Ibn Taymiyya’s contemporary Shams al-Din al-Dimashqi (d. 727 AH / 1327) is best known for his geography describing his native Syria c. 1300, shortly after the final expulsion of the Crusaders from the mainland. Like the more famous Ibn Taymiyya, he was aware of the festivals of the non-Muslims, in particular the Christians, but unlike that Hanbali jurist, he described them in the context of comparing the different calendars in use. The calendrical context enabled al-Dimashqi to describe the celebrations without condemnation. Here is his description of Easter in Hama, a major city in central Syria: Continue reading
Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) was a popular preacher and Muslim legal scholar in Damascus under Mamluk rule. He is primarily remembered for writing polemics against almost everyone (Jews, Christians, Alawites, Twelver Shiites, wild Sufis, the Mongols who had recently converted to Islam, Persian speakers, Sunni Muslims who engage in popular practices such as shrine visitation and praying to saints), and the famous traveler Ibn Battuta described him as having “some kink in his brain” (Gibb trans.). He is a leading authority cited by Wahhabis and other Salafis today. So one does not expect him to be a main resource on the religion of his opponents. But in reading this week from one of his polemics (against those Muslims who participate in non-Muslim festivals), I came across his account of what happened on Palm Sunday, a version of the events which I had never heard:
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has consolidated its hold on the city of Mosul in northern Iraq and is busy converting the metropolitan center to its own extremist brand of Sunni Islam. Last week the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now styling himself Caliph Ibrahim, issued an order for Christians in the city to (a) convert to Islam, (b) pay the jizya tax on non-Muslims at an unspecified rate, or (c) be killed, although some awareness of the option to leave was displayed in the order as well. Reports that a church was torched are of uncertain veracity (see a careful analysis of the photos circulating around the web at this blog), but images showing an Arabic ن (for نصارى, nasara, meaning “Christians”) spray-painted on various houses indicate that these houses were available to be seized. Nor are Christians the only ones to suffer: reportedly some Shiite men have disappeared, Shiite families have been told to flee or be killed, and Shiite homes have been emblazoned with another Arabic letter, ر for رافضي (rafidi) something like “heretic scum,” while reports are also circulating that ISIS has destroyed the Sunni shrine and tomb of Nabi Yunus (the biblical prophet Jonah) in the ruins of ancient Nineveh to the east of the Tigris). In this climate, most Christians chose to leave Mosul for the comparatively tolerant lands of Iraqi Kurdistan to the north, although refugees have reported being robbed of all their belongings at the checkpoint leaving the city.
The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Sako, who is presently the highest ranking ecclesiastical official of any denomination in Iraq, commented on the expulsion of the Christians, “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.” Continue reading
I was in Aleppo during the last World Cup. It was the end of June 2010, before the “Arab Spring” and before the Syrian uprising. Flags were everywhere, mostly Brazilian flags. The Assad regime’s normal sensitivity to the public display of other country’s national symbols was waived for the World Cup, when Aleppines of every creed and none advertised which team they were cheering for by flying flags from their balconies or even hanging them from their upstairs neighbors’ balconies to completely shade their own. Newsstands were selling flags of all sorts of countries for the fans. To look around the neighborhoods I visited, it seemed that top-ranked Brazil had the largest number of fans in Syria’s commercial capital. One warm summer night, I was kept awake by shouting in the streets below and firecrackers; this was the victory celebration for the fans of one team or another. When the Netherlands eliminated Brazil in the quarter-finals, some Dutch friends of mine joked that they should not go outdoors.
After over three years of civil war, it’s hard to remember the rhythms of normal life in Syria before. Although the US government tried to isolate the Syrian regime as a Russian ally and a supporter of terrorism, because of its alliance with Hezbollah, many Americans thought of Syria, if at all, as a tourist destination with some amazing Roman ruins and medieval mosques. The violence has made Syria more notorious now, linked with chemical weapons, dictatorship, and terrorism. The colorful flags of the 2010 World Cup have been removed, replaced in most of the country by the more sober red, white, and black of the Assad dynasty and the all-black standard of the al-Qa’ida affiliates. The violence being committed now will leave long shadows on the Syrian population, even after the fighting stops. But once the fighting stops, however it stops, the Syrians will need to rebuild a civil society. And to do so, they will need to remember a day when sports loyalties generated good-natured rivalries which could be advertized in green, yellow, and blue from open balconies.
