Aid to the Church in Need
Amid the worst violence since the Syrian conflict began more than five years ago, a local Syrian Catholic Archbishop has joined in raising attention to the situation facing Christians in the city of Aleppo.
“More than half the city’s population left over the last four or five years,” Jean-Clement Jeanbart, Melkite Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo, said on a recent visit to Canada, urging the West to put more effort into finding a solution to the conflict – instead of taking in refugees.
“It [Canada] has to help them stay where they are … to find peace. And to get it [the war] over with these rebels, these terrorists, and drive both sides to talk. To find a political solution,” added Jeanbart, who has served in Syria’s previously largest city since 1995.
Speaking of an attack on a Christian area in February, he said: “It was awful: a bomb that the rebels deliberately launched on a Christian neighbourhood … has blown everything apart, destroyed countless houses,” including that of a 13-year-old boy, Fouad Banna, who died instantly.
You cannot imagine the dangers that we face every day
Fouad’s mother and father were not able to attend their son’s funeral, led by the Archbishop himself, as they were in intensive care.
“It’s a glimpse of the hardships happening back home,” said Jeanbart.
Yet the Archbishop says he believes it “hurts” more for the West to keep taking in refugees.
When asked about Canada welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees in the past few months, he said: “We’re not happy when we see the Canadian government moving refugees and facilitating their integration. It hurts us. A lot.”
He’d rather Syrians, especially Christians, stay in their ancient lands.
“They [the West] pity the Syrians and the Christians. But do they really know about their problems? No, I don’t think so,” he said.
Last week, dozens of people were killed in a surge of violent exchanges between government forces and rebels. The UN humanitarian chief told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured in indiscriminate attacks over the past 10 days, in what he called “the carnage of Aleppo”.
A Christian man in the city said 26 April was “a bloody day in Aleppo … Many shells covered one side of the city. Tens of injuries, 17 were killed. Suleymaniye was hit as well. It is a Christian area.”
Casualties have risen on all sides. Neighbourhoods where Christians are known to live – almost exclusively away from the Islamist rebel-controlled areas – have been frequently targeted over the past few years.
After a lull, the situation took a more dramatic turn in the past few days.
A maternity hospital in a government-controlled area was hit by rebel fire, killing at least three people, reports said on Tuesday (3 May).
This came days after another hospital was hit in the rebel-held east of Aleppo, in a deadly government airstrike.
Describing the significance of the hospital hit on 3 May, a resident said: “It is where my daughter was born and a place where new babies come into this world and new life begins. Today it is full of death and destruction. For me and my wife, it is very symbolic.” He added that the city’s maternity hospital was also considered one of the best for fertility treatment in the Middle East.
“Some of the busiest streets in Suleymaniye are empty after what has happened. All the shops are closed. I heard from my friend that he saw just three or four people on a street that normally is crowded. I urged him to stay inside,” said another local.
‘More like Good Friday’
Jeanbart’s words echo those of his counterpart from the Chaldean church in Aleppo, Bishop Antoine Audo, who reported recently that in only five years of conflict and persecution, the Christian population in Syria has been reduced by two-thirds, from 1.5 million to only 500,000 today.
Bishop Audo said that the situation in Aleppo is even worse than in the rest of Syria, with only a quarter of the Christian population remaining since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in 2011.
Audo also noted that Aleppo’s three cathedrals have been almost completely destroyed.
“You cannot imagine the dangers that we face every day,” he said.
Elsewhere, the Islamic State has taken over large parts, leading tens of thousands of people to flee from both Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) quoted an Aleppo Franciscan priest as saying, “Never, since the beginning of this terrible war, were things as bad as they are now. I have no words to describe all the suffering I see on a daily basis.”
Seeing bombs fall on churches, mosques, schools and hospitals, Fr. Ibrahim Alsabagh said: “So many people were killed or severely injured.”
Alsabagh, who has been working in Aleppo for two years, added that Easter (celebrated by Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics in Syria last Sunday, 1 May) had been markedly sad.
“It was more like Good Friday than Easter Sunday,” he said. “People were either burying their dead, or else they stayed at home out of fear.”
Would you like to know how Mary felt when she was holding her son’s dead body?
“Would you like to know how Mary felt when she was holding her son’s dead body? You can ask a mother from Aleppo,” said one local mother. “She has experienced the feeling of carrying her son’s dead body. Would you like to know how Jesus was feeling when he was carrying his cross and awaiting the time of his death? You can ask our children. They are carrying their crosses and are awaiting their death. [But] we are refusing to see death any more in Syria – Aleppo especially – and we are declaring the resurrection of Christ on our beloved country!”
The Syrian churches have joined forces, declaring Sunday 8 May a day of prayer and fasting, and have appealed to the international Church to join them.