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