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Time to rouse the couch potatoes

24 April 2015

A state of comfortable concern is not enough, says Paul Vallely

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 spectator. 

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 experience.

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 time.


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