From Dust to Life

One man’s attempts to revitalize a community

by Mitchell Prothero

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At a run-down gas station on the outskirts of Khabab, a village in the volcanic plain of the Houran south of Damascus, a taxicab driver refills his battered yellow sedan. He takes relief from the sweltering morning sunshine in the small patches of shade of nearby date trees.

The parched landscape, hazy from the heat and dust, gives way to well-tended fields. Local farmers, known for their production of grains, grapes, olives and pistachios, try to make do with what little water has been stored from the seasonal rains that fall from December to February.

At first glance, little seems to distinguish the quiet village. But one could drive from Khabab in any direction for an hour without ever seeing a single minaret. Though the area lies near Syria’s border with Israel and Jordan and only some 100 miles from Saudi Arabia, it is almost entirely Christian (Antiochene Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholic). Khabab and its surroundings form the center of a Christian enclave that had once been an important center of the church during the late Roman and early Byzantine periods. Today, an estimated 60,000 Christians call the Houran their home.

The first Christians – forced to leave Jerusalem for reasons lost to history – settled among the pagan Bedouin of the Houran in the first century. The community flourished in subsequent centuries and prospered through the early years of the Arab Muslim conquest of the region in the seventh century. But instability and changing trade routes, which once linked the region with the great commercial centers of the Mediterranean and Red seas, impacted the Houran significantly, reducing once important cities and towns to provincial outposts. Christians hung on, however, settling in former Roman-era forts and clinging to their churches, some of the earliest structures dedicated to Christian worship in the world.

Despite this legacy, the region’s Christian presence is vanishing. Since the 1950’s, economic stagnation, unemployment and a dearth of institutions of higher learning have taken their toll on the population, driving its most talented and motivated to Damascus, Aleppo, Beirut or abroad, particularly the states of the Persian Gulf. Emigration has affected Houran’s population as a whole, but its impact on the Christian minority has been particularly cruel.

Further diminishing their presence is a low birthrate – most Syrian Christian couples have only two children – as opposed to a much higher birthrate among the country’s various Islamic communities, which together form about 90 percent of the population.

Holding together the Christian community, keeping its faith alive and its cultural and spiritual traditions intact – even temporal concerns such as jobs – fall largely on the shoulders of Christian leaders such as the Melkite Greek Catholic Metropolitan of Bosra and Houran, 75-year-old Archbishop Boulos Nassif Borkhoche.

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Tags: Syria Melkite Greek Catholic Church Antiochene church Houran