Posted by Alex on Friday, June 5th, 2009
By S. Farah for Syria Comment
(posted by Alex)
June 29th brings to a close a one-year celebration of the life of St Paul in most of the world. According to the BBC he is “undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the history of the Western world”. His conversion in Damascus forever changed the west, and firmly placed its cultural roots in Syria.
St. Paul was born a Syrian Jew; His conversion is an important part of the history of Syria. It is a true Damascene event. According to western and Christian traditions his conversion to Christianity happened on the road to Damascus where he experienced a vision after which he was temporarily blinded. He was then led by his companions blind to the straight street in Damascus. There it is said that St. Ananias the leader of the new Christian community of Damascus met him. St. Ananias then cured him of his blindness, and later baptized him in the Barada River. He then left the city through Bab Kisan. All these places including the house of St. Ananias are still preserved today and are living places of worship in Damascus.
Known as the apostle to the gentile, St. Paul is widely credited for spreading Christianity in the west. His teachings have deeply influenced western culture and traditions.
The “Road to Damascus” became a widely used metaphorical reference to mean a conversion of thought and a change of heart and mind.
St. Paul’s message extends beyond religion to universal fraternity and equality for all people. He famously declared, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one”. His words continue to influence and inspire 2000 years later. Of all the gospel and philosophers, President Obama chose the teachings of St. Paul for his inaugural speech when he said, “…in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
This message of universal equality and coexistence is part of the history of Syria. When Islam, also a religion with a universal message, first entered Syria Muslims were welcomed by the locals who never thought that Islam might be a separate religion. Islam’s acceptance of the Old and New Testaments, its esteem for Jewish prophets, and its veneration of Jesus and Mary made it familiar to the Christian inhabitants. And when the new Muslim caliphs made Damascus their capital, the Christians were instrumental in the administration of the new empire as it spread the new faith eastward. Muslims and Christians shared places of worship, and the caliphs were known to spend their retreat in remote Christian monasteries. The Umayyad mosque in the center of Damascus is a great example of this intertwined relation and shared history between Christians and Muslims. In its center is the shrine of John the Baptist and on its southeastern corner is the minaret of Jesus, decorated with the Jewish Star. It is where Muslims believe that Jesus will return on judgment day.
Syria continued to be a welcoming home for all. At the end of the 15th century, Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal found Syria to be welcoming refuge where they melded into the broader culture. Other places the Spanish and Portuguese Jews went, they held onto their customs and lived apart. In Damascus and Aleppo, they became like the older Jewish community of Syria, with everyone speaking Arabic. Syria remains a refuge and a home for all regardless of ethnicity or religion.
Today the world in general and the Middle East in particular are sinking deeper into extremism.
The story of St Paul and Syria’s rich shared heritage makes Syria a vital link between the Christian west and the Muslim east. This history is a treasure trove for Syria as it reaches out to the world.
Syria today needs the west, and the US in particular to endorse its strategic regional role to foster and promote regional stability.
To this end, Syria needs a moral rallying cry. It needs to focus its message to reflect its core values, to connect to the west on a visceral level.
The West, including America, should also proactively and urgently engage with Syria based on their shared cultural and religious roots. As Syria continues to reform its political System it will undoubtedly emerge as the unrivaled model for the future of the Middle East.