To speak with Sa. is to connect with a narrative which takes us right back to the Apostle Paul, the early Church and the primitive beginnings of Christianity. This is a woman who lived not that far from Straight Street in Damascus. As a girl she walked beneath the house of Ananias, where Paul escaped from the city in a basket.
Here is a woman whose forebears are part of the most ancient Christian community. Her past touches our present in ways which bring it to life. Born in Al Nabk, she grew up in Lattakia (Laodicea). Her parents were raised among the cedars of Lebanon.
Sa.’s story is also a reminder that long before the arrival of Islam and the Ottoman Empire, Christian ‘Arabs’ were worshipping Jesus Christ as Lord. They were converted to Christianity out of a melting pot of religions in the multi cultural world of first century Syria.
The gospel Paul preached found a ready hearing among the Phoenecians and Arameans who lived there. Sa.’s ancestors kept the faith alive throughout the oppression of the Roman Empire, then the Islamic Crusades which pushed Christianity underground, then through the Arab-Israeli wars of the 20th Century and now the rise of militant Islamic terrorism in the 21st.
As we sat in her home, she told me of her memories as a three year old; the war of 1967 was going on and her parents took her indoors where they blacked out the windows. In teenage years she sat in one of Antioch’s amphitheatres and was told by her parents that this was a place where Christians were thrown to the lions first by the Romans and then by the Muslims.
What all this does for me is to rescue me from a current worldview that somehow Christianity was a later faith which invaded and oppressed the original Muslim majority of the Middle East. Not so. In many regions Islam has been the interloper. It is for that reason, among many, that Christian believers like Sa. find the loss of the Christian presence in her homeland deeply painful. She mourns for her persecuted Christian brothers and sisters – she grieves the deaths of family members.
And yet despite all that, this woman, whose ancestral origins are Syrian, among those people who were first called Christians in Antioch, has a deep love for, and desire to reach out to, the Islamic communities of the world and to love her enemies.
This has led her to spend 13 years in Casablanca, raising a family there and reaching the women of these North African communities with the good news of Christ.
Sadly, and unlike Syria, that North African region, which produced such Christian giants as Tertullian and Augustine, has almost entirely lost its Christian heritage. For centuries the Islamic authorities, rather like the Soviets of the 20th Century, have systematically ‘deleted’ the past. So much so that as far as the locals are now concerned any Christian past is a Western lie.
History repeated itself for Sa.. Persecution of the Christian Church and Christian missionaries saw her family expelled from Morocco and forbidden to return. However her passion for North African people has found a new expression in the last four years here in Lyons. Lyons itself a city of half a million with a glorious Christian heritage among whose streets the great early church Father Iraneaus emerged as Bishop. Here now among the markets and avenues of this huge international community are Algerians, Morrocans and Tunisians.
“We stand united with believers who are among the most despised and persecuted in the world…”
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Sa. is learning again how to communicate the liberating message of Jesus across cultures in different languages, giving dignity to women along with the hope of forgiveness and eternal life.
Inspired by her story, I can see that history is not a foreign country and that the faith which was birthed in Syria has produced generations of Christian believers like her, who, wherever they go, take the gospel of truth and love with them.
It is an enormous personal privilege to be part of her narrative now, as she and her husband An. with their boys Mark and Joel, commit their lives in a very unassuming way to the faith “once delivered to the saints”.
More than that, our Church community in Lansdowne has, through families like this, a significant role to play in joining the past to the present, and in praying and giving to the future of the gospel and the Church in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
The line of faith runs right from first century Syria to 21st Century UK. We stand united with believers who are among the most despised and persecuted in the world, for a gospel which will triumph and a Saviour whose Kingdom will outlast the years.