The Book of Acts tells us that Saint Paul was baptized in the city of Damascus, at a house on Straight Street: “The Lord said to him [Ananias], ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is there praying’” (Acts 9:11).
Our friend Flavius Mihaies returned from a visit to Damascus, where he stayed in a hotel on the very same Straight Street. Flavius is a journalist – Romanian by birth, French by education, American by personality – who wanted to see what life was like for the Christians remaining in Syria and enduring a 4½ year-long civil war. Flavius was the guest of SPC’s friend, the Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church, His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II.
What Flavius describes is a remarkably routine existence – with the exception of periodic rocket attacks. “Not all Damascus is war-torn or rationed. In the old town, Millennials in designer clothes linger at cafes and bars, drinking beers and smoking shisha. Stores showcase plentiful supplies of water, food, medicine and basic necessities — some subsidized by the government. Life seems to proceed normally — couples hold hands and children play in the streets — despite the periodic explosions and screaming fighter jets [overhead] on their bombing runs.”
Flavius described the old city of Damascus as charming, with the cachet of a historical and exotic nature. “Sometimes you can think you are in Italy … Damascus is more refined that the Gulf’s Arab cities (perhaps, he said, because of the French colonization, “but I’m not biased here”).
Still, the war is never far away. “Rockets fall 40-100 times every day across all of Damascus; every day I heard a few, twice the neighborhood I was in was targeted. It is worse the closer you are to the resistive (rebel-held) neighborhoods.” When the rockets fall, the bustling streets and markets come to a stop – then resume when the danger has passed. The evening, 5-7pm, is an especially dangerous time for rocket attack, because people are known to be on their way home from work. Every day, one sees military planes overhead and hears the muffled booms of artillery and bombings in the distance.
To open your heart to Christians in Syria, you may donate here.
The Christian presence in Damascus is not particularly overt. Christian homes tend not to display the cross. The clergy have very distinctive garb, and one priest Flavius met wears jeans and a T shirt in public, to avoid being a target. Some Christians worry about taking taxis, for fear of being kidnapped.
The churches in Damascus are generally small, but numerous. They are modestly adorned, as if Christians remember that in the mid-19th century, every Christian church was destroyed, and so modern churches are considered to be temporary.
Flavius also visited the old city of Homs, which was a Christian neighborhood. His pictures of Homs are heart-breaking, showing a ghost town of ruble, destroyed by the retreating forces of the opposition Free Syrian Army.
Solidarity with the Persecuted Church has aided three of the five Christian Churches of the Patriarchs of Antioch which have a presence in Syria. In Damascus, we are aiding Patriarch Aphrem with the operation of an orphanage for children whose parents were killed in the civil war which you can read about here.
To read more about SPC, check out our current projects page here, or get a general overview about who we are and our mission here.