On a sunny evening in April, during Orthodox Holy Week, about 75 people gathered at W83, a New York City community center and event space owned by Redeemer Presbyterian Church, for traditional Syrian orthodox chants in honor of orthodox holy week. This example of a Syrian Orthodox musical performance represents the attempts of an ancient religious community to maintain their religious practice and cultural heritage in the face of violence against Christians in Syria.
The 15-member choir performed the music of Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and finally, Easter. While they would normally not all be performed at once like this, these chants carry great historical significance, having been performed for as many as 1800 years, according to Jason Hamacher, who visited Syria in 2006 and 2007 to record the music and take photographs of religious and historically significant sites. The event, a fundraiser for the St. Ephrem Patriarchal Development Committee, which supports the Christians who remain in Syria, represents the attempts of an ancient religious community to maintain their religious practice and cultural heritage in the face of terrible violence.
In March of this year, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that Daesh is committing genocide against Christians and other minority groups in Syria, saying “In my judgment, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims.”
The destruction extends to the historical and sacred spaces of Aleppo. The Church of the Forty Martyrs in Aleppo, an Armenian cathedral, dates back to the 15th century and was mentioned in the second edition of The Exploit of the Holy Bible, in 1476. It was completed in 1491, with a bell tower added in 1912 and additional renovations in the 20th century to conform with the traditional style of Armenian churches.
The historical structure has since been destroyed, caught in the crossfire of the conflict.
Photo source: ArmenPress
“It is sad to see it and we try to get by and pretend life is going on, and it will go on, but it’s hard to take,” said Professor Mark Tomass, author of “The Religious Roots of the Syrian Conflict”, who is from Aleppo and was a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church, which remains in tact at this time. “It’s not easy to see the places where you grew up getting destroyed, magnificent places getting leveled down.”
In April of 2013, two Orthodox Christian Bishops were kidnapped in Aleppo. The senior church officials, Archbishop Mor Gregorius Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church, are still missing.
Gabe Shabo, 25 a Syrian Orthodox Christian from Aleppo who now lives in New Jersey, says the kidnapping was the impetus for many Christians to decide to leave Syria.
“The people, they don’t have any more faith when they see their leader is kidnaped. That’s the main reason why the people, they try to escape,” he said. “And now no one can help us to get any information about him. Is he alive? Is he dead? How can we do something for him?”
The concert on New York City’s Upper West Side was performed in conjunction with a photo exhibition, created by artist Jason Hamacher. The photos are images of Syrian churches and other spaces before the conflict, taken in 2006 and 2007. The exhibit features descriptions of the place both before the conflict and an explanation of the current state. One, taken in 2006, shows a glimpse of leaders of Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim, and Christian communities, standing together, laughing and talking, an image of religious harmony now gone.
“Before the war we didn’t have any problems, we used to live just as Syrians, in our community, there were no religious problems.” said Shabo. “After the war everything changed.”
Tomass says that such pictures of harmonious religious diversity are not entirely accurate. “I think harmony on the surface, but people were angry at each other,” he said. “I was always scared that something would happen. If you are coming from a population that is a minority, you were scared.”
Despite this, he notes that, despite the situation not being perfect, there was at least peace.
While Christians are now a minority, they were once the majority in Aleppo. Up until 1924, according to Tomass, the population was as much as one-third Christian. Now, with no census data, it is difficult to know how many Christians there are in the city, but Tomass estimates that about fifty percent of them have left during the current conflict.
“Those who have the money, who were able to leave, they left. Those who were not able to leave are stuck there and they are being bombarded everyday,” he said.
Even if they did want to leave for one of the refugee camps, Tomass emphasizes that they would face additional struggle in such a situation.
“Those who stayed, I would say they are poor but they are proud,” he said. “They didn’t want to do the same thing as the others, they didn’t want to experience the humiliating experience of going on a boat and going into somewhere. And at any rate, they will have problems even if they do that, for example if they go to a refugee camp, the refugee camp would be entirely Muslim so they would not have a space, they will have difficulties even surviving in such an environment.”
Shabo left Aleppo almost three years ago, relocating in New Jersey. He wishes to someday return to Aleppo, but only once the violence stops. “It’s not easy, we have memories there, we spent almost 20 years there, we have friends there. I feel sad and it’s not easy to start a new life in a new country, but when you have no choice, you have to do it,” he said.
An Unwavering Faith
Still, there are numerous Christians still living in Aleppo, and instead of feeling their faith shaken by the current situation, they find refuge in their religious spaces and religious communities, including ancient traditions like chanting and religious services. Tomass says that he watched a feed of the Easter service at his home church in Aleppo, and the sanctuary seemed full.
“The religious practice is, I would say, stronger,” he said. “In these times of crisis people usually congregate around their units that have already been formed and those units are religious units. So people go more to churches, they invoke more religious sentiment. They believe their religious faith will help them survive. Nothing has diminished in terms of faith or belief.”
They continue their practices, according to Shabo, but with some changes for safety. The Easter mass that used to be held from 10pm to Midnight was moved to the afternoon, so that worshippers wouldn’t have to walk in the streets at night, when it would not be safe.
The Church has also become a source of normalcy, according to Shabo.
“The church right now is not the same that we used to have it” he said. “They used to go to the church to pray or have a social life, but right now it’s different, they go to church because they are in need, they need help from the church.”
Even the wealthier Christians that still remain have to meet their basic human needs, Shabo explained, and the leaders of the Church are trying to help. They try to provide water and clothing when they can, as well as scholarships to help the children stay in school. Even small things, like planning activities and fun events, maintain a sense of normal life.
Despite this, Tomass is not optimistic about the future of Christianity in Syria
“Syria has been the last place for Christians in the Middle East. If the secular government wins, you will still have monasteries around, but you will not have people, they will leave, they will be scared of what is going to come in the future. If the rebels win, then all of the rest of the churches will be destroyed, as they have been destroyed,” he said. “Christians in Syria are living their last hurrah.”
Shabo is more optimistic, hoping to someday return home to Aleppo, but only if the violence ends. “The people, and I’m not talking now only about the Christian people, but the whole community, they are really in need to stop the violence, stop the killing, stop the blood,” he said.
Produced by Darcy Coulter, for the Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo seminar at Columbia University during Spring 2016. See all student work here.