Matthew J., “How to Make a Colony: Reform and Resistance in Russian Turkestan, 1865-1917” (2010). Honors Projects