Father Toufic is a man I felt immediately drawn to when I first met him. I’m not sure if it was purely his beautiful spirituality or whether I was influenced by the beauty of the village of Maaloula (in Syria) where he pastors his congregation. Either way, he’s a man I would like to spend more time with and someone I’m sure I could learn a lot from.
The village of Maaloula is famous for being one of last places where Aramaic (the original language of Jesus) is still spoken. It is a very ancient village that has been a refuge for Christians since the earliest days of the church. It is situated high in the mountains north of Damascus, and you can still see caves cut into the rocks where persecuted Christians once hid from their Roman persecutors.
Unfortunately, the current generation of Christians in Maaloula have also experienced persecution. In September 2013, Jabhat Al-Nusra militants entered the village, beheading the three men on duty at the gate who refused to convert. A dozen other townsfolk were also killed and many wounded. A group of nuns were taken hostage, and all the ancient icons and religious artworks that decorated the monasteries and churches were either stolen or destroyed.
The town was liberated by the Syrian Arab Army in April 2014, but the damage could not be undone. When I last visited there, in January 2017, the scars of the violence were still evident. Only one of Father Toufic’s church buildings had been properly repaired. He told me that he would not work on repairing any more church buildings until the people’s homes had been fully rebuilt.
While the challenge of physical restoration was great, Father Toufic saw the greater challenge as that of healing the spiritual rift between the church and some of the Muslim families of Maaloula who had, tragically, assisted the Jabhat Al-Nusra militants in gaining access to the village. The challenge was for the church to truly follow the example and teachings of Jesus by practising love and forgiveness.
This interview took place in the grounds of St George’s, Maaloula, on 6 January, 2017.