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A Pilgrimage to Syria

Courage that comes from a hope beyond words takes these pilgrims into Damascus to listen and learn, and to search for places to plant seeds of peace

Sometime in the third century, a black Christian monk from Ethiopia wandered into the desert region northwest of Damascus. This man, later known as St. Moses the Abyssinian, spent years with his followers praying in the caves pocketing these desert cliffs. One of the caves, lived and prayed in since then by a succession of desert fathers, became the focus for the 6th century monastery built adjacent to it, now known as the Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian, Deir Mar Musa el-Habashi. It is at this small monastery—a place of stark beauty, communion, and prayer—that we end our pilgrimage to Syria.

One has to bow down to enter this cave that plunges like a tunnel about 15 meters into the mountain. Carpets have been laid down on the floor and a humble altar and cushions placed at its deep end. Before dawn each day, a few of us make our way into the cave to pray in the silence. On the final night of our stay, two men show up to join me at 5:30 a.m. in the cave, lit by a single candle. I wait until they are settled on their cushions and then blow the candle out.

The darkness and the silence are like lovers, so well do they fit together. We each begin to pray silently, stating with the voice of our hearts the reason we have come here. Then we begin the remembrances, known in Sufi terms as zik'r or dhik'r, simple words or phrases repeated many times first aloud and then silently.

After some time we begin to chant the Christian prayer in Arabic, “Ya Rab urham!” which means something like: “Oh Rab! (Nourisher, Teacher, Bestower of Existence) have mercy!”

“Ya Rab urham, ya Rab urham, ya Rab urham!” The words sound tender, comforting, intimate. They vanish in the silence. They re-emerge from inside us. They vanish again. With each repetition of the prayer, a pulse of mercy radiates through us and vanishes in the darkness. Mercy? What is this light that is like a warmth and a sound, yet beyond sensation? We feel the familiar boundaries of our bodies become porous until the edges between us disappear, and the edges between us and the cave, and the mountain, and the light of the dawn outside, disappear. We sense the people awakening in their houses, the earth turning, the sun touching the land, everything happening at once, without boundaries, in a sea of mercy.

“Ya Rab urham!” we repeat, the sound of the prayer entering the silence of the cave like a heartbeat in a womb. “Ya Rab urham!” For an indeterminate moment it feels to us as if a new world is being created, and we are in the middle of its creation in a light in the middle of a mountain.
—Elias Amidon

“In America, the idea of us Syrians is that we eat foreigners,” joked Mahat El-Khoury, a 71-year-old human rights worker and recent Damascus “Woman of the Year.”

“We Syrians feel misunderstood by the West. You don't understand our religions, our family ways, our history, or our politics. You think we're terrorists. We like American people but we feel poorly treated by your government and its policies.”

Mahat's feelings were echoed by many of the Syrians we spoke with during the three weeks we spent in Syria in November. We were joined in our pilgrimage by 15 people from six western countries to bear witness to Muslim-Christian relations, to Arab-Western relations, and to the realities facing the Syrian people at this time of tension and distrust.

Tension was high for the pilgrims who committed to this journey and for their families. One man told his mother he was only going to London, and a woman told us later that on the first day in Syria she was convinced we would be kidnapped or stoned.

On the second morning we asked our fellow pilgrims to wander in Damascus alone or in groups of two and three to initiate conversations with ordinary Syrians and to ask them ever deeper and more caring questions about their feelings and beliefs. This suggestion always causes much consternation when it is described to our fellow pilgrims. But afterwards it is spoken of as the watershed event that shifts one from experiencing the world as a tourist to experiencing it as a pilgrim.

That day, and in the days after, we met with students, architects, teachers, business people, Christian priests, Muslim sheikhs, and social workers. We visited churches, mosques, shrines, schools, offices, homes, and monasteries. As word of our presence spread, we received more and more invitations to meet and talk. People were eager to have their stories heard. Though we did not always agree with what we were told, our task was not to persuade, but to try to understand.

Each of us experienced in someone we met the tender heart. This is not spiritual sentimentality, but the reality of an interconnected world. Together we practiced, in the midst of the unknown, expanding the boundaries of our hearts.

On a practical level, our presence occasioned a number of ever-widening ripples. Elias and Shabda Kahn, a guest teacher on the pilgrimage, were interviewed on Syria's leading TV news commentary program. A participant on the pilgrimage, who is a representative of the international Sister Cities project, met with officials of the Ministry of Urban Affairs and received assurances of cooperation in setting up American-Syrian Sister City partnerships. The Abu Nour Foundation, the largest Muslim nonprofit organization in Syria, agreed to join the international peacekeeping group, Nonviolent Peaceforce (see YES! Fall 2002) as a member organization.

