Yarmouk, Damascus.

Yarmouk, Damascus.

Palestinian refugees – second/ third generation? – besiege United Nations staff attempting to distribute food parcels, five miles from the centre of Damascus. Filippo Grandi, head of UNWRA, described “the unbelievable devastation, not one single building that is not an empty shell.” The refugees “are like the appearance of ghosts…” He describes the help his staff brought, as “a drop in the ocean”. Enlarge the picture to full screen, to achieve its full effect.

Presumably, this atrocity alongside all the other elements of the Syrian tragedy, fades from the world’s attention as a new crisis develops in the Crimea. In 1850, it was Russia assuming responsibility for Orthodox Christians there (and in Jerusalem) attacking the Ottoman Empire, that drew Victorian Britain into a war against Russia then – including the charge of the Light Brigade. The subsequent redrawing of political boundaries as far as the Balkans, was a root cause of World War 1 sixty years later. Only 400 miles east of the Crimea (the same distance as between London and Edinburgh) is Sochi, where the Winter Paralympic competitors are gathering.

So, how to pray? Canon Alan Wilkinson has updated his book: ‘the Church of England and the First World War’, trying to learn from the responses of Christians then. He concludes “It is the greatness of Christianity at its best that it affords no easy answers, but rather points us to the heart of darkness unflinchingly, enables misery to be transmuted into pain and, by making the darkness tangible, turns the apparent absence of God into a presence, however paradoxical and elusive that presence has to be, of God being God.”

I think I prefer the understanding achieved by’Woodbine Willie’, the First World War army chaplain Studdart Kennedy, known for endless supply of cigarettes as he patrolled the trenches, and for his poems. This one is called ‘Indifference.’

When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.

Still Jesus cried, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do, ‘
And still it rained the winter rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary.

G. A. Studdert-Kennedy