A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia. A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation. Both are worth reading.
By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events. The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion. It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures. When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else. Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.
Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading
The head of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, one of five claimants to the ancient title Patriarch of Antioch, passed away on March 21, and was soon buried in Saydnaya outside Damascus. (“Mor” is an honorific title meaning “my lord,” given to all Syriac bishops.) The council of bishops of the Syrian Orthodox Church selected on March 31 his successor (official announcement), the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Archbishop of the Eastern United States, Mor Cyril Karim, who will take the regnal name Mor Ignatius Aphrem II Karim. The new patriarch was born in Qamishli, on the Syrian border with Turkey, according to an article published on the archdiocese website, and as patriarch he intends to move back to Damascus, which has been the seat of the patriarchate since the mid-20th C (before that is was briefly in Homs, and from 1293 to 1915 it was at Dayr al-Zafaran outside of Mardin in southeastern Turkey, although until 1445 there was a rival Syrian Orthodox patriarchate in Damascus).
Of course, there is still a civil war going on in Syria, though the statement by the Patriarch-elect that “I believe [that] me moving to Damascus will give Syriac-Orthodox and other Christians hope to remain in our beloved Syria, a country that is named after our nation” indicates he hopes to help the Christians in Syria rebuild after the violence. Nevertheless, since he has been the metropolitan of the eastern USA, it would not be surprising if the Syrian government were to view him with some suspicion. This disjuncture may be one of the factors which underlie the fact that out of 41 votes from the council of bishops he only received 23 (56%), a small majority. He will certainly need to build bridges with sectors of the episcopate which favored other candidates if he is to lead the Syrian Orthodox Church effectively through this crisis.
The council of bishops was also noticeably missing a key voice: Mor Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, who along with the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji of Aleppo was abducted a year ago. Before his abduction, some were saying that Ibrahim might make a good patriarch some day, and I have even heard speculation that Ibrahim’s abduction was orchestrated by a group outside the church which wanted to prevent him from becoming patriarch! (Middle Eastern expats are great for generating conspiracy theories.) In any event, it is unclear whether the election of a new (and comparatively young) Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch will affect the attempts to locate and release the abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo. But I expect it will be on the new patriarch’s list of goals.
A few days ago the Telegraph ran an opinion piece by Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon. Patriarch Sako is an Iraqi with a long history of calling for peace and dialogue in his country. In this piece, he argues that just as Christianity contributed to Islam in the first centuries of the new religion, so it must learn how to do so again, that Middle Eastern Christians should refuse to emigrate from the Middle East, and that other countries should apply pressure to Middle Eastern countries to ensure that Middle Eastern Christians are not merely a tolerated minority, but citizens with full equality under the law. It is an interesting piece and well worth reading.
Unfortunately many western readers may not be aware of the degree of the crisis that Middle Eastern Christianity is experiencing, and therefore Patriarch Sako’s points may sound like special pleading. In part this is due to the human tendency to simplify for the sake of memory, and therefore the Middle East is (mis-)remembered as entirely Muslim for at least a millennium, if not since Muhammad himself. An article I currently have under review reveals something of how mistaken this is for the case of Syria and Palestine, where even a millennium ago the rural population seems to have been almost entirely non-Muslim, and since in pre-industrial agrarian societies rural populations necessarily dwarfed urban populations, this means that the Muslims were a small portion of the population in the area we now know as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. When did Islam become not only the religion of the rulers but also the religion of most of the subjects in the Middle East? The answer must vary for different areas, but scholars presently have no plausible answer. In the case of Syria and Palestine, I would guess it was after the Crusader period, into the thirteenth or fourteenth century. In the case of Lebanon, it was in the early twentieth century. There were still Christian bishops in Arabia in the tenth century (despite the rumor that Muhammad expelled all Christians from the peninsula). Certain areas of Iraqi Kurdistan are still majority or exclusively Christian, although those areas are smaller and more remote with each passing decade.
