The following article and images were submitted by freelance journalist, Sophie Mangal – a woman with a genuine passion for Syria, for the church, and for justice. You can read more about the author at the end of the article.
Maaloula – lest we forget
In the Syrian city of Maaloula (Ma\’loula) the Christian Church began its worship services in the monastery of St. Thecla. Before the war, pilgrims from all around the world travelled there, as well as to neighbouring religious shrines.
The monastery was looted and almost completely destroyed by ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front. When under pressure from the Syrian Arab army, the retreating Islamists took everything of value that they could find from such places of worship, including ancient icons, historical manuscripts, icon lamps and altar-crosses, church furnishings, tombstones and other valuable items.
The militants tried to destroy everything they could not take with them, and some of the buildings were burned. After the liberation, through the support of the Syrian government, the citizens of Maaloula have started rebuilding churches, reassembling church furnishings, religious books and other sacred objects, piece by piece.
There is currently no influx of tourists and worshippers to the city, but locals are confident that people from all over the world will soon be able to visit these holy places again, with the onset of peace and the creation of de-escalation zones.
The Christians of Maaloula are trying not only to rebuild the physical infrastructure of their village. They are trying also to rebuild the relationship between themselves and the Muslims who were influenced by ISIS.
Syrian priest, Father Mtanios Haddad, stresses that Maaloula’s Christians must strive to rebuild the trust that has been tainted by the violence perpetrated by Islamic State. “We have to rebuild trust between Muslims and Christians, even if it’s not easy”, he said.
Expressing optimism for a return to his homeland, he said, “We’ll be back, yes. We will return to Iraq, to Mosul, to Syria, to Maaloula, to Beirut, and to every place we have lived. They are our homes and our lands. So, what are we going to leave them for? To whom? To what civilization? We must go back and rebuild trust between ourselves little by little. Even if it’s not easy.”
Father Haddad is a Syrian, and represents the Greek-Catholic patriarch in Rome. According to him, the presence of Christianity in the Middle East is not optional but a necessity. “I am convinced that coexistence will not end,” he said.
“It should not end, because if it does, there will be no Christian presence. Without this presence, a new Jihad war could begin between a Muslim East and a Christian West. This Christian presence is what ensures the victory of balance and coexistence,” he explained.
Maaloula is ancient city where most of the inhabitants speak the language of Jesus Christ, Semitic Aramaic. It is located in the Rif Dimashq Governorate in Syria, 56 km to the northeast of Damascus, and built into the rugged mountainside at an altitude of more than 1500 m. It is known to be one of three remaining villages where Western Aramaic is still spoken, the other two being the nearby villages Jubb\’adin and Al-Sarkha (Bakhah). There are two important monasteries in Ma\’loula: the Eastern Catholic, Mar Sarkis, and Greek Orthodox, St. Thecla.
The convent of St. Thecla holds the remains of Thecla, who, the second-century work, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, describes as a noble virgin and pupil of St. Paul.
According to later legend (not found in The Acts), Thecla was being pursued by her father’s soldiers, attempting to capture her because of her Christian faith. She came upon a mountain and, after praying, the mountain split open and let her escape! The town gets its name from this gap or entrance into the mountain. However, there are many variations to this story among the residents of Ma\’loula.
One of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria, it was built on the site of a pagan temple, and has elements which go back to the fifth and sixth centuries of the Byzantine era. Mar Sarkis is the Assyrian name for Saint Sergius, a Roman soldier who was executed for his Christian beliefs.
This monastery still maintains its solemn historical character, and has two of the oldest icons in the world, including one depicting the Last Supper.
There are also the remains of numerous other monasteries, convents, churches, shrines and sanctuaries in the region. Some lie in ruins, while others continue to stand, defying age. Many pilgrims have come to Ma\’loula, both Muslim and Christian. They go there to gain blessings and make offerings.
Sophie Mangal, 26, is a freelance writer and a member of the ‘Inside Syria Media Center’. Her Hindu surname “Mangal” derives from the Sanskrit “mangala,” meaning “auspicious.” After attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a media and journalism major, Mangal monitored the refugee crisis in Europe, drawing parallels between the Syrian conflict and the Balkan problem, and has visited Syria on several occasions. Mangal lives in North Carolina. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org…