Syrian Christians and the Exaltation of the Cross
September 14 is the Feast Day of the Exaltation of the Cross. One of the major church feast days celebrated by most Christians, it commemorates the finding of the cross in the 4th century, and it affirms that central to the Christian faith is the death of Jesus on the cross. Without the death of Jesus, there is no salvation, which Christians believe was revealed in the resurrection. For this reason, the cruelest of instruments of death is transformed and exalted, carried high in the hearts and minds of believers as a sign of victory…and, unfortunately, unintentionally diluted of its shock value.
Not this year, not in Syria. As Christians there get set to commemorate this central symbol of their faith, they cannot escape the shocking reality that the cross still may mean death. And like Jesus himself, who anticipated the suffering, felt the excruciating pain, and experienced the abandonment of his friends, and similar to their co-religionists in other parts of the Middle East in the recent past and currently, Christians in Syria know that they are going through a trial of their own as their society implodes around them and bombs from other countries are set to explode in their midst.
Christians, whether Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant, are generally the forgotten victims of the violence swirling around them in that part of the world. The West, largely identified as a Christian culture by many in the West and in the Middle East, forgets that Arabs can be Christian as well as Muslim, and that both Christians and Muslims should not be stereotyped as terrorists. For their part, Middle Eastern Muslims, particularly those easily influenced by extremist ideology, forget that their Christian neighbors have lived beside them for centuries, and are not foreign invaders but often have roots in the region that are indeed longer than their own. Thus the trial, and as a result Christians are attacked in places like Egypt, forced to flee from places like Iraq, confronted with insecurity and instability in places like the West Bank and Gaza…and now are made to scramble for cover in war-torn Syria.
So what will become of Syria’s Christians – some 30 percent of the population almost 100 years ago, perhaps as many as 10 percent of the country’s 22 million people today – in the months to come? Thousands more will certainly become refugees, hopefully thousands more will not be killed. If Bashar al-Assad survives, those Christians who remain will have to wonder what price continued protection from a dictator under whose watch chemical weapons were used against his own people is worth. If an extremist opposition group takes over, those same Christians will have to wonder what life under radical religious ideology will bring. And if civil war or international conflict rages on indefinitely, they will have to wonder what violence will rain on them from day to day. In whichever case, for Christians in Syria, that is, if they do in fact remain there at all, the cross will again mean something more than a piece of jewelry to wear, and something more than a proverbial burden to carry.
In Damascus, there is still the Street Called Straight where St Paul was first converted to Christianity. As the Christian Scriptures tell it, he was mysteriously blinded and then received back his sight through a miracle in the name of Jesus. From there he went on to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
Today, as they walk among their neighbors along this same street, Syrian Christians must feel like a blinded Paul, not understanding the things that are happening to them. But knowing the biblical story’s end, they must also be wondering if they will one day be able to proclaim the resurrection in peace, and thus not experience an ongoing crucifixion, but instead lift high the cross in exaltation as the symbol of salvation.
*Dr. Kireopoulos is associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches, Faith & Order and Interfaith Relations. Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for shared ecumenical witness among Christians in the United States. The NCC’s 37 member communions — from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches — include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.