One interesting statistic which Patriarch Sako cites is that 850,000 Iraqi Christians have left the country since the US invasion in 2003, which is over half of the Christian population in Iraq before the war. When Patriarch Sako was born Christians were 10% of the Iraqi population, while today it must be around 2% (=(1,500,000-850,000)/31,234,000). A similar trend happened slightly earlier in Palestine over the course of the last 90 years, and is ongoing with the Christian populations of Syria and Egypt. When I was in Aleppo three years ago (before the current violence), I met an Iraqi Christian who was trying to get to Toronto. The Middle Eastern Christian population is being erased culturally, historically, and demographically.
And yet, it is easy to understand why Christians leave the Middle East. Extremist groups kill Christians because they view Middle Eastern Christians as foreign agents and illegitimate members of Islamic society, a view which is alien to historical Islam. On the other hand, the dominant view of traditional Muslim legal authorities, that Jews and Christians should be tolerated as long as they pay an extra tax and never do anything to imply that their religion is better than Islam (such as riding a horse or ringing a church bell), has always left non-Muslim populations vulnerable to violence by extremists. After Muslim Brotherhood supporters torched dozens of Coptic churches last August, the Coptic authorities again pointed out that they do not have equal or adequate protection from the Egyptian police. That is why Patriarch Sako is calling not merely for Christians to be viewed as a “tolerated minority,” but as full citizens with equality before the law. But when the law is not doing its job, finding a less dangerous place to live is fully understandable, even as it makes matters that much more difficult for those left behind.
What distresses me is the degree to which non-Middle-Easterners often unwittingly, through sheer ignorance, adopt the new xenophobic viewpoint of the extremists and consider Middle Eastern Christians as some kind of outsiders in Middle Eastern society. They were part of that society long before Islam, and have never ceased to be a part of that society. Indeed, Middle Eastern society is more dominantly Islamic now than at any point in the past. And yet most educated people in the West are completely unaware of this past, and even historians with their over-developed desire to distinguish between terms still regard “Middle Eastern history” and “Islamic history” as fully synonymous. (Neither is a subset of the other, for not only have non-Muslims always been a large portion of Middle Eastern society, but there are more Muslims outside the Middle East than in it, since Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country.) I think progress toward a more inclusive and peaceful Middle Eastern society will be made when people recognize that that society has always been more diverse than today’s propagandists of whatever stripe would have us believe.
There is still no solid news of the two metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo who were abducted on 22 April, the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox metropolitan Boulos Yaziji, but there are more rumors. Al-Monitor yesterday published a long article on the subject translating and expanding an Arabic article published on 13 August by the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir (for an English translation of the original al-Safir article, see the blog Notes on Arab Orthodoxy). The al-Monitor article especially is very detailed, but it is not at all clear what the sources of these details are. The Lebanese Daily Star also published an article disputing most of those details and suggesting other ones.
If the play-by-play account of the abduction of the bishops by Chechen jihadis working for Abu Omar al-Shishani has any validity, it must have ultimately come from Fu’ad Eliya, the only passenger of the vehicle not abducted or killed, but it is not clear whether the al-Monitor journalist interviewed Eliya. The detailed account is not in the al-Safir article, and the details disagree with what Hurriyet reported second-hand from Eliya back in May. Particularly curious is the al-Monitor article’s unsourced reference to “the small message written in Greek and sent by Bishop Yazigi to a friend in Greece and to his brother Yohanna. The message, written in Greek, said, ‘We are being held by al-Qaeda.'” Where did that information come from? In light of the obscurity of the information’s provenance, these details must be regarded as unreliable.
Particularly interesting to me was the last portion of the al-Monitor article, which quoted various people who have made pronouncements in the past about the fate of the bishops, including George Sabra, all saying that there is no real knowledge about their fate. That still seems to be the end of it.
For those feeling that the saga of the kidnapped bishops has dragged on with no real resolution, that is just a microcosm of the Syrian Civil War in total. Meanwhile, although we still hope the victims will be able to say with Mark Twain, “the report of my death was an exaggeration,” that seems decreasingly likely.
Yesterday the BBC Magazine ran an interesting article on Abuna Yuqin (“Fr. Joachim”) Unval’s effort to restore the monastery of Mor Awgin above the city of Nusaybin on the Turkish border with Syria, and his response to Syriac Christian refugees escaping into Turkey from the Syrian Civil War.
