I spent one of the best Christmases of my life in Syria three years ago.
The violence that would rip that country apart was only months away, but nobody knew that yet, and I took a break from reporting to spend Christmas Eve in Maaloula — a Christian city carved into rugged yellow cliffs about an hour’s drive outside Damascus.
White pickups careened through town full of teenagers dressed like Santa, and out-of-tune marching bands roamed the streets belting out jangly carols.
But beyond the holiday excitement, a deep sense of history shaped the experience; spoken Aramaic (the language of Jesus), millennia-old churches nestled in caves, and crude shrines carved into steep ravines.
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A small piece of that ancient Christianity is present here in the Pacific Northwest at Saint Joseph, a Melkite Catholic Church in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood that serves as home to many of this region’s Middle Eastern Christians.
“It’s a good place to maintain your relationship to your community, to your people,” says Afeef Louis, 28, originally of Homs, Syria.
Louis moved to Seattle a few weeks ago for a job with Alaska Airlines — and to escape the violence that he says has left him and many of peers with “nothing.”
Louis says he found Saint Joseph, by searching online “Syrian or Lebanese Christians Seattle.” Though he’s actually Greek Orthodox (a large Christian denomination in Syria), he says he finds comfort in attending services with people from his part of the world. And the church does evoke a kind of Pan-Arab Christian culture with brocade robes, murmuring Arabic and after-services baklava.
“We opened (this church) for all Christians,” says The Rev. Samir Abu Lail, the head of Saint Joseph’s, who estimates the Christian-Arab community in the Seattle area numbers somewhere between 200 and 300. “We believe in the same God.”
The Melkite Catholic Church is only one of many Arab-Christian denominations, but The Rev. Lail, who is originally from Jordan, has attracted people from different countries and traditions by incorporating a mixture of Christian customs in his services.
For example, he faces west during services (a Lebanese practice) instead of east (which is common for other Middle Eastern churches). He also includes prayers and songs from around the region.
These may seem like small things, but members say it sends a strong message that everyone is welcome. As a result, the congregation boasts members from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Iraq.
For Syrian members of the congregation — who have family and friends still in a war zone — this time of year is difficult. Feelings of separation and uncertainty are made all the more poignant by the importance of the holiday.
John Tafas, originally from Sadad, Syria, says his hometown is always on his mind. In fact, when I spoke with him last weekend he was hoping to help get a truckload of presents transported from Damascus to his home city.
He tried pulling strings with contacts back home to negotiate with government and rebel forces in the area to let the shipment through (no word yet on whether it arrived).
Tafas is Syriac Orthodox Christian, another sect based in Damascus, but often finds himself at Saint Joseph with his dad, The Rev. Abdulah Tafas, a Syriac Orthodox priest who sometimes presides with The Rev. Lail at services. John Tafas says he often panics when he thinks about what’s happening at home — especially since violence and fighting have increased in Sadad. But his father reminds him of his faith, saying over and over, “all problems have an end.”
As proof of this belief, The Rev. Abdulah interrupted his son, who had been translating for him, and asked me in strained English if I would come visit their village in Syria once the “crisis is over.”
I thought of Maaloula — by most news accounts it’s now a ghost town given over to fighting. I thought of the cold, clear Christmas Eve I spent there, walking through cobbled streets and shaking gloved hands with people eager to wish me a happy holiday.
“Yes, I’d love to,” I told him.
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: email@example.com. Twitter: @SeaStute