Orthodox Christians in fear of ‘utter chaos’ seek refuge in prayer

Sr Verona, head of the Saydnaya convent, in a room in the convent that was damaged in a recent mortar attack. Photograph: Bassem Tellawi/AP

Sr Verona, head of the Saydnaya convent, in a room in the convent that was damaged in a recent mortar attack. Photograph: Bassem Tellawi/AP

8/2/2012

Members of a Syrian convent believe many interests are seeking to sabotage their country, writes MICHAEL JANSEN in Saydnaya

THE ORTHODOX convent of Our Lady of Saydnaya sits four-square on a hilltop an hour’s drive from Damascus. The convent dominates the town of Saydnaya, inhabited by Christians known for piety.

Our minibus, carrying a Lebanese television team, four European journalists and two young men from the ministry of information, winds its way up the narrow paved road to the convent and parks at the back. There, we can see where a mortar punched a large hole in the pinkish-beige stone wall near the roof of the 19th-century building. The wound has already been closed with stones and mortar.

A thin woman in a blue wool dressing gown is listening to the service broadcast over the public address system.

Retired school mistress Matilda Mansour was at home when the projectile struck on Sunday, January 29th. “It was about 1.15. I rushed out to see what happened and saw the damage.”

“Why do they shoot at convents?” I ask.

“To scare Christians . . . to scare children. Haram [shame]. This never happened here before . . . God protect president Assad. We cannot trust anyone else,” she says.

“They must persuade the terrorists to end their attacks. I’m afraid . . . I watch TV day after day. All those dead people make you lose your appetite for TV.”

She adds, however, that she does not watch al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera, Arab satellite channels seen as being anti-regime.

We make our way to the front of the convent, where women in their Sunday best, girls in skimpy mini-skirts and sequin-spangled scarves, boys in tight jeans and leather jackets, and men in suits and ties are zig-zagging their way down flights of stone steps with black iron railings decorated with crosses. We pause until the flow subsides before climbing to a landing, where the priest awaits us.

Fr George Nijmeh is a portly, balding man wearing a black pullover with sparkly threads over his cassock.

He echoes the words of Mansour: “The Virgin Mary protected us. Today’s service had many more people than previous prayers. Prayer is among the weapons protecting us and driving away the black cloud hanging over Syria.”

He adds: “We should not have fighting in Syria but there are lots of interests who seek to sabotage our country. They are

promoting sectarianism in the villages . . . We are afraid of utter chaos. The Europeans are blindly following the Americans without looking at the reality . . . Russia is different. The Russian Church understands our situation.”

We are ushered into the office of the mother superior, a large woman in black habit with a heavy jewelled cross hanging from her neck. She gestures towards the shell of the unexploded mortar lying on a tray on an elegant inlaid wooden table in the centre of the room. Security men who came to investigate defused the device and cut it in half, taking away one half and leaving the other behind.

“It was a message from the Virgin Mary that you cannot harm the convent,” says the mother superior.

The target was a guest room near the dormitory where some of the 25 children sleep. “The guest staying there left an hour before. The people [who fired the mortar] are brainwashed.”

A cheerful sister leads us to the targeted room, where a third of the wall was destroyed. On the open landing, she points to the snow-topped mountains in the distance. “The emperor Justinian was hunting when his party came across a doe. She led them here, then said: ‘You are not going to kill me but build a convent.’”

In a corridor at the bottom of the convent we slip off our shoes and duck into a tiny chapel where half a dozen women are seeking the blessing of an icon of the Virgin, reputedly painted by St Luke.

The icon is covered in gold; the image of the Virgin is tiny, dark, and surrounded by tinier heads of saints. A Muslim man from our party kneels in respect and receives from a nun a small piece of cotton soaked in holy oil and inserted in a plastic packet.

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