He can’t swim yet!

Candles, music and hymns. I’m used to the church ambience now, but back then it was like diving into a new world. Well, it wasn’t me who went underground, but the poor, poor baby. In my memory, you literally dunked your head in water like dumplings in a soup pot. A five month old boy! What’s the point of this? In Syria, a child learns to swim at the age of six. “He can’t swim yet!” I almost wanted to shout.

Instead, a man in a robe spoke, reciting strange words from a heavy book. The figure, which turned out to be a priest, repeated verses and phrases that reminded me of scenes when imams recite from the Koran. Except that this speech was now accompanied by an insistent blare.

I did not understand anything. After all, I hadn’t dealt with anything like this before. I was never there when Christians met in church. The so-called Islamic State has destroyed and devastated almost all church buildings in Syria or turned them into barracks. So now the opportunity had come to enter a real, not ruined church and to see what they were doing in there, the churchgoers. The only thing I wasn’t aware of was that this hour wasn’t about a traditional service, but – as I found out later – about a Catholic baptism.

The screaming child in the water irritated me deeply. What’s more, the sight frightened me a bit. Luckily for me, I sat next to a woman who explained a few things to me. Baptism places the child under the protection of God. Water is poured over it three times, pronouncing the name of the so-called Trinity God. Apparently father and son are involved – and a ghost is also involved. In any case, the true human being must survive the ritual in order to be accepted into the fellowship of the church.

Strange. You get there via escape routes into one of the most civilized civilizations there is, and then something like that. In Syria, you don’t save much, but at least you do with the water basin. Instead, babies undergo aqiqah on the seventh day of life. This isn’t entirely painless either, as it involves slaughtering two sheep – or just one if the baby is a girl. I think a sheep would do the same for a boy. But well, what follows is a feast with families and friends, nobody has to swim involuntarily.

In Syria, the one who makes the call to prayer and slaughters the sheep is a family member. In Bavaria there is one person who stands by with a decorated candle and watches the others as the wet ritual is performed. This person is called the godfather. And bathing in the baptismal font is an offer one cannot refuse.

In the school where I work, I noticed a student in second grade putting wax on a candle and decorating it with it. I also heard a second student practicing a song of praise to God. It wasn’t exactly arty, but it was better than baby cries. They soon told me, not without pride, that they would soon be baptized in the church. As latecomers who could have a say in this decision. This time I’ll be happy to go to church and watch, because they can already swim.

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