A new escalation in the already untenable tension of the Syrian tragedy was reached Monday evening with the kidnapping of two bishops: Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, Metropolitan of Aleppo of the Syro-Orthodox, and Mar Boulos el-Yazji, Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo.
The bishops were released today. But a new burden of fear and of the unknown was laid on the already afflicted hearts of Syrian Christians.
What will happen after this new crossroads? ZENIT interviewed a priest who perseveres in his land and in his parish in Aleppo. To protect his safety and that of his relatives and of his community, the priest's interview is published anonymously. He himself said to us: “My name is not important. What is important is that the voice and witness, the suffering and the hope of Christians is proclaimed.”
We wished to hear from him about the echoes of daily life in the shadow of the unknown, in the shadow of what he described as “organized” and systematic “disorder.” What surprised us was to learn that despite the dark and black cloud that hovers over the Syrian situation, there is, nevertheless, a glimmer of hope that does not stem from naïve optimism, but from a look of faith rooted in the words – which have now become experience – of Saint Paul: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will affliction, or anguish, or persecution, or hunger, or nakedness, or danger, or the sword? In fact, as he wrote: Because of you we are put to death daily, we are treated as sheep for the slaughter. But in all these things we are more than victorious in virtue of Him who has loved us.”
This cry of hope is not aesthetic lyricism, but a daily reality that is translated into a conscious choice: to stay, not for the land but for the people of God who – as Saint Augustine says – are making their historic pilgrimage “amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God.”
ZENIT: The war has imposed an “emergency calendar.” As a priest, what is your daily program?
Father N: In the present situation, pastoral work as we always lived it is suspect. It has become an endeavor of humanitarian aid. The pastoral visits and the various activities have taken on a different style precisely to respond to the present emergency situation. For instance, with the collaboration of the Syrian Committee for Development, we have transformed two schools into a place of reception for Muslim refugees, precisely to show that the Church is at the service of man, of every man, regardless of his ethnic or religious membership.
As regards the works of charity and relief of suffering, we collaborate closely as a parish with the Red Cross and with Caritas.
In any case, we continue to celebrate Mass in areas that are still inhabited, and we notice an increase in the daily frequentation of the faithful. Christians have begun to seek hope more, which comes from Christ risen from the dead!
I must stress also that very many priests are committed in a stable way beside the laity in the service of material support in the parishes and dioceses.
ZENIT: Well known, unfortunately, is the fact that so many churches – also very ancient churches that are the patrimony of the whole of humanity – have been blown apart.
Father N: Thank God, our church has not received direct threats yet. Unfortunately, however, so many of our parishioners have been threatened and have had to leave the country or at least have had to move to less troubled areas.
All this notwithstanding, and above all given the proximity of the great feasts, car-bombs have been found near churches. Divine Providence has permitted our fellow citizens to notice the danger and so the bombs were disabled before their explosion.
ZENIT: What do the Christians of Aleppo expect from the Church?
Father N: People ask us questions daily, but I think that all agree on this point: should we leave the country or stay and keep the Christian presence in the Levant? I, and I say it with sincerity, advise those who can, to go away even if momentarily.
It’s true that we must witness Christ before the situation of daily chaos that we live. However, I don’t want this answer to be idealistic or abstract. The daily reality is tragic and we live in great disorder. We don’t know when we go out in the morning from our homes if we will return in the evening. Because of this, my answer to people is this: each one must place himself before his own conscience and weigh his choices, the situation of his family, and to make the choice dictated by discernment of the will of God.
We look at things with realism: what can the Church now offer, concretely, to Syrian Christians? We are more than grateful for the support of all Christians and particularly to Pope Francis with his repeated appeals in favor of his “beloved Syria.” We are also grateful for the aid that arrives. However, the truth remains that a basket of food aid isn’t sufficient. The Christians of Aleppo and of Syria want security, prospects, hope. Through aid, if we are not killed we can manage for a week, a month, perhaps even a year, and then? That’s why each one must give his own answer according to his conscience and his possibilities.
ZENIT: And why don’t you leave Syria?
Father N: First because Syria is my country. And I as a Christian belong to this nation. Second, and more important, for my priestly mission. Despite all the certainties and possibilities that I have to be able to leave the country (such as a resident permit in a foreign state, and the possibility of having a visa), Christ’s call remains for me as priest: to offer the smile of hope, not my personal smile or that of the ecclesiastical institutions, but that of Christ himself!
Only when there are no longer any Christians here, will I be ready to leave the country. What I feel within myself is this: if I were to leave the country, within my heart I would have a more bitter remorse than death, that of having left friends and children with whom I lived good times and that now, in the time of the storm, I abandoned.
ZENIT: The two bishops were released, but the fact of the kidnapping itself remains a grave question. What weight did it have on your spirit and that of your parishioners?
Father N: It was a great shock. It left us with a strong sense of dismay and anguish. The question we ask ourselves is this: if they violated these sacred places, what will be their next step? Then, the grave question is this: what meaning does this kidnapping have? What sense is there in kidnapping two bishops who are known for not having spared themselves in the most minimal way in seeking to lead the parties to the table of dialogue? What sense is there in kidnapping two persons whose objective is concord and peace?
Their kidnapping is an attack against dialogue and peace. This is the contradiction. This is the tragedy. It’s a stupid and arrogant gesture that does not embody any wisdom or policy, either social or religious.
ZENIT: In the face of all the mixture of horror, fear, courage, resistance and surrender, what word resounds the loudest?
Father N: The answer I give for the loudest word that remains is this: abide in Christ. This abiding is not based on weakness in face of the strength of the aggressor, but is built on daily Mass in which every day we are conformed to Christ crucified in the hope of resurrection. He is our daily food and our bulwark in this storm. In face of this desperation, we cry out: Christ is our hope.
[Translation by ZENIT]