Those who have watched The Passion of the Christ would have learnt of Aramaic, the ancient Hebrew-related language, which was spoken by Jesus Christ and his disciples. Not all the piety in Rome, Paris, Dublin or Boston has led to an attempt to spread this melodic language beyond the confines of the single location where it is still spoken, 2,013 years after Jesus was hoisted onto the cross, the little town of Maalula in Syria. 16 years ago, when Hafez Assad was still the master of his country, this columnist was taken from Damascus to Maalula on the way to the Golan Heights.
Since then, a lot of change came about in Syria, with the empty spaces that defined the journey getting replaced by tourist resorts and farms made more prosperous by the — admittedly basic — liberalisation carried out under the regime of his son Bashar. Not only in Damascus but elsewhere, in Aleppo or in the picturesque hills, where the Druze tribes lived, it was possible in the early months of 2011 to see women dressed the way they are in New Orleans or in Marseille. Headscarves were the exception, although within the folds of modern attire, there was still piety. Syria under Bashar Assad was authoritarian but secular and the oldest church in Christendom, the Syrian Orthodox Church and its head, the Patriarch of Antioch, felt no blast of opprobrium as he and his flock went about their prayers and rituals.
Whether to oblige his friends in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who have — along with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — been lavish in awarding contracts to Turkish companies that are connected to the ruling establishment in Ankara, or simply because he loves the Muslim Brotherhood as an organisation, Prime Minister Erdogan insisted that Bashar Assad should include the group in his government. Aware that such a move would be about as wise as Jawaharlal Nehru’s acceptance of Lord Wavell’s 1946 request to include Jinnah’s Muslim League in the Interim Government, Assad refused. From then onwards, Turkey made no secret of the fact that it was arming and sponsoring the armed war against Assad that continues to this day.
Money has flowed in from within the region and outside to these “freedom fighters”, as have a miscellany of adventurers from the US, France and the UK, all eager to impart knowledge of the use of explosive force to the international volunteers in the war for control of Syria. Clearly, the International Court of Justice at the Hague does not regard the setting loose by another within a sovereign country of armed mercenaries (some of whom have been paid $5,000 for killing a single officer of the Syrian army, although the usual rate is a mere $1,500). Unemployed youth in their thousands have volunteered for battle, thereby forming a pool of manpower that may transform itself into a colossal security threat to the EU and to the GCC, once the Syrian operation is over. Boys will be boys.
West Asia is the home of the Christian faith, and as mentioned earlier, its oldest church. Christian communities throughout the region are distinguished by their high educational standards and modern outlook. Overall, they have made immense contributions to their home countries, exactly the way Christians in India have. This columnist was educated at first a Jesuit (Campion in Mumbai) and later an Anglo-Indian school (Frank Anthony Public School in Delhi) and is the better for it. Which is why, it is painful to watch as Christian communities in the region are being subjected to their own Calvary (extreme suffering). In Egypt and in Libya, churches have been destroyed by those who are treated with deference and generosity by the West, supposedly a bloc where the Christian faith is not altogether extinct.
In Egypt, the ancient Coptic Church is under incessant attack from the very elements that Barack Obama, David Cameron and Francois Hollande (the trio eager to bomb Syria so as to protect civilians) are insisting should be re-inserted into the highest portals of governance. Now in Syria, elders of the church are getting their throats cut by the groups that John Kerry has publicly certified as “moderate”. Too bad for Adolf Hitler that Kerry was not around during his 12 years of rule. Certainly, the US Secretary of State would have had a good word for the Nazis, exactly as he has for those who everybody in Syria (but not Kerry) knows belongs to Al Nusra and other groups of Certified Moderates. When will this Calvary end? Only if those backed by Obama, Hollande and Cameron fail. Given that the bombs are soon to land on a military battling against Al Qaeda, that seems an uncertain prospect.