*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 6th of May 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Today our show takes us to Syria, and I don’t want to presume, so let’s look at this critical country and region before we zoom forward to the year 2001.
Syria is not the same as Assyria. However, the Assyrian empire was partially in modern Syria. Assyrians were the pre-Arabic Mesopotamians in the region. They spoke the language of Jesus, Aramaic. Syria has been a country since after the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1.
Syria’s two largest cities are Aleppo and Damascus. That second name should key you into some critical New Testament history. Syria would have an enormous role in the early Christian church.
The city of Damascus is home to the Great Mosque today, but before it was built, the land had quite the history. The location of the mosque is believed to be on the site of an ancient Aramaean temple. When the Romans spread through the area in the 1st century, they repurposed the ancient temple to be a temple to the God Jupiter. Emperor Theodosius converted the temple to a Christian church in 391. However, things would change again in 636 when the Muslim Arabs took control of the city. They initially allowed the church to remain, but with the growth of the Umayyad Dynasty, the church was demolished, and the Great Mosque was built on its site.
Interestingly, it is believed that the head of John the Baptist was kept at the church, and the Mosque has retained that tradition as John the Baptist (or a cognate) appears in Islam as well. Furthermore, there is a minaret at the mosque named Jesus, and it is believed, by Muslims, that Jesus will return at this location. So, the history of this place has Islamic/Christian tension living in its bones. So, you could imagine the news when on this, the 6th of May in 2001 when Pope John Paul II became the first pope ever to enter a Mosque.
That this uniquely Western/Arab moment came in 2001, in May, might explain why its significance has been lost in the shuffle over the past 20 years. The Pope was on a 3-city trip to follow in the footsteps of St. Paul and apologize to those now inhabiting those regions for past sins of the Roman Catholic Church. He had already apologized to Jews in Israel and spent part of this trip in the Mediterranean speaking with representatives of the Orthodox churches in the region.
But some saw Syria as a tricky place as many Muslims follow the Alawite tradition, which is deeply troubling to the Sunnis. Similarly, the country just saw the passing of its president and the ascension of the President’s son, Bashar al-Assad. Al-Assad used the Pope’s visit to tie the Christian and Muslim cause against the Israeli’s. The Pope had been positive towards the idea of a Palestinian state, and this furthermore enflamed his Jewish critics.
The Pope removed his shoes as a sign of respect and did not offer prayers inside the Mosque. However, he did wear his crucifix, something is seen as sacrilegious to the people who believe he existed but never died on the cross and is functionally equivalent to Moses.
The octogenarian Pope and even older Grand Mufti spoke in stilted platitudes about respect interrupted by the constant necessary translations. The move was unpopular by devotees on both sides, and Syria would begin its spiral into an autocratic and murderous state. So, why does this matter? Because the events later in this year and the 20-year war since then are the legacy of the Crusades, Saladin, the Great Mosque, and the Conversion of St. Paul. The visit asks questions about the Christian’s dual citizenship and the possibilities, and limitations, of interfaith dialogue. These questions were raised but unfortunately muddled by the events later in the year.
The last word for today comes from Jesus, a good word about the nature of his coming kingdom:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 6th of May 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by blessed cheesemaker Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who believes in the Malkmus doctrine. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.