George* talks about the relationship he had with his Jewish neighbors while growing up in Aleppo. “I don’t really remember much about the relationship we had with our Jewish neighbors who owned the store in our building.” he says, “But generally I remember that they were good people, rigorously ethical and quite generous, in contrary to the popular stereotypes that describe Jews as parsimonious.”
“Few of my Christian peers really had much dealings with the Jews in Aleppo,” he continues, “because in the 1990s, Aleppo was down to its last few remaining Jewish families.”
Like most Christian children in Aleppo, George attended a private Christian school.
“My school had a decidedly Christian character,” says George. “It taught the same curriculum adopted by the public schools in Syria but put special emphasis on learning French. We had to attend mass on a weekly basis and were forced to have daily prayers, though we did have some Muslim students who were exempted from having to attend religious education classes and mass.”
George’s participation in the Scouts and their activities help form his personality and gave him some important life experience. “I belong to the Greek Catholic Church,” says George, “and I attended an Armenian Catholic school and belonged to the Maronite chapter of the Scouts, with the Maronites considered a minority sect among the area’s Christians. Mingling with so many different sects showed me that there’s no sectarian discrimination among Aleppo’s Christians, which isn’t typical of other Syrian areas or of the Arab region in general.”
After finishing junior school, George was enrolled in minor seminary school in Damascus, a boarding school run by clergymen for students up until the age of eighteen.
George describes it as a terrible experience, saying that children need to be able to experience a full, normal childhood among family and friends. The Priests were responsible for a large number of teenage students but George describes them as being poorly trained, or just completely unable to deal with them. As a result, he dropped out of the school after the first year there and returned to Aleppo.
After receiving his secondary school certificate with a specialization in literature, George went on to study philosophy and theology at the upper seminary school in Lebanon in 2000. At the time, it was a project run by a clergyman delegated to the position by the Archdiocese of Aleppo. This meant George was a clerical student under the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo. He was therefore expected to return to his Archdiocese after completing his studies to fulfill his duties as a man of the cloth. But after two years, George chose to disassociate himself from the Archbishop, as the latter did not prove capable of the spiritual responsibility he’d been entrusted with.
George then moved from monastery to monastery over a number of years before finally deciding to leave the priesthood altogether. The reasons for this were many, including the fact that many of his peers at the seminary did not embody the morals and behaviors of someone intending to be a future clergyman, as well as the fact that some of the priests seemed to hold views totally contradictory to the spiritual responsibilities that were supposed to be within their purview.
“It was clear to me,” says George, “that both the official and quasi-official eastern Christian discourse rang hollow where relations with Muslims were concerned. What was said in public totally contravened was what said in private gatherings, and this bothered me greatly.”
George is currently working on his Master’s thesis on the topic of Christian-Islamic relations. He says that if he had to explain the gist of his thesis in one phrase, he’d call it: “Why Aleppo’s Christians Hate the Muslims.” He explains that this hatred arises from the fact that Christians in Aleppo have never really had to mix with Muslims except on rare occasions, and when they did it was only with either the richest or the poorest strata of the Muslim population. This means that Christians are isolated within their own communities and environments. And this was exacerbated by campaigns that were carried out by the ruling regime over many long years, intended to scare the Christians and make them fear their Muslim brethren.
“The closed Christian communities in Aleppo preferred not to sell their properties to Muslims,” says George. “It got so bad that a Christian who was selling their house to a Muslim was subjected to social persecution, and as a result the whole neighborhood would witness a decline in property values as the building would be considered mixed and no longer exclusively Christian.”
* a pseudonym was used at the narrator's request