Syria should be on your radar screen if you have an interest in the life of the Church. It’s openness to
Christianity today is startling bad. Freedom of religion and human rights lack;
political oppression and basic needs are always in question. The current regime
very likely nervous given the recent wave of political take-back. John Juliet
Buck’s Vogue magazine article on the Syrian First Lady, Asma al-Assad, “
A Rose in
the Desert
” speaks to many issues in Syria, not least is religion. Thoughts of
St John the Baptist’s tomb hearken back to when in 2001 Pope John Paul II visited Syria
and prayed at the tomb of the Baptist.

At first thought Ms al-Assad’s deference to the importance of the Baptist is impressive but there’s something that strikes me as false given recent history of her husband’s family’s rule of Syria viz. religious freedom. Plus, her interest in Christianity in Syria is not because the gospel is true, good and beautiful; her interest in the Church is cultural. The gospel in this context has been reduced to a system of culture and ethics –exactly what it’s not. Syria is  Indeed, many religions have passed through those lands and one seems fairly certain that the current regime wants religions like Christianity to leave Syria and not turn back. Historically, Christianity has been in Syria since St Paul visited the country. It is the place, as we know, where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” Christians in Syria comprise 10% of the population with the largest group being the Greek Orthodox Church.

For me here’s the relevant paragraph in the article:

Back in the car, Buck was answered about
his investigation “what religion the orphans are?” “It’s not relevant,” says
Asma al-Assad. “Let me try to explain it to you. That church is a part of my
heritage because it’s a Syrian church. The Umayyad Mosque is the
third-most-important holy Muslim site, but within the mosque is the tomb of
Saint John the Baptist. We all kneel in the mosque in front of the tomb of
Saint John the Baptist.
That’s how religions live together in Syria–a way that
I have never seen anywhere else in the world. We live side by side, and have
historically. All the religions and cultures that have passed through these
lands–the Armenians, Islam, Christianity, the Umayyads, the Ottomans–make up
who I am.”