Praying for Peace in Damascus while Surrounded by War
Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire visiting Syria with other peace activists.
The arch at St Thomas Gate glows golden at mid-morning as the party of peace activists led by Irish Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire straggle along the cobbled street of the old city.
A couple washing their car greet the dozen foreign guests from North and South America, Europe and Australia. Most shops are closed as it is the weekly holiday, even though this is the Christian quarter.
A soldier, his Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, walks ahead, eyes peeled for potential attackers, as the sounds of not-too-distant exploding mortar shells remind us this city is at war. Here peace needs guns for protection.
Maguire and her colleagues have come to provide moral support to peacemakers of the non-denominational National Reconciliation movement, which strives to bring people together and free prisoners and abductees.
Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Laham, a slight man with a white beard and ready smile, shows us into his splendid high-vaulted church adorned with icons.
He is joined by an array of bishops of oriental churches, wearing distinctive crosses and medallions, robes and headgear; the representative of the papal nuncio, in white with a wide red sash; and Muslim notables in flowing cloaks trimmed with gold braid. Fluent in seven languages, Patriarch Laham leads us in the Lord’s Prayer in English and Arabic.
While we are served juice and coffee in Patriarch Laham’s typically Damascene reception room, he expresses disbelief over the civil conflict that is tearing Syria apart. “How can this happen in Syria? It is not in our religion, not in our vocabulary.”
The sprightly octogenarian patriarch hurries us along streets where St Paul once walked, pausing to greet parishioners and hug children, to the house and the underground church of St Ananias, a building which dates to before the birth of Christ.
As we walk to our next destination, a mortar strike shakes the ground. “That’s about 500 metres,” one of the clerics estimates.
We lunch on delicious Syrian specialities in the courtyard of a traditional 19th-century Damascene house with thick stone walls layered in black and white stripes.
Reconciliation committee member Rafiq Martini, an agricultural engineer who works to free abductees, introduces us to Bland Mrad, a young man scarred by torture while held for 14 days by al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the most feared and efficient rebel faction.
As we make our way through the Muslim quarter to the Omayyad Mosque, Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Dionysius Jean Kawak, who studied English in Dublin, says: “What is happening here is not like the uprising in Egypt. Although protests here were peaceful at the beginning, they became violent within weeks. And now . . .” His words are interrupted by more mortar fire.
An outer section of the wall of the Omayyad Mosque is from the Roman temple that stood here more than 2,000 years ago. On its foundations was built the Byzantine church that predated the massive 8th-century mosque, considered the fourth most holy in the Muslim world.
The reception hall has gleaming marble floors, arched windows, furniture of mother-of-pearl inlay, and a fountain in the shape of an eight-pointed star.
Syria’s most senior Muslim cleric, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, wearing a wide white turban and black kaftan, strides into the reception hall surrounded by aides.
He appears in public rarely these days. A popular preacher was assassinated a few weeks ago in a mosque along with 40 congregants.
Mufti Hassoun elicits a chuckle from the gathering when he states: “All Muslims are Christians because they believe in Jesus and Moses.”
He speaks of his slain son and says he forgives the killers. In a plea for an end to the war, he says that “words can be weapons for peace”, and urges his guests to call on their governments to halt the flow of fundamentalist fighters into Syria.
We shed shoes to enter the vast rectangular prayer hall, its floor covered in red carpeting and with sparkling chandeliers overhead. It is almost empty. An old man sits crosslegged against a pillar reading his Koran. At the far end we gather before the tomb where, according to tradition, the head of St John the Baptist is buried.
Our spry shepherd, Patriarch Laham, asks us to pray silently for peace.
Michael Jansen is Middle East correspondent for the Irish Times.
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