Mark Riedemann, ACN International
Adaptded by Amanda Griffin, ACN Canada
“Many Muslims are now shy to declare themselves Muslim. I have heard several Muslim say to 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. So I have to take my Cross in my hand, even if I’m 70, and begin my mission again – and I feel myself a man of 45.” With these words, the Greek Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo, Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart, voiced his dedication to those whom he calls ‘his people’ during a visit to the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
Struggling to survive
The war in Syria is now three years old. The suffering is indescribable, the devastation terrible. Hundreds of thousands of families 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 structures, all the infrastructure, the heritage, all the industry – they have destroyed every single means of income for these people. People have no way to live in the cities – of course in the country they are farmers and they can live – but in the cities … Aleppo has lost 1400 industrial structures, this is a suffering.”
The Christian population too has not been left unscathed. Before the war there were approximately 150,000 Christians, states the Archbishop and Aleppo was home to numerous churches serving a Christian community 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. 1400 families receive bread, oil, sugar, rice, butter, pasta, tea and sweets every day. “Everything that we provide is attached to bread as it is the most nourishing,” says Archbishop Jeanbart.
With the destruction Aleppo’s industries, thousands of fathers found themselves without work, without an income to allow 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.”
Muslims take note of Catholic charity
Archbishop Jeanbart explains that the Church structures too have been targeted. More than 18 bombs have struck and damaged the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s house located less than 300 meters from the demarcation line in the old city. The Church of St. Michael has been hit by two rockets, the Church of St. Demetrius situated in a quarter along the demarcation line 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 the Catholic 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 this 70 year 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 flight. 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.”
A cautious optimism
Slowly, and only in some of the larger cities, a certain level of security is being established. According to the Archbishop, the government army advances have created security zones. Increasingly in Aleppo checkpoints are being removed. With 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, with a greater focus on 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, 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.”
With hope and projects in hand the Archbishop laid out his plans. “I ask Aid to the Church in Need to continue to be a partner in this struggle. I want you to be beside us in these very hard moments – to help people to stay – because you have the same objective. 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, he had to go to Syria to catch them – it means that the Church was living in Syria two years after the Resurrection.” The Archbishop also awaits this Resurrection.