SALON (Yep, that Salon!)SUNDAY, NOV 29, 2015 06:00 AM PSTDead temples vs. living churches: ISIS is obliterating Christian communities — why aren’t we paying attention?
We mourn destruction of artifacts, but the living churches being destroyed are the heart and soul.
Every few days, ISIS militants in the Middle East carry out some new atrocity calculated to inflict shock and awe on Western opinion. They carry out barbarous executions, they destroy priceless items of cultural heritage, all duly filmed, and those acts have their effect worldwide. It's a sad commentary on global opinion, though, that some of the most savage blows inflicted on the world's cultural and religious heritage have gained nothing like as much attention. Assyrian sculptures and Greco-Roman temples are irreplaceable monuments of human civilization, but so too are the living churches now being uprooted. Christian communities have almost been obliterated in most of Iraq, and a similar process is underway in large areas of Syria. That humanitarian crisis is familiar enough, but far less understood is the significance of these churches now facing terminal crisis. In their time, they represented not just a distant fringe of Christianity, but its heart and core. Ironically, they decisively shaped the history of Islam, as well as Christianity.
ISIS supporters identify Christian homes with the Arabic letter Nun for Nasrani, Nazarene. That usage takes us back to an era when followers of Jesus were as likely to bear that name as the newer alternative, "Christian." For centuries, Christians in those regions used the Semitic Syriac language, which is so near to Hebrew and Aramaic. For a millennium, Syriac was one of the great languages of Christian literature, scholarship and devotion, at least equal in significance to Greek and Latin. What we see being before our eyes are the last vestiges of that critical third component of early and medieval Christianity.
Wherever they went, eastern Christians took with them their writings and their scriptures, and exchanged ideas with other faiths they encountered, including Buddhists and Manicheans. Through the Middle Ages, Syriac churches scattered across Central and Eastern Asia used as their symbol a lotus cross, which merged the symbols of Christianity and Buddhism. Those churches served as conduits for the importation to the West of Indian and other Asian ideas, including the numbering system that we today call Arabic.
Those Christian encounters with Asian faiths were sporadic, but from earliest times, the Eastern churches were intimately involved with Islam. Christian monasteries abounded in those areas where Islam arose, and when the Quran depicts familiar biblical stories or individuals, it is always in a form mediated through later Christian writings and alternative gospels that were read in Syriac. The lengthy Quranic accounts of Jesus and the Virgin Mary draw heavily on apocryphal (i.e., heretical) scriptures that met the demand of ordinary believers for every romantic detail of the early lives of the Savior and his family.
Beyond shaping the scriptures of Islam, Christians supplied most of the basic religious practices of early Muslims. The stern Christian Lent became the Muslim Ramadan, and the monastic habit of prostration during worship established the pattern that all Muslims observe today. In its layout, a typical modern mosque is a good facsimile of the typical churches that early Muslims would have found in Syria and Palestine.