01-06-2008 - Traces, n. 6

Lives Consecrated
to Keeping a Presence

Tarsus, Antioch, Damascus… There are few Christians left in the historical places of St. Paul, but their mission in those lands is fundamental. This is why

by Riccardo Piol

What once was Antioch in Pisidia is today called Yalvac; Ephesus has become Selcuk; Miletus is now Balat. Most of the names of the places in Anatolia that came to know Christianity thanks to St. Paul on his journeys, or received his letters, are now changed. Changed also is the map of the presence of Christian communities spread throughout Turkey and the Middle East. Two thousand years later, the heirs of the Ephesians, the Galatians and the Colossians have been reduced to a small minority, often unknown.
A three-room apartment in a block like many others, opposite a church once used as a warehouse but now transformed into a museum in order to attract religious tourism: this is how Mariagrazia Zambon describes–in her book, La Turchia è vicina [Turkey is near ] (Ancora, 2006)–the home of the three Italian sisters of the Religious Institute of the Daughters of the Church. They are the only declared Christian presence in a town where the population is totally Muslim. The church–museum is dedicated to St. Paul, and the town is Tarsus. There, where the Apostle of the Gentiles was born, the Christian presence is reduced to a tiny glow. In a town of little more than 200,000 inhabitants and where there are few archaeological remains of St. Paul’s times, the life of these three sisters, who arrived here in 1994, revolves around one task: safeguarding the Eucharist as a sign of the Church’s presence. Since they can do no apostolate–Turkey’s law forbids this as proselytism–they limit themselves to day-to-day relationships with their neighbors and with the small community of Mersin, 20 miles away. Twice a year, though, the town’s church is filled. On January 25th, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, and on June 29th, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the faithful living in the south of Turkey–in Adana, Iskenderun and Mersin–come to Tarsus to pray together for the unity of the Church. There are Catholics of different rites–Latins, Armenians, Syrians, and Greeks–and even Orthodox and Protestant Christians. What ties them together is a faith that overcomes all the differences in tradition and the often fragile contact with priests and religious who live scattered over the region.

On the way to Damascus
Straight Street, the road along which St. Paul’s conversion began, still exists, as well as the house where the “Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia” took refuge after falling from his horse. In Damascus, the places that saw the Apostle of the Gentiles passing have survived with time, as has the presence of Christians. It may seem paradoxical that the capital of Syria, a rogue state and the bugbear of international politics, should be the Middle Eastern city where the heirs of St. Paul enjoy the most freedom. Yet this is the case. In fact, Damascus is the destination of many Iraqi Christians fleeing from their country. In Damascus, the churches of the eleven Christian confessions present in the city are quite visible, and religious processions and celebrations are held in public with the approval of the civil authorities.
It is not a paradise: there is poverty and unemployment, and the State controls everything and everyone, but the Christians, around 15% of the population, share this situation with the others. There are limitations set by Islamic law, but Syria still offers a standard of living much better than what can be found in a zone where Christianity is a more and more emarginated minority. In the popular area of the old city, where the remains witnessing the conversion of St. Paul are found, the Christians are in the majority. Melchites, Chaldeans and Latins live an experience of real ecumenism together, dictated by the realities of life. Orthodox families send their children to the school of the Patriarchate, and in some churches, out of friendship or out of necessity, Christians of different rites can be found attending the same Mass.
It is the city where preaching to the pagans began, where Peter stayed before leaving for Rome, and from where Paul set off for his first journeys. There, “for the first time, the disciples were called Christians,” and, for the first time, the Church was called “Catholic.” Antioch, the ancient “Queen of the Orient,” the third capital of the Roman Empire, boasts a long series of historic “firsts,” but today it is a city on the outskirts of the world, on the border between Turkey and Syria, with little more that 150,000 inhabitants.

The port of the mission
By virtue of its history, it is still the home of three Catholic and two Orthodox patriarchates, though the patriarchs do not actually live in the city. But the Christian community is alive and active. In Antioch, today Antakya, live little more than a thousand faithful, most of whom are Arabic-speaking Greek-Orthodox, some Protestants, and about sixty Catholics, mostly families. There is a stable bond between Orthodox and Catholics, consisting in acts of charity and moments of common prayer; this bond grew around the house of the Capuchin Friars. Present in the city since 1846, and true guardians of the Church in Turkey, the Friars come from Italy. The focal point of their presence is in the center of the Old City, where, in apostolic times, the Jewish Quarter was situated. There is a small convent, a large room that serves as a chapel–a sort of domus ecclesia–and two rooms for welcoming the families of the community. Their day-to-day life is made up of simple things: caring for the faithful, welcoming pilgrims, and works of charity–a hidden work, unknown to most, like that of the religious and priests to whom the Christian people in the land of St. Paul is entrusted and who spend their lives witnessing the faith. Discovering the news about them today cannot fail to bring to mind what St. Paul wrote to the Philippians two thousand years ago: “I hold you in my heart, you who are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel.”