Christmas in Syria is an inspiring display of Muslims and Christians mingling in peace

Author: Zaher Sahloul

Publication Date: 23/12/2021

Source: Chicago Tribune

If Jesus Christ descends from heaven to earth, he will be able to speak in his native language only to the people of three Syrian villages northwest of Damascus. The Christian village of Malula and its neighboring Muslim villages, Jabadeen and Bakhaa, represent the last outposts of spoken Aramaic, which was the language Jesus spoke in Galilee two millenniums ago. As a Syrian Muslim, I, like all Syrians, cherish that fact.

All Syrians are also proud to say that their homeland has the tomb of John the Baptist, a prophet who is revered by Muslims and Christians. Damascus has the path where St. Paul converted to Christianity, and Aleppo has the church of St. Simeon Stylites the Elder, a Syriac ascetic saint who achieved fame for living 37 years on a small platform on top of a pillar near Aleppo.

Contrary to the common perception in the U.S., Syria was and still is an oasis of diversity and vibrant interfaith life. In Syria, there are more than 27 religious and faith communities that have been living together for centuries. The current sectarian tension in some areas is a relatively new phenomenon promoted mostly by the Syrian regime to advance its political agenda at the expense of the historical communities that lived and worshipped together for a long time.

My city, Homs, also known as the windy city for its real winds, is known for its two famous religious sites: the Mosque of Khalid Ibn Al-Waleed, a legendary Muslim hero who chose to live and die in Homs and gave it his name, and Church of Our Lady of the Belt, where myth has it that the belt of Virgin Mary is buried deep under its ground.

In Homs, there are Orthodox, Armenian, Maronite, Catholic and Anglican Christians who lived happily together with their Muslim neighbors long before the birth of my adopted homeland. All preserved their rituals, culture and languages through the ages.

The old city of Homs, once considered as the center of the Syrian revolution, has two Christian neighborhoods — Bostan Aldiwan and Alhamedeyya — hugging the mixed neighborhoods of Bab Todmor (Palmyra Gate) and Bab Alsibaa (The Lions Gate).

Church of Our Lady of the Belt, an Orthodox church, leans on the historical Mosque of Abo Alhol, a Muslim saint. A special fusion Muslim-Christian religious holiday is called “Sweet Thursday” or the “Thursday of Saints,” a unique holiday for the city when all people celebrate the day by cooking special Homsi sweets.

Some Christian mothers name their male child Mohammad if God blessed them with a child after a long wait, while Muslim women and men pray at the historical “blessed” site of Our Lady of the Belt seeking a cure for their illnesses. Many Muslim families send their children to learn at private Christian schools, and many Christian students learn and memorize parts of the Quran.

Muslims use Christian terms like “We thank our Lord” and “May the Lord bless you,” and Christians speak like Muslims, saying, “Inshallah, Alhamdulillah, Assalam Alaikum and Bismi Allah.” Some prominent Homsi families have both Muslim and Christian members. Eisa (Jesus) is a common Muslim name, and interfaith dialogue is called neighborly relations.

Christmas is a holiday for all in Homs as it is the Muslim holiday of Eid. Muslims greet their Christian friends by saying, “Eid Milad Saeed,” the Arabic equivalent of “Merry Christmas.” Retail stores have their holiday sales, and Christmas festivities fill the atmosphere. Santa is called Noel Baba or Father Christmas, reflecting the true historical figure who lived in nearby Turkey. He also brings gifts to children, although Christmas is much less commercialized in Syria.

During Christmas, Muslim families visit churches and their Christian neighbors. Some Muslim families have Christmas trees in their houses. The sound of Muslim call for prayer intertwines with the sound of church bells while the smell of Homsi sweets fills the narrow streets of the old city. Local TV and radio stations air Christian songs.

Muslim and Christian youth perform the local folkloric Aradha wearing colorful dresses, chanting mythical songs about Homs, the city of peace and den of lions.


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