Meeting with Ministry of expatriates for the diaspora; Visits to Saydnaya Monasteries and St. Thekla at Maaloula - 11/04/10

Damascus, Saydnaya, and Malloula, Syria

The first visit on the second full day was paid to Mr. Joseph Sweid, a Christian who is Syria’s Minister of Expatriates. He warmly welcomed Sayidna and the delegation to the office and to the country. “I pray the visit is not just a tour, but you get a good picture of what we are doing in Syria,” he said. “You’ll learn that life is different here than what you’ve heard until now.” He encouraged us to discover Syrian society and how it deals with problems and that its government makes no differences between Christians and Muslims who live harmoniously. Mr. Sweid called Syria the cradle of all religions, especially Christianity because the conversion of St. Paul happened here. He added that our visit is extremely important so that we can see Syria for ourselves, to make us “ambassadors” to help others see its real side. He reports 17 million Syrian immigrants throughout the world, so it is important for them to maintain their connections with their homeland. He also shared with us some little-known facts about Syria often missed by the west: forty percent of members of parliament are women, as are the ministers of trade, environment and industry.

We returned to Saydnaya, which means “the place of hunting”, to begin our highly-anticipated tours of the monastic communities, leading off with Holy Virgin Mary Monastery. This grand spiritual oasis was built by Emperor Justinian the Great in the fifth century. Abbess Christina welcomed us in the church, thanked Sayidna JOSEPH and us for coming, and expressed her feeling of privilege to be living there. She reminded us that we were not there to visit her, but the Mother of God. “We thank God for your safety, and for every effort you are making to come,” she said. “From east and west, kings and presidents have come to venerate icons in this monastery. You, however, are far more important than they because you are believers and you know where have come.”This monastery never sleeps, serving everyone who knocks on their door morning, afternoon and night.

We made our way into the shrine is called “Ashagoura” which means “the true message.” The miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary, one of four written by the Apostle Luke in the first century, is kept here and continuously weeps oil. It came to Saydnaya from Jerusalem in 547. Flowing with the oil are many miracles and healings over the years, including recent cancers. Even Muslims come to be anointed for healing, but this practice is kept quiet for their own safety.

Our last stop on this moving day was at Maaloula and St. Thekla Monastery, the oldest in the world. Abbess Pelagia greeted us and taught us about St. Thekla, who came to Maaloula in 55 A.D. She is considered as “equal to the apostles” because she was a student of St. Paul and baptized by him. She came to this mountain which had enclosed the kingdom of Selevkia. The mountain had no water, so she prayed to God for relief and it split for her, producing a spring that she used for drinking and baptizing new Christians. The spring still drips from the rock unexpectedly and miraculously, and two of our pilgrims cupped their hands and received the water. They described it as a refreshing mist that helped them feel St. Thekla’s presence.

The monastery has 15 nuns who care for 27 orphaned girls. Fr. John Ferzili, a graduate of the Balamand Seminary and a dentist, also assists them. We then climbed the steps to an 800 year old apricot tree that covered the entire patio. We venerated St. Thekla’s icon in the cave and heard many stories of healings that took place there, and saw even more gifts these grateful people left behind in thanksgiving. We listened to ten of the girls recite the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, the language of Christ that is still spoken at this monastery. The pilgrims felt a lot of holiness and comfort and it was hard for them to leave.