“Many Muslims are now shy to declare themselves Muslim. Several Muslim told me: ‘I am ashamed—I do not understand that Islam is like that.’ So I think it is the time for a true dialogue. I think it is the day of the Lord perhaps. I have to take my Cross in my hand, even though I’m 70, to begin my mission again—and I feel myself a man of 45.”
With these words, the Greek Catholic (Melkite) leader of the Archdiocese of Aleppo, Syria, Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart, voiced his dedication to those whom he calls “his people.”
The war in Syria has been raging for three years now. The suffering is indescribable, the devastation terrible. Hundreds of thousands of families are in mourning, millions of refugees who no longer know where to turn and so hide at home, hunting day and night to feed their children. Archbishop Jeanbart explains that a barbaric scorched earth policy has left nothing untouched in its passage—thousands of industries damaged and tens of thousands of schools, hospitals and dispensaries destroyed.
“All the buildings, the infrastructure, the heritage, all the industry—the fighting has destroyed every single means of income for these people. People have no way to live in the cities. Of course, in the country farmers can still make a living, but in the cities … Aleppo has lost 1,400 industrial facilities. This is a great suffering.”
The Christian population too has been hard hit. Before the war there were approximately 150,000 Christians in Alelppo, says Jeanbart and the city was home to numerous churches serving a Christian community that has been present in the city since the third century. Today, approximately 100,000 Christians, struggling to survive, remain.
With inflation at 200 percent, the little income earned buys little and it is for these families that the Catholic Church is providing emergency food baskets. Some 1,400 families receive bread, oil, sugar, rice, butter, pasta, tea and sweets every day.
After the destruction of Aleppo’s industries, thousands of fathers found themselves without work, without an income to allow for the minimum provisions for their family. “In this we have also provided emergency support—to give a monthly sum equivalent to half a salary each month. It is not much, but 400 Christian families benefit from this financial support and, with the help of God, we hope to continue until the fathers of these families find work again.”
Archbishop Jeanbart explains that Church structures have also been targeted. More than 18 bombs have struck and damaged both the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s house in the Old City. The Church of St. Michael has been hit by two rockets, the Church of St. Demetrius has been the target of a number of mortar shells, and the church in the village of Tabaka is in ruins.
“I am here because my people suffer,” says Archbishop Jean-Clement, his tired voice cracking. The electricity is bad. Water is also very bad. We have some wells. We have dug three wells at three different churches. At the Cathedral we have reopened a well that dates back some 100 years and we are distributing water to the population. We have to do what we can to help.”
The Catholic Church is also providing help to Muslim families and Muslims have taken note of this act of charity. “There are many Muslims that say: ‘Look, the priests are the ones who are working.’ This is a beautiful witness and even Muslims ask us to intercede for them to get help from the Red Cross or the Red Crescent—they understand that we are a reference for charity and mercy.”
The faith of the Archbishop has not always been so unshakeable. “I have been a bishop 18 years now. I did all I could to help our people to stay. And then came the war. Two years ago I was depressed; it was very bad, but then the Lord helped me to see things in another light, which again allowed me to take up my courage, my hope, and to fight against this Christian exodus. I realized that what happens does not depend on us. Even if we only have the poor remaining, we will help them to grow and to be the people that we need to be a witness. I thought it is the time to work; it is the time to fight. Over all these years I look to the day of freedom which will allow us Christians to bear witness to Christ.”
Slowly, and only in some of the larger cities of the country, a certain level of security is being re-established. According to the Archbishop, the government army advances have created security zones. Increasingly, in Aleppo checkpoints are being removed. Buoyed by a cautious optimism, Archbishop Jeanbart looks to the future and is already planning. “The poor people, the Christian workers will not find work when peace comes. They will be perhaps one or two years without finding any job. For this reason, I thought to start a training program for construction work.”
Christians, given their tradition of commitment to education, have historically not participated in the construction industry. Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart recognizes this weakness and that the immediate important sector of work will be the rebuilding and the restoration of buildings that have been destroyed. “Everything is completely destroyed or stolen. When the war stops, the reconstruction of houses will start immediately. We have to start preparing now to allow Christians to start getting jobs in this industry. Without work, the young people will leave.”
“We have been here for 2000 years. The Church grew up in Syria. If the Church was born on the Cross, it did not live in Jerusalem. The Christians came to Syria, to Damascus. St. Paul didn’t find any Christians to arrest in Jerusalem, so he had to go to Syria to catch them. This means that the Church was established in Syria two years after the Resurrection.” The archbishop now awaits his country’s resurrection.
Mark Riedemann is Director of Communications for Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)