Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Faith resurgence in the Middle East despite the odds

After a morning of family togetherness and lunch, Rhiannon went off to see a friend and Kath drove Owain, Clare and I out into rural Warwickshire, to take advantage of the sunshine and walk along the towpath of the Grand Union Canal, from the Hatton flight of locks - there are 21 of them. First we walked southwards for fourteen locks, then returned to our starting point and walked up four of the remaining ones to the tea shop for a drink. It was quite cold with bright sunshine, but the weather was perfect for a brisk walk.

Then we drove Owain to Coventry station to get a train into Birmingham to take him to Bristol, before returning for a Kath cooked pizza supper. Rachel rang from Arizona and Kath in addition to cooking printed off the boarding passes for their flight to Malaga tomorrow. They are spending four days in Seville for New Year. I admit I'm a little jealous as I haven't yet been there.

Having tweeted a moan about my perceptions of weakness in the Windows 10 auto update system, after my experience of the past couple of days of getting Kath's computer back to normal, I've had a response, and further exchanges with their support crew, presuming it's not a robot responding to my messages. Interesting.

Holy Innocents' Day today, and I was much taken by a photo posted on Facebook of a Christmas Day Mass taking place in a ruined roofless church in Aleppo. I can't be certain, but if the accompanying photos are anything go by, I recognised it as being close to a convent I stayed in when I visited Syria in 1994, possibly a Greek Catholic church. The photo, taken from the western gallery or maybe a tower, reveals two thirds of the nave filled with beams and masonry from the church roof.

The south east end of nave and aisle are clear, also the sanctuary. Three clergy stand at the altar and the rest of the clear space is crammed with worshippers, regardless of the health and safety risks, just a few days into the end of hostilities in that sector. Amazingly an illuminated star with a comet tail, of the type almost universally used in street decorations, is suspended by its power cables from north to south balconies. So simple, but a powerful statement about Christian witness re-emerging after years of terror and conflict.

The star over the place where the Christ child was born, stood over a land violently occupied, policed by soldiers, the Holy Family's transient refuge hardly a fit place for any child to come into the world. A few people viewing this photo left sad comments or 'emojis'. But, did they notice the star? Did they make the connection? Some risk-taking handyman acquired, and put that star into place over the ruined nave. Some person or group of people made the connection with Bethlehem, made the effort to defy powerlessness and despair, by raising this symbol of hope and faith in Christmas lights. In any other setting it might look tacky and sentimental, but not here, not now.

The church in Aleppo is back doing what it has done for 20 centuries, no matter how great the evil or terrible the circumstances. This is a time for joy, even more than concern, for it's a sign that the faith has been kept under the worst of circumstances. It's also a continuation of the story in the making by churches in towns liberated from ISIS in recent months in Iraqi Kurdistan and elsewhere in Syria. Despite hundreds of thousands of Christians being murdered, deported or displaced from the Middle Eastern homelands over the past decade, there are still faithful remnants flourishing whenever they have the opportunity to celebrate their faith, and for this, God be praised.

I am again reminded of the probably apocryphal tale of the rabinic court in Auschwitz which put God on trial for genocide, and ended up pronouncing the Almighty guilty, deserving of death. After a long silent pause, one of the elders said: "Let us pray.", and life under their own death sentence continued. No matter how incomprehensible and sometimes savage divine providence seems to be, the humblest don't give up, but keep on worshipping God, as they strive to endure in order to recreate and renew life in all its fullness.

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