DIVINE Service in a Greek Orthodox church is always a special experience, but this year’s New Year’s Day service in the Mariamite cathedral in Damascus was unlike anything I had experienced.
It wasn’t the singing, the liturgy and the colour that was so different. It was the appearance of the Grand Mufti of Syria, who joined the celebration about halfway through the service.
There are no parallels to this in the ecclesiastical universe in which I live. It’s not that we don’t, from time to time, have guests from other religious traditions attending our worship services, though this is rare enough. It was the way the Mufti entered the church unannounced, halfway through the service, and made himself at home.
He didn’t partake of the Eucharist, of course, but in every other way the Mufti just blended into the congregation. He seemed quite at home in the church, and the congregation seemed comfortable with him and his entourage of Sheikhs, distinctive in their flowing gowns and turbans.
The Mufti and the Archbishop took turns addressing the congregation at the end of the service. Both spoke of the importance of their religious communities working together in the rebuilding of Syria, and of our common belief in a God of love.
At the end of their speeches, the two embraced warmly and, presumably, got on with their days.
The Syrian model of religious cooperation is without parallel in the Australian context.
Meetings between different faith groups here, in my experience, are generally nervous affairs. Participants do their best to conceal their suspicions, with Christians regularly over-compensating by pretending that we have favourite verses in the Qur’an that we then try to recite and invariably get wrong.
Christians and Muslims in Syria have had hundreds of years to get used to one another, and it shows.
In the old city of Damascus, you regularly find ancient mosques and churches that were built side by side, and in some cases, as with the grand Omayyad Mosque, you find a mosque that used to be a church, still enshrining Christian relics within its walls, where Christians are welcome to come and pray.
None of this is meant to suggest that Christianity and Islam have been blended together in Syria, as if they had lost their distinctive identities and dogmas. Quite the opposite and this was something the clerics I spoke to, Christian and Muslim, were insistent on.
I explained that, in Australia, we often try to foster religious harmony by downplaying our differences.
“No, no,” said Father Tafiq of Maaloula, “that is not the way.”
“Love is the only way”, he added. “Where there is no love, we do not fear difference. When we have love, I can love you despite the fact that you are different, and I can help you to love me, despite the fact that I am different.
Tafiq’s words were simple yet profound, particularly given the painful recent history his parish had experienced.
In September 2013, Jabhat Al Nusra over-ran the little Christian village, set spectacularly into mountains about 50km northeast of the Syrian capital.
They murdered three men at the entrance gate who refused to convert to Islam. Then they shot, killed, kidnapped and committed all kinds of atrocities against the people of Maaloula before being driven out by the Syrian Arab Army some months later.
Of course, the people of Maaloula do not blame Islam, as such, for their misery. They know the Islam of Jabhat Al-Nusra in no way represents the broader religion of their country.
The big problem in Maaloula’s case, though, I was told, was that it had been one of a handful of Muslim families that had betrayed the village and helped Jabhat Al-Nusra launch its initial attack
So what does the future hold for this once-tolerant community?
“We must live with them and, more than this, we must live for them,” Father Tafiq says. This is our mission as the church. If we cannot do this, then who are we?
“We are not the church”
What I saw in Father Tafiq and his beautiful community was something of a lesson, a plan if you like, for the rest of the world.
Here was a community that had experienced terrible inter-religious violence but had decided to move forward in harmony – not by overlooking differences or by denying the past but by holding fast to fundamental religious values.
Maaloula is, of course, about as extreme an example of a relationship breakdown between religious communities as you are likely to get. Most Syrians have never experienced these sorts of difficulties, despite media narratives to the contrary.
There are, in Syria, some very visible Islamic militants, of course, but these ‘takfiri’, as they are popularly termed, are very much on the periphery of society.
They are not considered real Muslims at all by most Syrian members of the mosque community, and the national government is clear in its denunciation of all forms of militant Islam.
This again is where Syria stands in sharp contrast to Australia and other western countries.
Syria has an official Ministry of Religious Affairs that encourages the development of various religious groups but also draws clearly defined boundaries about what is acceptable in the country. And, the Islam of the takfiri, normally associated with the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, is explicitly excluded.
I spent some time talking with the head of the Ministry of Religious Affairs – a Sheikh with a doctorate in theology behind him. I explained that our government generally tries to minimise the influence of religious groups in Australian society but, when religion is given a voice, it tries to give every group an equal say.
“This is a big mistake”, the Minister said. “We have been dealing with religious extremism for a lot longer than you and we have learnt that freedom of religion can only be exercised within clearly defined boundaries.”
He then added, rather ominously, “your time is yet to come”.
left that meeting with several official publications, including a weighty tome The Intellectual and Ideological Basics of Combating the Extremism and Takfiri Terrorism of so-called Political Islam written by the Minister himself.
Another thing I took away from that meeting was a realisation that we in Australia can learn from the Syrian experience.
The only politically-enshrined religious ideal we have is ‘tolerance’, which plays out as an insipid sort of recognition of the validity of all religious traditions. And, while the worst religious violence on our horizon was a far-away battle between Catholics and Protestants, over the occupation of Ireland, it seemws to work okay.
The arrival of Islamic State and other takfiri groups, though, has raised the stakes considerably. The Syrian model is different to ours because it has been developed with this new reality in mind.
While Wahhabism remains relatively small in Australia the reality is it has never been more popular than it is right now. Money has been pouring in from Saudi Arabia and the results are starting to show.
My fear is that the warning of the Syrian Minister of Religious Affairs has merit, and we may find ourselves unprepared to meet the challenge when it comes.
I long for the day when the Grand Mufti of Australia will walk comfortably into one of our cathedrals on New Years’ Day and embrace the Bishop, and I do believe that, one day, this could happen.
Before it does, however, I expect there will need to be a lot clear thinking and hard work from Australian political and religious leaders.
Article by Father Dave Smith @fatherdave on 23rd Feb 2017, 10:00am
Father Dave has been twice awarded Marrickville Citizen of the Year, and was nominated for Australian of the Year in 2004, 2009 and 2017. In 2012, he broke the world record for the most continuous rounds boxing. Father Dave is also a published author and wrote the book ‘Sex, the Ring and the Eucharist’. We thank him for his interesting contribution to the Hammond & Harper blog and look forward to his future projects and endeavours.
You can follow his own personal blog at www.fatherdave.org