Friday, March 30, 2012

Homs: The city that is a symbol of today’s Syrian turmoil once produced a Pope

The horrific images of the tortured bodies of women and children have made this city into a symbol of Syria’s current turmoil. 

But what few know is that Homs - the third largest city in Syria after Damascus and Aleppo - also has a significant Christian history and even produced a Pope for the Church of Rome.

He was called Anicetus, and he was the tenth successor of Peter. He came from Emesa - as Homs was called in the ancient world - and was Pope in the second century, between 155 and 168. Revered as a saint, his liturgical feast is celebrated on 17 April. 

It is unclear how he arrived at the Eternal City from Syria; some sources claim he was exiled for his opposition to Gnosticism. His name in Greek means “unconquered” and Anicetus’ ministry as Bishop of Rome was marked by strong opposition to the heretical teachings of Marcion, which had become widespread. 

His leadership worked to restore order in the doctrine, also by giving special attention to the ministry of priests and deacons. He even weighed in on their appearance: the Liber Pontificalis says that the Pope from Homs decreed that priests could not wear their hair long.

Another episode related to the life of Anicetus is told by Eusebius of Caesarea, one of the leading historians of early Christianity: during Anicetus’ papacy, Polycarp of Smyrna, the great bishop of the East, went to Rome. 

The purpose of the trip was to discuss with Anicetus the matter of selecting the date for the celebration of Easter, which divided Christians even then. Polycarp, along with the rest of the East, held that it should be the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan - the date of Passover. But Anicetus’ predecessor, Pius I, had established that the Resurrection of Jesus was to be celebrated the first Sunday after the full moon of spring. 

Even with a Syrian Pope, they could not reach an agreement: “Polycarp was unable to persuade the Pope,” Eusebius notes, “nor could the Pope persuade Polycarp. The dispute was not resolved, but,” says the historian, “relations continued uninterrupted nonetheless.” 

It is not clear if Pope Anicetus really died a martyr under Emperor Marcus Aurelius, as the details of his death are unknown. But he was the first Bishop of Rome to be buried in the San Callisto catacombs, where his remains rested until 1604, when they were moved to the Palazzo Altemps chapel in Piazza Sant’Apollinare, their current resting place.

Along with the Pope, another important figure of early Christianity linked to Homs is Bishop Nemesius of Emesa, a 4th-century philosopher. He is remembered for his Peri physeos anthropou (“On the Nature of Man”), the first treatise that approached anthropology from a Christian point of view - a work which had a great influence on subsequent Eastern and Western theological thought. 

Rejecting the Platonic myth of a soul separate from the body, Nemesius argued that to understand this relationship, one must start with Christology: soul and body, he said, possess the same unity as the incarnation of the Divine Word and human nature as seen in Christ.

But beyond these two figures, the true Christian glory of Homs was linked to another miraculous event that occurred in the 5th century: according to ancient tradition, in 452, in Emesa, St. John the Baptist appeared to the Archimandrite of the local monastery and showed him the place nearby where his head had been buried. 

The church of St. John the Baptist was built on top of the spot where the relic was discovered, and for several centuries was a destination for Christian pilgrimages. Then, when the city was conquered by the Arabs in 637, half the church was turned into a mosque. 

But Christian pilgrimages to Emesa ended only in the 9th century, when the relic of St. John the Baptist’s head was moved to Constantinople.

But this did not mark the disappearance of Christianity from Homs; it has remained a significant presence up to the present day. 

In the 20th century, for example, it was the city where the faithful of the Assyrian Rite reorganized themselves after the difficult years of Ottoman persecution. Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud himself, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, was Archieparca of Homs from 1994 to 1998, before being elected Patriarch of Antioch of the Syrians. 

Hence the disturbing question: what will survive of this great history after the tragedy that Homs has been undergoing in recent months? Several weeks ago Oeuvre d’Orient - a French NGO with close ties to the Eastern Church - reported on a community that has been fleeing violence perpetrated not only by the army but also by some fundamentalist Sunni militias. 

Thus, there is also wholly Christian aspect to the tragedy of Homs - and another piece of Church history that may wind up being obliterated forever.