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Texas Newspaper Article Features Antiochian Orthodox Christians

"They grew up in Damascus in a time before Syria was a synonym in the Western mind for chaos and religious extremism. Reem Hoff and Rouba Heckenlively grew up a half-hour's walk from each other, both in families that practiced their Syrian Orthodox Christian faith openly among Muslims. Rouba's mother and Reem's aunt were friends. By coincidence, both women met American travelers who were visiting monasteries. Both women ended up living as American citizens in a suburb of Waco."

So begins a recent Waco Tribune-Herald article featuring the extraordinary story of two families from St. Andrew Orthodox Church, an Antiochian mission in Waco. In November 2015, investigative reporter J.B. Smith began contacting Syrians in Central Texas to get their take on the provocative words of a Texas state official, who had likened Syrians entering the U.S. to "rattlesnakes" ready to strike. Smith soon found there were a number of Syrian Christians in the area, a fact which defied the simplistic and false stereotype of all Middle East immigrants as "extremists" and "radicals" – this led him to contact St. Andrew parish priest Fr. John Ballard, who put the reporter in touch with the Hoff and Heckenlively families.

The resulting front page feature, "Syrian Immigrants Discover Friendship in Waco as Homeland Unravels," tells the story of how Tim Heckenlively, now a senior lecturer in Classics at Baylor University, met his wife Rouba while studying Aramaic in the ancient Syrian Christian village of Ma'lula. The article also chronicles the story of Marine veteran Brad Hoff, who met his Syrian wife Reem while both were visiting an Orthodox monastery in Lebanon.

More than just a human interest story, the article explores the dynamics of Syrian society before the war and the role of Christians in what is described as a "quasi-secular" and religiously pluralistic and tolerant place: "Syria was one of the last places where in every city you could see crosses and minarets on the skyline." The Syrian-American women offer a beautiful portrait of the daily rhythm of life in Syria's ancient Christian communities, still found today in government-held areas: "On Christmas and Easter, our Muslim friends would celebrate with us," Reem said. "They were excited about the Christmas trees and they would decorate the entire neighborhood." Rouba said she misses the Christian holiday parades with their chanting of ancient hymns. She misses church bells calling the Syrian Christians to daily prayer.

Read the full story at