Many of us have become conditioned because of our history to think of Christianity as essentially European. “Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe,” as Belloc once declared. That modern Europe is the fruit of Christianity is a historical fact difficult to deny, despite the deliberate omission of that heritage in the EU’s 2004 Constitution for Europe.
With many parishes both in Western Europe and the United States being staffed by priests and religious from Africa, it is a familiar theme that “just as we gave them the Faith, they are giving it back to us”. Unfortunately, that has little connection with reality. While it is true that much of the growth of Catholicism in certain parts of Africa was due to missionary efforts undertaken in the last 200 years, the transmission of the faith was actually a gift from the East and the South to the pagan countries of the West. As the historian Philip Jenkins has written, from the earliest times, certainly from the period of the Acts of the Apostles, just as the faith was moving towards the West, it was also heading East.
A number of years ago, I met the brave Greek Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, of Aleppo, Syria, who stayed with his flock throughout the years of bombardment by jihadists. The archbishop forcefully reminded me that the Syrian Church was, in his words, the “Church of the Acts of the Apostles”. “We were there at the beginning,” he said. St Paul (or Saul, as he was then known) was on the road to Damascus not to convert a community to Christ but to arrest members of an existing Church.
The focus of much of the concern of Western Christians for the persecuted Church in the Middle East and Africa is, rightly, providing material support for those who have lost everything for the faith. However, it can be argued that it is equally important both to understand the heritage from which we spring, and to do all in our power to preserve it.
The ancient churches of Iraq and Syria claim apostolic origins and were, according to Philip Jenkins, “in terms of the number and splendour” of the churches and monasteries, and the “vast scholarship and dazzling spirituality”, far ahead of the Western Church in the first six or seven centuries after Christ.
A perfect example of that Eastern heritage is what happened in 670, on the Isle of Thanet in Kent. The archbishop of Canterbury consecrated the Benedictine abbey at Minster (which still today houses a community of nuns). The archbishop, St Theodore, was from Tarsus, the birthplace of St Paul, in what would then have been considered Syria. It is worth wondering what the reaction might be today if the Pope appointed as the next Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster a Syrian or Iraqi prelate. Perhaps it is the modern Church that is parochial and narrow, rather than the ancient one?
Accompanying St Theodore in his ministry in Canterbury was an African monk, probably from what is now Libya. St Hadrian, as he was known, became the abbot of the Benedictine abbey in Canterbury and, according to the Venerable Bede, brought much learning to the English Church.
Today the small but vibrant community of Sisters at Minster has a special charism of prayer and dialogue with the churches of the East, and a new apostolate producing icons. This is very much in the tradition of the former prioress, Mother Concordia, who was a well-known sculptor with statues in, among other places, Canterbury Cathedral and St Thomas’s Church on Fifth Avenue in New York.
In the simple chapel at Minster, beside the statue of Our Lady dressed as a Saxon queen created by Mother Concordia, hangs a photograph of the two bishops kidnapped in Syria six years ago. The Syriac Orthodox bishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox bishop Boulos Yazigi visited Minster together in 2004. The Sisters pray daily for the safe return of the two bishops or, if they are dead, for the return of their bodies.
The nuns’ latest initiative, linking the Western and Eastern churches, is the donation of an icon of the prophet Jonah, to travel with me as I speak and preach about the persecuted. The tomb of Jonah, at least according to an ancient tradition, is in Mosul, which is the ancient city of Nineveh. ISIS blew up the tomb during their murderous occupation of the Iraqi city. In 2017, in a city still full of bodies and bombs, I stood at the destroyed tomb; no one knows what has happened to the body of the prophet – if, indeed, he had been there in the first place.
In July of this year, I returned to Mosul, carrying with me the icon of St Jonah, written by one of the Minster nuns. (Icons are never “painted”, but written, because the icon’s creator is guided by the one who is portrayed.)
The ancient biblical story of Jonah, spending three days in the belly of the whale, has always been used as a symbol of the Resurrection. This new icon is a sign of hope, not just for the Church in Iraq but also in Syria, that once again, with the help of Christians in the West, the ancient Christian communities of the East will not only survive, but also flourish.
Fr Benedict Kiely is the founder of Nasarean.org, which helps the persecuted Christians of the Middle East