Cover Story

Staying the course

"Staying the course" Continued...

Issue: "2013 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 14, 2013

The prophet of Islam divided the world into two spheres—Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (House of War). His armed followers went to war against all that was not in the House of Islam. Arabic replaced Greek (and Aramaic) as the language of the day, and Christians who by race were Assyrians or Chaldeans became—by force and by choice—Muslims and Arabs.

Muslim armies quickly moved toward Syria. Aleppo, influential as the end point of the Silk Road and surrounded by Christian centers of learning (with Edessa about 100 miles away), fell to the Arabs in 637, Damascus soon after. Christians in Aleppo, today Syria’s largest city, managed to remain a durable if declining demographic. In 1944 they made up 34 percent of the city population (then 325,000). Before the war began in 2011, they made up about 12 percent (of 2 million residents). By some estimates that number now may have dropped as low as 6 percent.

Audo argues that the risk of Christian extinction poses a danger for Muslims as well. The experience of Christians living alongside Muslims, even as second-class citizens, has made the church in the East what it is:

“It is very important for us as Oriental churches to have this presence in the lands of revelation of our faith, for ourselves and for other Christians. … We as churches have the experience of living with Islam. It will be very negative if we go abroad, and if we no longer have the presence of Christianity with Muslims. It is important to give Islam the opportunity to live with another religion.”

AUDO IN MANY WAYS is emblematic of the Christian’s journey in the Middle East. His father migrated to Aleppo from Al-Kosh, a town in Iraq perched in the hills above the Nineveh Plains. Al-Kosh was the home of Nahum, who prophesied Nineveh’s destruction and the fall of the Assyrian empire. A tomb reportedly containing his remains rests in the middle of town above the ruins of a synagogue, surrounded by Hebrew inscriptions. The last of the town’s Jews left in the 1940s, but churches and a Christian cemetery predominate.

Audo was born in Aleppo. He trained as a Jesuit priest, and received his doctorate in Arabic literature from the Sorbonne. For 10 years he worked in Beirut as part of a Bible translation project, producing what’s now called the New Arabic Version, an Arabic-language Bible similar to the original New International Version in English. Audo speaks haltingly in English, but only because it’s down his list of languages: He speaks first Arabic, then French, Italian, and English, as well as being fluent in Hebrew and Syriac.

The church in the Middle East may be in “terminal regional decline,” according to Habib Malik, associate professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University. But the leadership provided by clergy like Audo is spurring spiritual renewal among youth and continuing interest in clergy vocation. This has been the case particularly in Lebanon and Syria, unlike places like Saudi Arabia, but is threatened by the outside Islamist groups now vying to oust the Assad government.  

Malik admits of the three monotheistic religions in the region, “Christianity is most beleaguered.” Muslims have captured territory and control political power. Jews have found sanctuary in the modern state of Israel. “But native Christians in the region have none of this. They tend to be weak and scattered communities … repeatedly subjected to pressure from oppressive regimes and Islamist groups.”

Audo is too busy to fixate on bleak outlooks. Through Caritas volunteers, his church is feeding 3,000 families every month and providing them stipends. They have organized ambulance care and medicine for the sick and wounded. And they are supporting over 3,000 students who need help with school costs and transportation.

Thousands of displaced Syrians arrive in Aleppo needing help, Christians and Muslims, plus many within his own parish have lost their homes and are suffering. Every necessity you can think of is in short supply, including bread, and more expensive by the day. “It is a big economic crisis,” Audo said. “People are becoming more and more poor and needy.”

“Will you stay?” I ask. 

“Of course. It’s my country, the place I live, and I have to give a testimony. I respect everybody who chooses to leave. But I will continue.”

—with reporting by Kaitlyn Speer

Listen to WORLD founder Joel Belz discuss past Daniels of the Year on The World and Everything in It:


Listen to Mindy Belz discuss this year’s Daniel of the Year on The World and Everything in It

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