In 1997 a Scot named William Dalyrmple wrote a book called ‘From this Holy Mountain’. He travelled in the footsteps of a Christian monk, John Moschos, who lived in the 6th century. Moschos went on pilgrimage to Christian monasteries in what are now the modern day countries of Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Egypt. It was a time when the Christian majority was giving way to the growth of Islam.
Travelling in 1997 aided by the journal of this 6th century monk, Dalyrmple visited those same monasteries. A minority continued to flourish (particularly in Greece and Egypt), most however hung on with a few caretakers or in ruins. What he found was an uneasy coexistence between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority. But what seemed inevitable given the trajectory was a time when no Christians would remain in their historic homeland.
One area where Christians were thriving in 1997 was Syria, with approx. 20% of the population being Christian. Given that Syria was ruled by a secular dictatorship of the Assad family, minority groups including Christians were paradoxically allowed freedom of religion. The Christians worried what would happen to their fragile freedom if the secular dictatorship were replaced by Islamic extremists.
Now we see an unintended consequence of the destabilizing of the Assad government (as with the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq). The vaccume of power has unleashed widespread persecution of Christians. In today’s news it was reported that 150 Assyrian Christians were kidnapped by ISSIS (Islamic State) in NE Syria.
Assyrian Christians have been a community since the first century and are referenced by the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 5:13. They have survived persecution throughout their history including an attempted genocide by the Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1915. As a people they have fled from place to place seeking freedom to worship and walk in the way of Jesus.
Today more Assyrian Christians live outside the middle east than within their ancestral lands. Even today they speak Aramaic which was the language that Jesus was believed to have spoken. For those of us who are Christian this little known group is a living link to the earliest days of the church and to Jesus himself.
Dalyrimple in his 1997 journey found holy places venerated by both Muslims and Christians where both groups lived and worshipped together. This was particularly true around places of healing and fertility where saints were venerated. Such places of common ground had occurred since the 6th century but now are rare.
Now Islamic extremists such as ISSIS have twisted Islam to fit their message of intolerance and hatred. If left unchecked a day may arise in the foreseeable future when there is no longer a place for minorities such as Yazides, Bedouins or ancient Christian sects such as the Assyrian Church. When that day comes all of humanity will be diminished.
Join me in praying for these 150 kidnapped Assyrian Christians and for all who suffer intolerance and persecution. Let us pray and work to build bridges of understanding and hope.