Our presence provided an opportunity for Sheikh Nabil Hilbawi, one of Syria's most respected Shi'ite clerics, to meet with Christian leaders. We were also the occasion for a special interfaith concert performed at the new Damascus Opera House, which combined a Mevlevi Sufi choir and whirling dervishes with a 75-member Christian choir. The two groups performed separately, and then in the finale joined together to sing anthems of peace.

In a particularly stirring moment, we were all guests at Friday prayers in the largest mosque in Damascus, the seat of the Grand Mufti, Syria's leading Islamic cleric. There were several thousand people present. When the Mufti's sermon was finished, Elias was asked to speak. He spoke of the humiliation that so many Muslims feel in our times, both as a result of Western policies and as a result of self-betrayal. He spoke of our respect for their long and sophisticated culture, their religious integrity and commitment to family life, for their spontaneous kindness and expressions of generosity. He thanked them for welcoming us so warmly and apologized for the lack of fairness and understanding in America's recent policies toward Syria.

He concluded with these words: “The policies and politicians of the world are failing us. To protect our children, we all must do everything we can to break through the masks that are being painted on our faces. When we truly meet each other, we will have peace. Let nothing stop our getting to know each other.”

The mosque was quiet. When we stood to leave we were swarmed by men below and women on the balcony above with tears in their eyes thanking us, wishing us well, and inviting us to their homes.

The service at the mosque was broadcast on televsion and radio throughout the country. Did we overstep our bounds? Ours is not a political delegation. Elias simply spoke from his heart and from our experience. An Orthodox priest congratulated us that evening: “You give us hope. You feel with us, you show there are Americans who care.” Another seed of understanding was planted in this rocky soil.

All was not love and light. If you listen and question long enough, the Syrians' anger and suspicion emerges. For millennia, empires have come to rule this land and these people. With an American occupation of Iraq on their eastern border and Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to their southwest, most Syrians fear that American-Israeli interests have expansionist goals in their land.

Part of our witness was to hear this anger, this distrust, and among some Syrians, a desire for justice that borders on a desire for vengeance. More will be needed than ending the violence that surrounds this country. That essential step simply creates the space for the acts of reconciliation, forgiveness, and trust-building that must weave the long-term peace. Here is where religion can play so important a part and why pilgrimages grounded in the unity of religious ideals facilitate this healing.

We dream of communities of pilgrims or emissaries like ourselves going to places of conflict to extend friendship, humility, and open-hearted listening. Our experiences of such pilgrimages have taught us that once the intent is set, doors open, opportunities appear, and networks of friends emerge.
—Elizabeth Rabia Roberts

Father Paolo, the abbot of the Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian, is a great bear of a man with a voice to match. He watches with happy amusement as our group, and other members of the monastery, spend days painting prayers on gaily colored pieces of cloth. These prayer flags are made in the belief that the wind will carry the prayers to the four directions. They are prayers for peace, for understanding among all peoples, for justice, and for healing and joyousness.

The morning they are finished we gather on the monastery's flat rooftop to sew the flags on a 100-meter length of rope. We also assemble a second rope of traditional Tibetan prayer flags. With one end of each tied to the building, the two ropes are dropped down and then played out along the cliff ledges on either side of the monastery until the wind catches them and they sail up in beautiful arcs of fluttering prayers.

Father Paolo raises his arms from the rooftop and starts to chant in his booming voice, “Allah husamahus salaam!” “God's name is peace!” He turns slowly in circles, his arms outstretched, his immense voice filling the mountain gorge in every direction. He turns there, bellowing this prayer for a long time while one by one we all join him, calling out, reaching up, the sun glinting in our eyelids, “God's name is peace!” and the truth of it is, for this moment, made manifest.
—Elias Amidon


Elias Amidon and Elizabeth Rabia Roberts are co-directors of the Boulder Institute for Nature and the Human Spirit, which runs programs on human rights, citizen peacemaking, environmental ethics, and indigenous cultures. You can sign up to get their “Letters from the Road” at www.boulderinstitute.org. They are also co-editors of the books Earth Prayers, Life Prayers, and Prayers for a Thousand Years and teachers in the Sufi tradition.

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