by Zaher Sahloul
If Jesus Christ descends from heaven to earth, he will only be able to speak in his native language to the people of three Syrian villages northwest of Damascus. The Christian village of Malula and its neighboring Muslim villages, Jabadeen and Bakhaa, represent “the last outposts” of spoken Aramaic, which was the language Jesus spoke in Galilee two millennia ago. As a Syrian Muslim, I, like all Syrians, cherish that fact.
All Syrians are also proud to say that their homeland has the tomb of John the Baptist, a Prophet that is revered by Muslims and Christians, Damascus has the path where St. Paul converted to Christianity and Aleppo has the church of St. Simeon the Stylites the Elder, a Syriac ascetic saint who achieved fame for living 37 years on a small platform on top of a pillar near Aleppo in Syria.
Contrary to the common perception in the U.S., Syria was and still is an oasis of diversity and vibrant interfaith life. In Syria, there are more than 27 different religious and faith communities who have been living together for centuries. The current sectarian tension in some areas is a relatively new phenomenon promoted mostly by the Syrian regime to advance its political agenda at the expense of the historic communities that lived and worshiped together for a long time.
My city, Homs, also known as the windy city for its real winds, is known for its two famous religious sites: the Mosque of Khalid Ibn Al-Waleed, a legendary Muslim hero who chose to live and die in Homs and gave it his name, and the church of Our Lady of the Belt, where myth has it that the belt of Virgin Mary is buried deep under its ground.
In Homs there are Orthodox, Armenian, Maronite, Catholic and Anglican Christians who lived happily together with their Muslim neighbors long before the birth of my adopted homeland. All preserved their rituals, culture and languages throughout the ages.
Before the Syrian army’s artillery shelling and warplane bombing left much of the city completely destroyed and thousands of its inhabitants dead, Homs was a peaceful and beautiful place.
The old city of Homs, once considered as the center of the Syrian revolution, has two Christian neighborhoods of Bostan Aldiwan and Alhamedeyya hugging the mixed neighborhoods of Bab Todmor (Palmyra Gate) and Bab Alsibaa (The Lions Gate).
Church of Our Lady of the Belt, an Orthodox Church, leans on the historic Mosque of Abo Alhol, a Muslim saint. A special fusion Muslim-Christian religious holiday is called “Sweet Thursday” or the “Thursday of Saints,” a unique holiday for the city when all people celebrate the day by cooking special Homsi sweets.
Some Christian mothers name their male child, Mohammad, if God blessed them with a child after long wait while Muslim women and men pray at the historic “blessed” site of Our Lady of the Belt church seeking cure for their illnesses. Many Muslim families send their children to learn at private Christian schools and many Christian students learn and memorize parts of the Quran.
Muslims use Christian terms like “We thank our Lord” and “May the Lord bless you” and Christians speak like Muslims saying “Inshallah, Alhamdulillah, Assalamu Alaykum and Bismi Allah.” Some prominent Homsi families have both Muslim and Christian members. Eisa, Jesus, is a common Muslim name and Interfaith dialogue is called neighborly relations.
Christmas is a holiday for all in Homs as it is the Muslim holiday of Eid. Muslims greet their Christian friends by saying “Eid Milad Saeed,” the Arabic equivalent of Merry Christmas. Retail stores have their Holiday sales and Christmas festivities fill the atmosphere. Santa is called Noel Baba or Father Christmas reflecting the true historic figure who lived in nearby Turkey. He also brings gifts to children although Christmas is much less commercialized in Syria.
During Christmas, Muslim families visit churches and their Christian neighbors. Some Muslim families have Christmas trees in their houses. The sound of the Muslim call for prayer intertwines with the sound of church bells. Local TV and radio stations air Christian songs. Muslim and Christian youth perform the local folkloric Aradha, chanting mythical songs about Homs, the city of peace and den of lions.
After the relentless shelling and suffocating siege of the old city by the Syrian army and para-milicia, most of Homs’ 80,000 Christians were forced to flee. The ones who remained were forced to eat grass and tree leaves. Many had severe malnutrition and weight loss. An interview with a Christian couple aired by Arabic TV stations documented the ordeal of living under siege without access to nutritious food. Two year after the local truce between that ended the siege, many Christian families started to trickle back but life will never go back the way it was. Most Muslim families were not allowed to return to their homes as part of what looks as orchestrated plan to depopulate the old city from its Muslim inhabitants. This year, like the last four years, Christmas in Homs will have a big void, its Muslim merrymakers.