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Archive for the tag “Homs”

A Surreal Trip to Syria

Through a quirk of fate, I was on a bus travelling from Beirut to Damascus on the day that the US, Britain and France launched airstrikes on Syria. The group I joined was on a pastoral visit arranged months earlier, at the invitation of the Syriac Orthodox church, to offer support and solidarity to Syria’s Christians.

The name of the bus, Al-Ma’arri Travel & Tourism, was well-chosen, for Al-Ma’arri was an 11th century blind Syrian poet-philosopher whose Treatise on Forgiveness is thought to have directly influenced Dante’s Divine Comedy. His poems expressed the cynicism and pessimism of his times, where political anarchy and social decay were prevalent. He became a vegetarian and adopted a life of seclusion.


Breezing through the checkpoints with no obvious bribery or checking of luggage, our bus clearly shone with the sanctity of those on board.  My previous trip in late 2014 to rescue my Damascus house from war profiteers had involved packets of cigarettes passed to soldiers and profuse sweating as grubby hands rummaged among my bags. Our clergy-led coach party was treated like royalty throughout; there was no need even to sully our feet with a descent from the bus at the border.

When I bought my crumbling courtyard house in 2005 at the centre of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Old City of Damascus, I did so as an individual, with no shortcuts or favours. For three years I battled to complete its restoration, fighting the labyrinthine bureaucracy, helped only by ordinary Syrians like my architect and his team of craftsmen, my lawyer and my bank manager. Various friends who lost their homes in the suburbs to regime bombardment have lived there since 2012 – up to five families at some points, more after the Ghouta chemical attack in August 2013 when the courtyard was full of mattresses. Today, just one extended family lives there at my invitation, in residence since 2015.

In the Christian quarter of the city, we were whisked on to a smaller bus that wiggled its way past the Damascus citadel into the pedestrianised square, directly in front of the spiritual heart of the city, the Umayyad mosque. Its magnificent courtyard had been cleared of worshippers in our honour and we were ushered into an audience hall I had never known existed, despite scores of previous visits. Here, the grand mufti – the country’s most senior Muslim authority – Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, presided over an atmosphere of bonhomie and spoke of the joy of Muslim-Christian relations. Amnesty International notes that the grand mufti’s approval would have been required for between 5,000 and 13,000 executions carried out at Saydnaya prison since 2011.


In Homs, our next stop, we passed countless chilling posters of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, mainly in his dark glasses and military fatigues, the slogan beneath assuring his people he would protect Syria from “the terrorists”. Before the war the Assad look was more tracksuited, on a bicycle taking his son to school, or tenderly planting trees at the roadside. In posters of Christian martyrs, he appears opposite the Virgin Mary in his role as the ‘God Bashar’.

Homs was shockingly empty, acres of devastation, with only the famous Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque hastily restored by the military construction department to be viewed from afar. It is an empty shell for show, like so much else.

Through accidental timing, we were in Aleppo for Syria’s national day on 17 April and found ourselves invited to an elaborate concert put on for the country’s elites inside the citadel. As we walked up the ramp of one of the world’s greatest pieces of military architecture, we looked down over the destroyed souks and mosques, and were issued little Syrian flags to wave and shout “Hurriya” (freedom) followed by “Halab” (Aleppo) when prompted. It seemed like a cruel echo of the earliest peaceful chants for freedom in 2011. Freedom is now on the regime’s terms only.

Back in Damascus, on 19 April I visited my house and watched helplessly from the roof as Russian/Syrian fighter jets from Mezzeh airbase flew in broad daylight over central Damascus and dropped cluster bombs on the residential southern suburbs of Yarmouk and al-Hajar al-Aswad. Through accidental timing again, it was the first day of weeks of incessant bombing, day and night, till the ISIS rebels agreed a deal and were bussed out into the eastern desert.

