Here it the text of an address given Tuesday by Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Alep, at the Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus. The address considers “Christians and the War in Syria.”
* * *
In my country Syria, Christians are caught in the middle of a civil war and they are enduring the rage of an extremist jihad. And it is unjust for the West to ignore the persecutions these Christian communities are experiencing.
Syrian Christians are in grave danger: we may disappear soon. We hope that men and women of good will, in this Great Nation, listen to our call and give their brothers and sisters in faith a helpful hand in relieving their miseries.
Let me give you an idea about what is happening in my part of the world:
For the past four years there has been much talk about the war in Syria. We have heard about the strategic consequences, the geopolitical influences in that region, and the violence afflicting the innocent population. Though I do not underestimate the political stakes of what is going on in my country, I must draw attention to the fate of Christians who are caught in this turbulence.
For the Church, what is most important is that peace be restored! And that, through peace, a non-confessional and pluralistic democracy is established, that guarantees all Syrians their God-given rights to live as full-fledged citizens in the country where they were born and where their ancestors are buried.
The realities in my country and in the region are complex and interwoven with many historical, social and religious nuances. Let me touch one of the core problems which torments our faithful and their pastors in Syria, where Christian leaders are endlessly appealing for reconciliation and peace, while radical Muslims are calling for jihad and exclusion, a kind of apartheid for all non-Muslims.
Our people are afraid to leave their houses, they avoid going out of their cities or villages, or do so only to move to other regions where they hope to find a safe refuge. In dangerous zones, like Aleppo and localities close to Turkey, what terrorizes the population more than the fighting and the bombing, are the kidnappings, the snipers, car bombs, the shelling and the looting… All this culminating in the manifestation of ISIS.
Christians are victims of a war of destruction led by certain foreign elements. They have promoted savage violence, injected a huge amount of money to buy weapons and hire tens of thousands of fighters, jihadists, fundamentalists, mostly foreigners and mercenaries recruited from many different countries.
I do not know whether or not Aleppo has yet been designated as a “disaster zone” by international powers. But what I do know is that Aleppo is truly a disaster zone: a human disaster zone, a material and economic disaster zone. The citizens of this great and beautiful city, with its seven thousand years of history, find themselves after four years of senseless war, in a desperate situation. The prosperity which Aleppo enjoyed and which placed her among the most important cities of this region is lost.
Innumerable attacks – most recently the bombing of the Christian quarter over Easter weekend – have destroyed its churches, its factories and its flourishing industry, its infrastructure and social and administrative institutions, its commercial area and its legendary souks, its ancient homes, schools and hospitals.
The result: Syria has lost one of its main sources of economic growth. Then there are the countless frustrations which the people of Aleppo have had to endure because of the siege, particularly shortages of food, water, power and other essential supplies. In a word, my flock has suffered and has been the innocent target of a war that is unjust and devastating.
Since the beginning of this senseless war, the Church has called for an end to armed conflict and has called for negotiations to achieve a political solution to this crisis: in the meantime, more than half the Christians have left the city. The Assembly of the Bishops in Syria has not ceased to call believers to pray, the fighters to lay down arms and the nations, to stop supporting the belligerents and to help reach a negotiated solution to the conflict.
Across the region, as the fight is taken up against ISIS, the US and its allies must be aware that Christians and other minorities are often caught up in the fighting, facing calamities as they are displaced, without any provisions for shelter, food, and medical assistance. The emergency needs of vulnerable populations must be seriously considered. Just recently, disaster struck the peaceful and quiet population of the city of Idleb in northern Syria, where Christians have been executed by ISIS, many people have been displaced and the parish priest Father Ibrahim Farah has been kidnapped. And then there was the April 19 release of a video showing ISIS slaughtering 22 Coptic Christians in Libya.
What horrors must ISIS commit before the world will take greater action to stop the murderers?
Christians must be able to count on the US and its Allies to stop this war by putting pressure on some regional countries, calling their government to change policy and suspend, once for all, helping terrorists in their way to Syria. And to ensure political stability, it is essential that Christian leaders, both lay and clergy, are given a voice and presence at the negotiating table. Christians bring forth a vision inspired by democratic and humanistic values as bridge builders between Shiites and Sunnis, and they can help the development of a political system that ensures the rights of all citizens.
Last but not least, Christians – like other people whose lives have been overturned by years of fighting – need practical, financial help to rebuild their lives, especially their professional lives. If Christians are not given the means to earn a living, there is no way they can remain in Syria or Iraq. The hierarchy’s lamenting of mass emigration can do little good if the Churches do not give their flock concrete means to rebuild their lives. Christians in Syria need to feel secure and they want to know that they will not be left alone in the days and years to come.
By God’s grace and with the help of organizations like yours, we have been able to respond, in a significant way, to a good part of the humanitarian needs of our people. But what we really need now today, would be your love and concern toward our suffering Church who is trying to live and continue bearing witness in this holy land where Christian life began and where Paul was converted, baptized, ordained to priesthood and sent to convert the world! We need your continued help and your commitment aside of us, sponsoring our research and efforts in order to be able to look beyond the crisis at hand.
That is why I am calling for the creation of “Build to Stay,” a Christian social initiative that needs to be supported by a “Solidarity Fund.” This fund will allow workers – carpenters, plumbers, teachers, lawyers, craftsmen and others – to re-establish themselves professionally, to buy the equipment and supplies they need to get started again; to rebuild the city of Aleppo and their own lives.
If this initiative works in Aleppo, the model can be applied throughout Syria and beyond. When God grants us peace and stability, this program will gather many people and volunteers to build the future of our community. This initiative will transform Aleppo back into the vibrant commercial hub of Syria and the Middle East at large. The support of our Christian brothers in the West is extremely needed. Are they willing to hear our desperate appeal? We will be eternally grateful if they do!
However, something has to be done immediately, because if the war continues and if peace is not restored in the streets and in our h
earts, all hope may be lost, for all Syrians, Christians and Muslims alike.
If the civil war in Syria is prolonged, violence and chaos will inevitably take hold in neighboring countries. You can imagine the cruel picture ahead with the tragic consequences to the Christian presence in Syria and in surrounding countries.
I am convinced that Christians’ first task everywhere they are is to struggle for peace in our land and in our region. That is my task as a successor of the Apostles, to keep the Church alive in the land of its birth, a land made holy by the blood of countless martyrs, past and present.
It is my fervent prayer that my fellow bishops in the US and around the world – they, too, successors of the apostles as much as I am myself – join me in accepting this shared responsibility and making “the fate of the persecuted Christians in the Middle East” a real priority, and not treating it merely as one cause among many. That is because the suffering of my people is a wound to the entire Body of Christ.
We know the task is difficult but we Christians also know that He in whom we have put our trust is faithful and never abandons His own – He who came to stay with His own, will never leave them to fend for themselves.