A house for the earliest Christians
Our village of Qara, located in the mountainous Qalamun range once had 11 churches (3 that still exist today) and a bishopric. Since the onset of Christianity this town was a bastion for orthodoxy. Today we are but 500 Christians on a population of 20 000. What happened? To this question we’ll try to give a satisfying answer in two parts: first we’ll talk about how Christianity evolved here, secondly we’ll speak about the difficulties Qara suffered over time. The following facts were gathered by two people from the village: a historian and his cousin and research from Mother Agnes Mariam.
“Qara” is an Aramaic word. It means “the great cold” because a cold wind tends to blow here from the West. Our village is a long stroke of land of 55km that stretches on a plateau between the Anti-Lebanon mountain range on the West and the Qalamun mountain range on the East (see map right here).The altitude of our village is about 1300m above sea level.
Qara is located between Homs, Damascus and the Lebanese region of Baalbek. It was a strategic area for the Romans because anyone who wanted to reach Europe through modern Turkey had to pass by our town . (Thus we are sure that St Paul, and other Apostles passed by Qara on their way to Antioch).
In 150 A.D. Qara had its first Bishop. Around 325 A.D. the Qari Bishop Macarius participated to the council of Nicaea. Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine, spent a night in the city of Yabroud, located at 20km to the north of Qara – of which some people say it is the oldest city of the world – in 326 A.D, on her voyage to Jerusalem. She transformed the pagan temple in our village to the Church of Saint Nicholas. Today this church houses the biggest mosque of our town. The reign of Julien the Apostate caused a lot of suffering for the inhabitants of Qara around the year of 363 A.D.
Bishop Dada of our village participated to the Council of Chalcedon in 418 A.D. Throughout the first centuries Qara remained immune towards the Monophysite influences and thus remained faithful to the faith of the Apostles. Around 570 A.D. our town became dependent to the Metropolitan of Damascus. At this point there is a great gap in time of what we can now by certainty; we thus reach the year of 1454 A.D. where we see that the Qari Bishop Zazai assisted a conference on the discussion of the Easter date in Damascus. We then again make a leap in time until 1628, the year of Qara’s last Bishop, Josehp Naama; due to Ottoman persecution there were not enough Christians in Qara anymore to justify a personal Bishop.
1719 – to the present: There were Catholics in Qara and in the neighboring village of Yabrud. In the old days we were responsible for Yabrud, but now the roles had changed and we became dependent of the Yabrudi Catholics. In 1810 the Qara-Yabrud episcopate was broken, and we then became dependent of Homs, who was dependent of Baalbek (in Lebanon). But that alliance also broke when a priest, sent from Baalbek to gather money, was robbed on the road. Then the episcopate evolved to its present form: the Greek-Melkite Catholic episcopate of Homs, Hama and Yabroud. It’s first bishop was Michael, then Flavianus, after him Basilius, Johanna, Dyonisius, Ibrahim, Isidor and finally our present bishop Mgr. Johanna Abdo (see him on the picture with Pope Francis).
Difficulties in Qara
A great drama occurred in 1266 A.D. when the Egyptian Mameluk sultan Baybars killed a very big amount of Qari Christians, selling their children as slaves in Egypt. In Baybars’s days our town had a population that was completely Christian, with some Jews. We had 11 churches; so one could estimate the population had to be between 30 or 40000 inhabitants. After Baybars’s raid Qara’s Christians would no longer be a majority.
The Anti-Lebanon mountain range (the mountains behind the monastery on the picture) once housed green flourishing forests and bears. When The Turks wanted to build a railroad from Turkey to Mecca they cut down all its trees. Now it’s a wasteland, flourished with occasional plantations of cherry trees.
In 1712 Turks entered the Monastery of S James the Persian killing 120 monks. After the Ottoman period, during the French occupation, which lasted until Syria’s independence in 1948, Christians suffered a lot because they were associated to the French invader because they shared their religion. This was the source of a lot of hate crimes.
Since 70 years our village obtained a gradual independence towards the government because it perfected itself in smuggling over the Lebanese border. Smuggling became the main source of income, much more interesting than to work for the state. But the contraband profits have kept the Qari citizens largely uneducated. Nowadays though, due to the war, the border is closed and new ways of income have to be sought. Today the town has a lot of unemployment and a lot of people are living close to the border of poverty.
In its most critical moment of the fights here in the village – when the vast majority of the villagers had fled – the Muslim and Christian volunteers of our monastery  started giving food and health packages to the villagers who were slowly coming back. The villagers are very grateful towards the monastery because of this. Now relative peace has come back to our village, and a new page has been turned. A lot of work, and a lot of prayer is needed but we feel the Lord wanted to purify Qara to give it a new start. We see a growing love of the Muslims for Christians in our town today (and in all of Syria – on the Syrian national tv you can see more masses than in a lot of European countries).
For example: They gave the children flyers around Christmas to invite all people to decorate the town’s very first public Christmas tree. On the flyer you can see the Crescent united with the Cross. A friend who has lived his whole life in Qara told us that it was the first time he saw this.
We aim to live in a spirit of love and mutual forgiveness. This opens up great perspectives of hope towards the future. The Lord is cleansing us through this suffering to make us one. Come Lord Jesus, bless our town with your precious blood, cleanse it from all evil, and enter the hearts of all its inhabitants that they might confess your holy name. Amen.
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