“I know what war means, the scare, the fear of dying, I experienced it all in person,” says Father Raimond Girgis, Franciscan, Superior of the Saint Paul Memorial at Damascus. “My church was five times the target of mortar attacks,” he adds.
This interview given to Zenit Senior Vatican Correspondent, Deborah Castellano Lubov, in Jordan, “is a dramatic testimony of how the Syrian Catholic community has gone through eight years of civil war, which has not yet ended. The Christians in Syria today are less than half in respect to 2011. However, amid the immense devastation resulting from the conflict, “many Muslims say to us ‘now we know who you Christians are, what Christian charity is,” continues Father Raimond.
The Memorial rises on the place where, according to tradition, Saul of Tarsus, later baptized Paul, Pharisee and Roman citizen, stricken, fell from his horse and converted from being the persecutor of the first Christian communities of Palestine to an Apostle of Christ’s Resurrection outside of the Holy Land, to Rome, where he was decapitated.
For Father Raimond, it’s possible today to visit Syria from abroad in tranquility, to know the reality of the country and of the local Church especially. “We are in need of your material and moral support,” he exhorts.
The international conference “Media and their role in defending the truth”, reflecting on dialogue between religions and people in the Middle East, took place in the Jordanian capital, June 18-20, 2019. The meeting was promoted by the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the East, the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in Jordan, with the collaboration of the Platform for Dialogue and Cooperation between Religious Leaders and Institutions of the Arab World” and the Jordanian Office of Tourism.
ZENIT’s Deborah Lubov was in Amman to speak at the conference during the session on “Media and truth: what is the relationship?” Below is the exclusive Zenit interview with the Syrian religious leader done in Amman:
ZENIT: Father Raimond, what is the situation of the Catholic Church in Syria today, after so many years of war?
Father Raimond: I would say that there are positive and negative aspects. If we want to start with the positive, I’ll say that the Church has always been close to the Christian people. Well, today she is also much closer to Muslims.
ZENIT: How did this happen?
Father Raimond: In these years of war, the Church has been able to show the face of charity. She has truly witnessed with great strength God’s love for the poor, all the poor, without making distinctions between Christians and Muslims. The Catholic Church has seen in each one a man suffering from the pains of war. I will add, however, that all the Christian Churches have given witness of charity, especially the Institutes of Consecrated Life, both masculine and feminine, which have always stayed close to the suffering population.
ZENIT: Did this not happen before the war?
Father Raimond: Even before the war the Church certainly practiced charity, but it was something more “normal,” I would say more “ordinary.” Today there are services that the Muslims themselves request on their own initiative, thanking us with a smile. It was they, the Muslims, who often said to us “now we know what Christian charity is; now we know who you Christians are.” And this is certainly a positive development, our being today closer to all the Syrian people, without distinctions, with particular regard for the children.
ZENIT: And the negative aspect you referred to?
Father Raimond: The most negative aspect of the present situation is certainly the decrease, in terms of numbers, of the Christian presence in the country.
ZENIT: What are these numbers today?
Father Raimond: Before the war broke out, there were close to two million Christians in Syria, who today have become approximately 900,000. The life of families is now less stable, full of problems: young people who leave; elderly who stay alone in their home, without anyone to help them . . . From the point of view of families, there are now many negative aspects. War always causes negativity, never positivity; war doesn’t give peace, either. Peace is never the fruit of war. For us, Christians, these nine years have been a time of grief, of suffering, of persecution. Thank God, however, European benefactors haven’t been lacking, who stayed beside us — Italians, Germans, Frenchmen, who provided us with material help to build houses, schools, thanks to the donations of many good people who want peace. This, although in misfortune, is another positive side. Today, European people are closer to the Syrians.
ZENIT: Emigration therefore has decimated your communities?
Father Raimond: I say it’s a wound that in fact we don’t know how to cure.
ZENIT: If nothing else, how can this phenomenon be slowed down?
Father Raimond: What we can do today, as Church, is to encourage those that have left to return to Syria. However, it’s obvious that the decision must be taken in the families. We cannot substitute ourselves for them, but only encourage them to stay here to work to rebuild Syria. Unfortunately, there are so many circumstances that drive people to go abroad, beginning with the present economic crisis. In fact, some have said to us “if I had left before, rather than stay, it would have been better!” And it hurts to hear one say this!
ZENIT: And what more could have been done?
Father Raimond: As the Church, we certainly can’t take the place of the State: I repeat, we can only encourage and stay here, make the importance understood of not abandoning Syria now and provide the material help we can furnish. Our charism as Franciscans is precisely to be next to the people, to assure them means to live. We are turning to the whole world to obtain aid that will give them the possibility to stay. However, the final decision is theirs.
ZENIT: Is this also true for young people?
Father Raimond: We have many university students that, having finished their studies, decide to leave, and this isn’t good. Therefore, I say thank you to my superiors, the ecclesiastical authorities in Syria, who commit themselves to make these young people understand the meaning of our Christian presence, encouraging them, supporting a small personal work project . . .
ZENIT: You mentioned children earlier…
Father Raimond: The children are our future, but having been born and grown up in these years of war, many have felt fear, serious psychological traumas have been reported . . . Therefore, we have started a project of psychological support for them, of which for three years Muslim children have benefited more than the Christians.
Moreover, in my convent we receive the sick; we give free care to the sick of cancer and diabetes. We have instituted a school of music, to teach children to play an instrument . . .
ZENIT: What is the life, if you will, like of Franciscan Catholic parishes in Syria?
Father Raimond: We have seven parishes in Syria, all Latin Catholics in Syria, except the foreigners, there are 8,000 families. We have a Franciscan Apostolic Vicar, Monsignor Abou Khazen of Aleppo. In the Bab Touma parish at Damascus we have 400 youngsters in the catechetical center, 300 scouts, 23 members of the choir, 50 university young people . . . I have given you the example of just one parish, to make you see how much the Church works with young people, because they are the future!
ZENIT: Does the war still cause fear?
Father Raimond: If you come to Damascus, you will find a safe, tranquil city. However, the decision to truly end the war has not yet been taken.
ZENIT: What are the future prospects for coexistence between Christians and Muslims?
Father Raimond: We have never had difficulties to live with the Muslims and, vice versa, they with us. In all 14 Syrian provinces Christians and Muslims live together, in the same building, in the same office, in the same school . . . For us coexistence has always been the normality of life, without any opposition. There was talk of a civil war between Christians and Muslims, but this isn’t true!
I’ll give you another example. In Aleppo, the majority of the inhabitants — 80% — is Sunnite. When the city was hit by war, the Sunnites took refuge in the area of Latachia, another province, facing the Mediterranean, where the majority of the population — 70% — is, instead, Alawite. Well, how is it possible to talk of a war of religion if the Sunnites sought refuge in fact with the Alawites?
ZENIT: In conclusion, what appeal would you like to make to those that read us?
Father Raimond: Come to visit Damascus, Aleppo, Latachia to know Syria and to give us courage. As the Bishop’s Vicar, I assure you that it’s possible to travel in Syria in all tranquility. You will find Muslim, Christian, Sunnite, Alawite, Druse families that live next to one another. Today, in all the Syrian provinces, except Idlib — an area still under the control of the terrorists –, people live together tranquilly, whether Christians or Muslims, and what they ask for their life is peace, stability and work.[Interview conducted in Italian, in Amman, Jordan]