As usual when popular news media speaks on something that I know something about, I liked it, but I kept saying, “But there’s also…” and “But what about…” (No doubt the reason I do academic writing rather than journalistic writing is that I cannot get to the point fast enough for a wide readership.) So I thought here I would give a little wider context to this story, from my perspective as an outside expert.
It is probably worth mentioning that Abuna Yuqin’s denomination is the same as Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, one of the two abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo.
We perhaps think of monasteries as communities of monks, but the reason Abuna Yuqin is the only monk mentioned in the article is that he is the only monk at this monastery. Restoring a monastery is not easy work, and he needs to prove that it is viable to support a monastery in this environment by attracting both additional monks and sufficient donations.
The “distinctive black cap of his Syriac Orthodox habit” has two panels on the top of the head, with between them thirteen ornate crosses (which from some angles look almost like stars). I have been told by several monks that these crosses represent Christ and the twelve apostles. It turns out that it is hard to find a picture of it online or in my own photos (I usually photograph the front of monks rather than their backs), but it is similar to the “koulla” of Coptic monks (depicted here).
The village he refers to is not Nusaybin, the nearest large city, but probably Eskihisar. Eskihisar formerly had a large Syriac Christian population before 1951, and the ancient village is known in Syriac texts as M’arre or M’arrin (“caves”). It is frequently linked to the monastery of Mor Awgin in historical texts. As of a few years ago, the village was entirely Kurdish, so if Syriac Christians are moving back into the village, that is a very significant development.
It is not actually too surprising for Syriac monks to be grateful to Yezidis. It is true that Yezidis are widely labeled “devil-worshippers” by Muslims and Christians alike, due to their high veneration of Mal’ak Ta’us (“the peacock angel”); the stories they tell of Mal’ak Ta’us closely resemble tales told of Iblis/Shaytan (Satan) in Islam. On the other hand, Yezidis do not accept converts, and are therefore not a religious threat to other groups, and since at least the nineteenth century Christians and Yezidis have sometimes helped each other in the face of antagonism from the larger populations of Sunni Arabs or Sunni Kurds. When I visited Dayr al-Za’faran in April 2012, a Yezidi dressed all in white was sitting and chatting beside a Syriac monk dressed all in black, and the two made a wonderful image. I wish I had a photo of it.
As to “Syriac Christianity dates back to the third century,” we don’t really know its origins. In fact a Christian community is probably earliest attested in the city of Nusaybin (ancient Nisibis), on the plain below Mor Awgin monastery, in the Aberkios inscription (in Greek) in the mid-second century, although it is only implicit. The oldest Syriac Christian texts may be the Odes of Solomon, which are variously dated to the first – third centuries (and are rather strange). Syriac Christians themselves tell the story of how King Abgar of the city of Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey) corresponded with Jesus, who after his resurrection sent Addai/Thaddeus to miraculously heal the king and convert his city already in the first century. This legend was already rejected in the west by Pope Gelasius in 495.
On the subject of Syriac Christian foundation legends, the story of Mor Awgin as narrated by Abuna Yuqin, that he was a pearl diver who brought the Egyptian monasticism to Syria, is probably a fifth-century fabrication. It is true that Mor Awgin monastery is really old, but we do not know when it was founded, and it probably is not the oldest. Syriac Christianity had earlier non-cenobitic forms of asceticism which congealed into cenobitic monasteries in the early fifth century.
Abuna Yuqin also mis-speaks when he says, “We want our brothers to come back from Syria. Most of them fled there during the First World War.” It is true that large numbers of Christians fled Tur Abdin during World War I as a result of the massacres. The same massacres which targeted Armenians in eastern Turkey and are therefore known in the West as the Armenian Genocide also targeted Syriac Christians and some Kurds. Syrian Orthodox Christians refer to those massacres as Sayfo (“the sword”), while the Church of the East calls it the “Assyrian Genocide.” The survivors of the Syrian Orthodox community of Edessa (modern Urfa) made their way to Aleppo in northern Syria, and are regarded as a distinct community within their own denomination there, with their own traditions of church music and their own carefully guarded manuscript collection. On the other hand, most of the Syriac Christians within Syria have been there for generations before World War I. It is very true that the border between Turkey and Syria is artificial, created by European powers to reflect colonial interests (France wanted Syria), and it is equally true that throughout their long history, Syriac Christians have often moved from one region to another if they suspected a different government would be more favorable to them. They escaped to French Syria from the Sayfo, and now some are escaping back to Turkey from the Syrian Civil War, just as in the Middle Ages they escaped into or out of Byzantine territory depending on the attitude of the Emperor in Constantinople.
