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In Syria, Antiochian Orthodoxy is rebuilding its infrastructure

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/life/religion/4855156.html June 1, 2007, 6:34PM In Syria, Antiochian Orthodoxy is rebuilding its infrastructure
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 2, 2007

      June 1, 2007, 6:34PM
      In Syria, Antiochian Orthodoxy is rebuilding its infrastructure
      Metropolitan Saba visits Houston to provide update, meet parishioners

      Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

      The 20th century was not kind to the Orthodox archdiocese in southern Syria.

      Ravaged by war, drought and poverty, its ancient
      churches were left to crumble, while the Christian population dwindled.

      But in 1999 a new archbishop was appointed as
      metropolitan of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian
      Archdiocese of Bosra, Hauran, Jabal Arab and Golan in Syria.

      Determined to live in the archdiocese, unlike his
      predecessors, Metropolitan Saba set about
      revitalizing the historically significant area
      and began by restoring the dilapidated chancery in Sweida in southeast Syria.

      He visited Houston recently to meet with friends
      and financial supporters at St. George Antiochian
      Orthodox Christian Church. Sayedna, as he is
      affectionately called in Arabic, updated
      parishioners on conditions in the diocese and
      showed a video including sites from Greek and
      Roman times and of three ancient churches.

      "We use all three, but they need so much
      renovation," Metropolitan Saba said. "St. George
      of Izraa was built in 515, St. Elias may be from
      the fourth century." The third, St. George of
      Kharaba, is from the eighth century, he said.

      St. Elias has been restored, thanks to the
      generosity of a Syrian-American whose family came
      from the area. But St. George of Izraa, built on
      the site of a pagan temple, is in need of
      extensive renovation, he said. Legend has it that
      until the 11th century, it contained the relics of St. George the Martyr.

      "Many miracles were done by St. George in the
      church," he said. "It's deeply venerated by
      Christians, Muslims and Druze. Some Muslims come
      to the church and light candles."

      When Metropolitan Saba arrived in 1999, only
      three priests were working in the area. Two were
      more than 80 years old and have since died; the
      other was in his 70s. None was properly trained.
      After years of looting, only one icon of St.
      George was left in the ancient churches.

      Money eventually will be raised for more icons,
      but the archbishop's first concern was to help
      the people who had been neglected for so long.

      About 1 million to 2 million Christians of
      different denominations live in Syria. Twenty
      thousand Antiochian Orthodox Christians live in
      the southern archdiocese, while another 125,000
      work in Damascus or other cities and return on weekends.

      "Sayedna thought he could work it out and make it
      viable," said the Rev. John Salem of Houston's
      St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church.
      "He wanted to give them hope. The people deserve
      to be served, especially because of the
      historical significance of the archdiocese."

      Because of Syria's close proximity to the
      birthplace of Christianity, the religion spread
      quickly in what has been considered a historical crossroads for many empires.

      St. Paul visited after his conversion. And St.
      Timon, appointed as one of 70 Apostles (after the
      original 12), was the first bishop of Bosra.

      Yet the Christians in the archdiocese were
      without pastoral help for years. Those who
      remained slipped into poverty, and less money was given to the church.

      "So many generations lived without Christian
      education, liturgy and without any humanitarian
      help from the church," Metropolitan Saba said.
      "Yes, I have worked very hard, but God is with us."

      After the chancery was restored, the metropolitan
      had a place to live. Next he recruited young
      priests and sent them to seminary. Eight priests,
      most in their 30s, now serve 32 churches in the archdiocese.

      A guesthouse was built to encourage people from
      Syria, Lebanon and Jordan to visit and form
      relationships with the local Christians.
      Metropolitan Saba also bought a small piece of
      land and planted it with olive and fig trees,
      blackberry bushes and grapes. Each year, he buys
      a little more land and increases the crop. The
      archdiocese currently helps feed 192 families a
      month, "the poorest of the poor" Christians, Muslims and Druze.

      "They see that we help them," he said. "It's the
      Christian message: 'I was hungry and you fed me.' "

      Because of that, people of many religions know of
      the metropolitan's work and have made donations, Salem said.

      "Thank God and they trusted me," Metropolitan
      Saba said. "With the help of the Orthodox Church
      of Greece, we built a small medical center. It's
      very modern, but with primitive equipment, so we
      need more to treat the poor people. The more I
      have, the more I do — small projects to get more income."

      He has started coffee hours after church and
      women's fellowship groups to distribute food and
      visit the sick. Soon he hopes another women's
      fellowship will visit the elderly. Sunday-school
      education is now provided for 80 percent of the
      children, and he strives to create a family atmosphere.

      The secular government of Syria has provided some
      funds to restore the ancient churches.

      And finally the Friends of the Church of St.
      George, Izraa, is actively working to raise money
      for restoration. The dome of St. George of Izraa
      was destroyed by an earthquake in 1899. It was
      replaced by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in 1912 but needs repair.

      The church, two octagons in a square, was built
      of black basalt, a stone indigenous to the area.
      Windows at the base of the dome create natural
      light. Scholars consider it the first example of a square type of church.

      The purpose of the metropolitan's monthlong trip
      to the U.S. was to visit with friends, not to raise funds, Salem said.

      "But everyone loves him and knows the work he is
      doing, so people wanted to help him," the Houston
      priest said. "I think really because he is just
      so humble and kind to everyone. And he is doing
      the work we are called to do: feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty."

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