I WAS watching the television in a state of comfortable concern
the other night when something pulled me up short. Jane Corbin's
BBC chronicle of her courageous six-week journey across the Middle
East for Kill the Christians told the story of how the
faith is being driven from the lands which were its cradle.
A slow process of attrition has been taking place in Bethlehem
for decades. But the wilful cruelty of jihadist fundamentalists in
Syria and Iraq have produced a stampede that has left Christianity
hanging by a thread. What jolted me was the sight of an ancient
semi-circular altar with a raised lip in the fourth-century
monastery on Maaloula Ridge, around 40 miles to the north of
Damascus. I had last seen it two decades before. Now it plunged me
into the scenes in which hitherto I had been a mere
IT HAD been dark when we arrived at the Monastery of Mar Sarkis.
We were retracing the steps of the three wise men for a BBC radio
series, Modern Magi. To whom does the contemporary world
look for guidance, the producer had asked herself, and had lighted
upon a bishop, a scientist, and a journalist - Rowan Williams (then
Bishop of Monmouth), Heather Couper (then Gresham Professor of
Astronomy), and me.
We arrived later than we had intended, because we had begun the
journey on camels to get a taste of the challenge that faced the
original magi. Unlike them, we had switched to a 4×4 as we left the
oasis town of Palmyra. But it was, nevertheless, dark when we
knocked on the thick, low door of the tiny basilica, which was
swung open by a gnarled monk of great age. Despite the hour, he
welcomed us. The liturgy was over, but he took us to pray before a
stone iconostasis of great antiquity, in a tiny nave surrounded by
round arches that supported the dome.
THREE things filled me with awe. One was the canopy that hung
from the ceiling - a deep velvet blue, embroidered with stars, so
that even inside you felt under God's night sky. Another was that
altar: the monk told us it was older than the church, and was
perhaps the altar of the pagan temple that had preceded the
monastery on that same natural rocky salient above the scrubby
green plain below. The raised lip of the pale-grey marble was to
catch the blood of the animals sacrificed upon it.
But the third marvel was the tongue in which the monk prayed.
Maaloula is the Aramaic word for opening. It is one of the
few places in the world where the local people still speak a
dialect of the language which Jesus spoke. To hear the Our Father
prayed as Jesus would have first uttered it was an overwhelming
ON JANE CORBIN's film, the canopy above the altar was gone.
There was a huge hole in the dome. The sacred faces on the murals
had been scarred. But the altar remained.
More importantly, so did the local Christians, and the prayer of
Jesus, as well as the tongue in which he spoke. Those of us, all
around the world, who share that faith need to shake off our
comfortable concern, cease to be spectators, and act, to ensure
that this prayer does not die - there, or anywhere - in our