My biggest criticism of the BBC article is how it smooths out conflicts with the Turkish government. On the one hand, when I was in Mardin for a Syriac conference in 2012, I myself heard the governor of Mardin province and the president of the new Mardin Artuklu University (named after a 14th C dynasty which ruled Mardin) publicly call for Syriac Christians to return to the Tur Abdin region. And since the governor was part of the ruling AKP party, he probably could not have said those things without the permission of Prime Minister Erdoğan. This call for Syriac Christian immigration surprised me at the time, as it surprises the author of this BBC article.
But this call has a context. The theme of the conference was Syriac Christianity and cultural diversity, and among the groups acknowledged in the opening remarks to have lived in that region were Turks, Arabs, Kurds, and Syriac Christians. There was conspicuously no mention of Armenians, who also lived in Mardin and nearby Diyarbakır until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The BBC article mentions heavy government investment in dams in the region, but does not mention the forced resettling of the Kurdish population whose villages will now be underwater. I visited Hasankeyf, an ancient city on the Tigris, and Kurdish children came up to me and said in English, “Please tell the government not to destroy our homes.” They were handing out pamphlets to tourists trying to prevent the government from destroying Hasankeyf in the project to build the Ilısu Dam. The Syrian Orthodox have had their share of harassment: one of the two most important Syrian Orthodox monasteries in Tur Abdin is Mor Gabriel outside Midyat, which has lost property to government expropriation.
(A funny linguistic aside: the road signs to Mor Gabriel do not refer to it by that name, but by the name Deyr-Ül Umur Manastırı. When I visited, I asked why this was called “Umar’s Monastery,” and I was informed that the “Umur” represents the Syriac ‘umro (“monastery, habitation”), which has been prefixed with the Arabic dayr al- (“monastery of the”), to which has been added the Turkish word manastırı (“monastery”) borrowed from a European language. So the Turkish name for the place translates from three languages into “The monastery of the monastery of the monastery.” I think that’s just awesome.)
So what is the government in Ankara doing supporting the opening of Mor Awgin monastery above Nusaybin and calling on Syriac Christians to come “back” to Tur Abdin? As it was explained to me in Mardin by another foreigner visiting the city, the government knows that even if all the Syriac Christians come back to Tur Abdin, they will still be only a small minority, and therefore not a challenge. In contrast, the larger Armenian diaspora is making political trouble for Turkey by calling Western governments to recognize the Armenian genocide. The Kurdish majority of this region is also making international headlines complaining of Turkish nationalist discrimination, for example in the choice of dam locations, to say nothing of Ankara’s fears that the autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq (and the de facto almost autonomous Kurdish region in Syria due to the civil war) might fuel demands for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey. In other words, what the Turkish government wants is a “model minority” to which it can point to say that they treat minorities well, which would support the Turkish government’s bid to enter the EU. In the meantime, politics in southeastern Turkey remains a strange game in which ethnic and religious diversity sometimes leads to surprising winners, such as Abuna Yuqin.
Hürriyet Daily News, a Turkish news outlet, ran an article two days ago with the headline “Three suspects who allegedly killed Syrian bishops captured in Turkey” which made me think that perhaps there was some news about the abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo, Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yaziji. The two were abducted three months ago on April 22 and no solid news has been heard of them since. Unfortunately, it seems this article got a little muddled as to why three foreigners (a Chechen, a Russian, and a Syrian) were briefly arrested in central Turkey between Konya and Ankara. It mentions a video depicting the beheading of a priest and other Christians one month ago, and indicates that none of those victims were either of the bishops, but we knew that. Were these three detained and released on suspicion of being in the video, which has nothing to do with the bishops, or were they arrested out of some suspected connection to the bishops, which has nothing to do with the video? In any case, they were swiftly released, so the upshot is that there is still no news about the abducted bishops.