Evening is falling in the Valley of the Christians. From its high vantage point the Crusader fortress, the Crac des Chevaliers, built in the 11th-12th century, looks down impassively on the arriving visitors. Today – November 18, 2019 – is a day of festival in the church of Haret Saraya in the village of Al-Husn. The band of trumpeters and drummers plays on unceasingly.
The church, which is dedicated to Our Blessed Lady, looks resplendent with its freshly painted white walls and brightly colored iconostasis. “They’ve rebuilt it just as it was before”, says local Archbishop Nikolas Sawaf, the Melkite Catholic Archbishop of Latakia.
In 2012 this church was ransacked and burned by the jihadists, who dominated the valley from their position overlooking the village in the historic Crusader fortress the Crac des Chevaliers, built by the Knights Hospitaller. They tore down the cross, profaned the holy icons and smashed and disfigured the statues. Nor did they spare the parish premises or the presbytery, even ripping the electric wiring from the walls of the house.
But seven years later – exactly on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross – the day becomes a feast for the faithful and the little church is packed with people during the rededication ceremony. Both Catholic and Orthodox priests from the region are present for the occasion. It is a scene of great joy. Outside in the courtyard, in front of a rejoicing crowd, the Orthodox choir of Our Lady of Al Wadi sings hymns of hope, peace, and forgiveness, at the same time remembering those who disappeared, were killed or exiled by the war and calling on the Christians to stand fast and remain on their lands.
“Now that the church has been renewed, it is time for us to renew the living stones, our own hearts”, urges Father Andrzej Halemba to the faithful during the celebration. The head of the project section for the countries of the Middle East of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) says: “Our hearts have been broken by the violence, divided and unsettled by the events in our lives. Now is the time to renew them with the love of Christ. Let us pray for peace in Syria”.
ACN helped not only for the renovation of the church of Haret Saraya but also for the repairs to the parish buildings and the presbytery. And at the same time it was possible to add on additional guestrooms and small business outlets in the village, so close to the historic tourist attraction of the Crac des Chevaliers, which will soon be welcoming visiting tourists once again. In this way, it has been possible to some extent to help guarantee a longer-term future for the Christian legacy here, where it has such ancient roots.
“ACN is like Simon of Cyrene for us, supporting us and helping us to carry our cross”, said Archbishop Sawaf, at the end of this day of celebration.
The projects for the rebuilding of the Christian structures in the village of Al-Husn were supported by ACN with grants totaling over 170,000 Euros and are part of an overall program by the foundation for the reconstruction of the Christian infrastructure affected by the war in the various different dioceses of Syria.