Maloula, mon amour. I see rebel forces have just entered it. I fell in love with this ancient city in Syria while visiting there in 2007, during the days when former U.S. Senator James Abourezk (D-SD) was putting together informal tour groups that traveled from Sioux Falls to Damascus in a much-appreciated effort at getting Americans to know Syria and its people a bit better. The trip lasted a little over a week and included extensive overland ventures throughout the country. I saw ancient Roman ruins near Palmyra, spending a good part of that day in a Bedouin encampment nearby. I saw the Israeli-shattered city of Al Quinetra, destroyed by vindictive, departing Israeli troops who were withdrawing per the agreement that ended the Yom Kippur War of 1973. I saw a high-rise Palestinian refugee community in Damascus, plastered with outsized pictures of Yassir Arafat. I saw the Golan frontier, policed by uniformed United Nations troops. These were Sikhs from India, turbaned, and sporting neatly trimmed beards, all of them speaking perfect, non-idiomatic English as they patrolled the neutral zone.
And I saw Maloula. It's one of a handful of villages where Aramaic, the language spoken during the New Testament, is still the common tongue. That everyone also seems to speak English is par for the course nowadays, but Aramaic is still the language of the streets and signs. One of my traveling companions and I had broken away from the main group and cadged a ride in Damascus to this place, which we entered at the spot where a sturdy, brick church that was built during the 3rd century dominates the town. We entered the structure with some natural trepidation, but once we got into an enclosed courtyard all seemed okay. A few nuns were going about some business, nodding at us as we passed. Then we saw a priest, THE priest from what I eventually gathered, and engaged him in a very easygoing all-English conversation. Educated in Egypt, his English was flawless.
I won't use his name because what goes around the internet may well come around, not to me, but to him. I've wondered lately if the Greek Catholic (that was the denomination of the church in Maloula) priest who was publicly beheaded a few weeks ago north of Maloula by a rebel faction that obviously has it in for Christians might have been the same cleric. I have no way of knowing. I grieve for the lost soul, whoever it was, not just because of the situation but because the man I met in the church in Maloula was so gentle, as curious about us as we were about him. Probably sensing our hesitation, he abruptly ended a lull in the conversation to invite us into the sanctuary, a beautifully adorned enclosure filled with icons, some encrusted with precious stones and metal, some just plain wood or cloth, many of them dating back to the early years of Christianity. We sat in the front pew while he stared at us with a steady, if slightly bemused, gaze, reciting the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic, then using the same language to preach a brief sermon.
The content of the sermon will forever remain unknown. So will the disposition of the priest, those nuns, that church now that rebel forces, some of them virulently anti-Christian, have occupied a simple, unassuming little town where the inhabitants have lived a life, spoken a tongue, that have a heritage whose timeline includes the passage of those who founded Christianity. One need not embrace the spirituality of the place or the events that transpired there to know that a precious place is now on the cusp of its final catastrophe. Whither Maloula? Maybe something in that unknown sermon had a clue.