“Trapped” was the word I heard again and again from my Syrian friends, Muslim and Christian, to describe their predicament. While the world debates the legality of airstrikes, to those on the ground the action amounts to no more than hot air. Not one of my friends even mentioned the strikes, knowing their fate remains unchanged – to be killed if they dare to protest or to submit to the will of Assad. It is far too late for the west and the international community to intervene militarily in Syria – that should have been done in 2011, or 2013 at the latest, before Islamic State or Russia came in to fill the lawless vacuum we ignored.

Now the only option is to keep up all forms of pressure on the Assad regime and on Putin, to make both feel the heat. In the past, Assad has caved in quickly to pressure, such as when he removed his troops from Lebanon in a matter of weeks following the international outrage at the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, in 2005. Assad and Putin are umbilically connected at present, but if the cord were cut, leaving Assad stripped of his Russian shield, he would capitulate much faster than anyone imagines. All it needs is a united and coherent policy. That’s something that has been sadly lacking so far.


Putin and Assad merchandise for sale in a hotel lobby in Aleppo

A version of this article appeared in The Guardian on 1st May 2018:


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#Syria Death of a priest – What can be learnt from Father Francis’s murder in Homs?

6th century murals at Mar Elian church in the Old City of Homs, possibly the oldest in Syria [2010, DD]

12th century murals at Mar Elian church in the Old City of Homs [2010, DD]

After living peacefully in Syria for nearly 50 years and devoting his life to Christian/Muslim harmony, Father Francis van der Lugt, a Dutch-born Jesuit in his mid-70s, was dragged into his monastery garden and shot twice in the head. It happened on 7 April 2014 in the Old City of Homs, in front of two witnesses, a fellow Jesuit and a local Christian woman, who said it was carried out by a single masked gunman as a deliberate, premeditated act. A few days earlier he had been beaten up, supposedly by a rebel group. Father Francis had been instrumental in negotiating the UN-supervised ceasefire in Homs in February reported on by the BBC’s Lyse Doucet (see last of ‘Related articles’ below), but had himself refused to leave the devastated and besieged Old City, preferring to stay behind in solidarity with the 24 Christians who were either too old or too sick to leave. As leader of his flock, to leave would have felt to him like the captain abandoning ship while some of his passengers remained aboard. According to some reports he was, at the time of his death, again involved in negotiating for more besieged residents to be allowed out, something some rebel groups were said to be angry about. The siege of Homs’s Old City has become a symbol of resistance, a thorn in the side of the regime, and many rebels feel strongly that if all civilians are allowed out, the regime will simply flatten what remains in order to crush all remaining opposition.

In happier times Father Francis used to run two initiatives to help bring Syrians closer to nature and closer to each other. The first was called ‘Ard’ (Earth) and was an agricultural centre based on a hill outside Homs where young Syrians could camp, work on the land and talk freely among each other. The second was called ‘Maseer’ (Walking tour) and involved him guiding groups of young Syrians on 3 or 10 day hikes in the countryside, where they would sleep in orchards or in village schoolhouses, meeting local farmers and villagers. He was trained as a psychologist and understood well how to encourage open discussion and the free exchange of ideas. Among those who came on such hikes was the young film-maker Basil Shehadeh, whose funeral Father Francis helped organise in Homs in 2012 after the authorities refused to allow his body to be returned to his native Damascus. Father Francis’s own funeral was conducted by local Muslims who knew and loved him. He was closely integrated into the community, helping whoever was in need, Muslim and Christian alike, making no distinction.

Who stands to gain from the death of such a man? No one has claimed responsibility. The regime has blamed ‘terrorist groups’ while the rebel opposition groups have blamed the regime – the usual scenario. We will probably never know for sure who carried out this killing and on whose instructions. But one thing is sure – Father Francis himself, as a Jesuit priest, would not have wanted his death to be avenged. It would go against all he stood for. That would mean his death was simply one more death in the equation, allowing the never-ending spiral of revenge attacks to continue – and to what end? The inevitable destruction of the country.

Much more constructive – though of course much harder – would be to try to emulate what he strove to achieve all his life – bringing people closer together and treating all in need equally. Not long ago he was quoted as saying::

“The Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have”.

The best way to honour his memory would be to remember this deep belief of his in the Syrian people. Revenge would have been alien to him.

Relic of the Virgin's Belt, Umm Al-Zinnar Church, Homs [2010, DD]

Relic of the Virgin’s Belt, Umm Al-Zunnar Church, Homs [2010, DD]

19th century church frescoes in Homs, Church of the Virgin's Belt (Al-Zunnar) [2010, DD]

19th century church frescoes in Homs, Church of the Virgin’s Belt (Al-Zunnar) [2010, DD]

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Cultural curiosities in #Syria

Images of Paradise in the mosaics of Damascus' Great Umayyad Mosque [DD]

Images of Paradise in the mosaics of Damascus’ Great Umayyad Mosque [DD]

1. Restoration of mosaic panel in the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus completed following damage from a “terrorist” shell, according to the official Syrian news agency. Damascus residents say it was so small, no one noticed:


2. Curious ironies of the Olympics-timed ceasefire in Homs:


Ancient Phoenician stadium at Amrit, south of Tartous [DD]

Ancient Phoenician stadium at Amrit, south of Tartous [DD]

3. New tree-planting “forestation” campaign along Beirut-Damascus highway:



Roman road in Syria [DD]

Roman road in Syria [DD]

Maa’loula Media War #Syria

Mar Serkis (St Sergius) Monastery dating to the 4th century, one of Syria's oldest still functioning churches [DD]

Mar Serkis (St Sergius) Monastery dating to the 4th century, one of Syria’s oldest still functioning churches [DD]

Why has Maa’loula, Syria’s most famous Christian village, suddenly found itself caught up in the Syrian war? Like most Christian villages, it has stayed neutral from the beginning, trying not to be drawn onto one side or the other. Why should it happen now?

Maa’loula is of no strategic interest to the rebels, set as it is in a cleft under a cliff with only one way in and out. Only the Qalamoun Mountains above the Christian town are of interest as strategic high ground from which to command surrounding areas. The regime has controlled a big and well-armed checkpoint at the entrance to Maa’loula for a long time, but last week it started firing up at rebel positions high above Maa’loula, provoking the rebel attack on the checkpoint. The regime then began shelling the town to displace the rebels, and the story hit the papers. Residents of Maa’loula were understandably frightened and distressed, feeling they had to leave and take shelter in Damascus. Conveniently, the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen had been given a regime-approved visa to be in Damascus, and was there to interview and film the fleeing Christians. Headlines across the world soon became ‘Christians in Maaloula forced to flee homes and houses looted by rebels.’ YouTube videos uploaded afterwards showed some damage to the Hotel Safir at the top of the cliff and to some residential buildings. The two famous monasteries were undamaged.

The facts here are strange for their timing. It is extremely lucky for the regime to have such headlines at present, to give weight to the anti-US intervention campaign, to make the rebels look as if they are targeting Christians. But why would the rebels do that? In the entire course of the Syrian civil war, the overwhelming majority of people killed have been Sunni Muslim. There have been no reciprocal massacres of Christians or Alawites by the rebels. If they had wanted to target Christians they could have done so months or even years ago, desecrating churches and knocking down crosses. Instead, many rebels have been actively helping Christians and protecting them wherever possible. In Qara, a little north of Maaloula the Christians are helping the rebels. In Homs the rebels are guarding the churches and the frescoes inside have not been damaged. Only the external fabric and the glass has been damaged by the regime shelling.

Church frescoes in Homs, Church of the Virgin's Belt [DD]

Church frescoes in Homs, Church of the Virgin’s Belt [DD]

They are even protecting the 35 or so Christian families who are still in Homs, too old or too poor to leave. But none of that makes headlines.

In Maaloula, beside the two famous monasteries of Mar Serkis and Mar Thekla, whose shrines are visited by Christians and Muslims alike in search of miraculous cures like a kind of ‘Lourdes’, there are 6 further churches and 2 mosques. The community is predominantly Christian but is also mixed. In Seydnayya, another famous monastery a little to the south just on the edge of the Qalamoun Mountains, the shrine is also visited by both Christians and Muslims, again seeking cures to illness and disease. In the town there are 13 further churches and 2 mosques. Two Christian women in the town are married to Muslim men. These communities have lived side by side for centuries.

Now however the regime is in a very tight spot, with the threat of an American-led attack. Bringing to the forefront of the world’s consciousness a strategically insignificant but historically significant place like Maa’loula, Syria’s most famous Christian village well known to tourists as the place where the nuns will sing ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ for you in Aramaic, ‘the language of Christ’,  is a very clever ploy. The regime has learnt well from the American and British PR firms it paid so handsomely to advise it on ‘image enhancement’ before the revolution broke out. Better trained and better funded, they are winning the PR war.

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One year since Father Paolo’s abduction by ISIS

Father Paolo 2 download

Father Paolo in front of his beloved Mar Mousa Monastery

On 29 July 2013 Father Paolo was abducted by ISIS in the Syrian city of Raqqa. There have been occasional rumours of his death at the hands of ISIS, most recently by an ISIS defector who said Paolo was shot 14 times and his body thrown into a well, but the Vatican so far has refused to confirm or deny such rumours. Until any news is definite, I will therefore keep this piece in the present tense, reissued in remembrance of a remarkable man.

Father Paolo does not fit the mould. He is not a man of conventions and has always pushed at the boundaries of what both Muslims and Christians consider acceptable. An Italian Jesuit priest, he went against the rules of his Jesuit community and set up an ecumenical monastery in the mountainous desert between Homs and Damascus.


Steps leading up to the Monastery of Mar Mousa, steps which Father Paolo himself helped to build.

It represents his entire life and there is no doubt he would be prepared to die for it, for Syria and for his beliefs.

What are his beliefs? For him it does not matter whether you are Muslim or Christian, as long as you are close to God. He rejects the strict concept of ‘orders’ as very occidental: “Orders come from the West,” he always said. “In the east there are no orders.” He also felt it does not matter if you are a man or a woman, as long as your commitment to God is deep and sincere. He has always rejected what he sees as narrow-minded criticism of his allowing both monks and nuns at his community of Mar Musa. Most unusual of all though, is his conviction that he has been called to bring Islam and Christianity closer to each other. This is the whole purpose of his monastery, where masses were attended by Muslims and Christians alike. “We are here for the Muslims and for Islam”, he said. “We must not be against them. We are here for them.”

This is what he said to everyone who visited, and before the revolution up to 50,000 visitors a year came, mostly Muslims. He said it to Marius Kociejowski, who devoted a chapter to Father Paolo in The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool, and he said it to me when I last visited him in November 2011, eight months into the Syrian Revolution when almost no foreigners came any more to Mar Musa.

On that occasion, six months before he was expelled from Syria for his outspoken criticism of the Assad regime and equally outspoken support of the Syrian Revolution, he spoke animatedly about his fears for the country. He foresaw the partition of the country and all the old divisions he was fighting so hard to dispel, resurfacing in ugly ways. He was disappointed in the position that some of his fellow Christian churchmen and women were taking in the struggle, trying to exclude themselves from the fight.

To imagine that he would stay out of Syria after his expulsion was always unrealistic. A man like Paolo could never be a bystander and watch from the sidelines. He knew the risks he took in going into Raqqa, in trying to speak to militarized extremists. The risks would not have mattered to him. What mattered was that he at least tried to negotiate, tried to reason with them not to fight against Kurdish groups. He believed in sacrificing personal happiness in pursuit of a greater goal.

“For me there is no East or West,” he said. He rejected the mould. May his philosophy never die.

Father Paolo 2 download

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