Aid to the Church in Need supports severely war-afflicted Christians of Homs
By Oliver Maksan, ACN International
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
It is a very special mission Sister Maria de Nazaret has committed herself to. The Argentinean nun from the Institute of the Incarnate Word has been living in Aleppo for two months, the former million-strong metropolis in the north of Syria which has been the subject of fierce fighting for years.
Previously, she worked in Gaza City for a long time. Therefore Sister Maria de Nazaret knows the flash points in the Middle-East. “Our task in this country is very special. We are constantly confronted with people’s suffering. The war is having a profoundly deleterious effect on human dignity. People are losing their loved ones, their freedom and their rights due to the violence. On top of this, there is poverty and a lack of the most basic things, such as electricity and water,” the young nun reports.
She lives in the Apostolic Vicariate of the Latin Rite in Aleppo in the company of a few other nuns. The Roman Catholics in Syria fall under the Vicariate. “We work in a hostel for girls studying at the university. The institution belongs to the Vicariate. We also take care of the sacristy and the liturgy in the cathedral. On top of that we look after the faithful who visit the cathedral. The main task of devotees at places like this is to listen to the people who are suffering, speak words of hope to them and to help them the best one can to satisfy their most important needs. Certainly only the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ can bring about the miracle of sowing the seed of hope in these souls.”
“Please pray for us every day”
Sister Maria Nazaret places all her hope in prayer. She expressly thanks the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need for their prayers. “Please pray for us every day. We need this. But we also include you in our daily prayers.” On the hazardous journey to Aleppo Sister Maria de Nazaret was able to see something of the devastation which the three-year-long war has wreaked in the country. “We saw a lot of towns which had been completely destroyed and were uninhabited. The war is really a terrible and cruel thing.”
Archbishop Jean Abdo Arbach knows this. The Greek-Catholic spiritual leader of Homs reported to ACN how seriously his diocese has been affected. Dozens of churches, some from as far back as the 4th century, have been damaged or destroyed. “During the night of February 20th, 2014, an armed gang broke into the Church of Our Lady of Yabroud, a 4th century church. They destroyed the fittings in the church, smashed the crucifix, threw the icons on the floor and tore the pages out of the evangeliary. Then the gang burned the altar,” the Archbishop said. Other churches were destroyed not by the rebels, but by the Syrian army, however. Archbishop Arbach quoted the example of the Church of St. George in Nabek, which was destroyed by army bombardment in November 2013.
An uncertain fate for his archdiocese
But it’s not only the infrastructure of the diocese that is in desperate straits, including the churches, monasteries and the parochial houses. It’s mainly the people of the region, which have been the subject of the fiercest fighting in the country since the start of the civil war. “To date our archdiocese has had 96 martyrs. The fate of 26 people is uncertain,” the Archbishop said. More than 1,800 families from his diocese have left their houses to seek safety within Syria or to flee directly into countries such as Lebanon. “During my visits to the houses of the families and from the reports by my priests I have established that everyone has been impoverished by the tragic events. We have begun to grant about 600 families monthly assistance.” According to Archbishop Arbach, the high inflation rate in particular is causing people difficulty. “The prices are shooting up while wages are stagnating.”
Despite all the hardships, the Archbishop sees no sign however of a collapse in religious life. On the contrary, “During the crisis there has been a major return to the faith and to prayer by the people who have not left their villages. In spite of the fear, the bombs and the explosions, the families are remaining loyal to their religious convictions.” Regardless of the difficulties, the diocese is continuing with its catechistic endeavours in order to ensure that the faith is passed on to the children and young. “About 3300 young people take part in our catecheses. About 350 instructors look after them.” But Archbishop Arbach mentioned the problems to which religious instruction is also subject. “A number of catechistic centres have been bombed and destroyed, for example in Al-Qusayr.” He is therefore asking for help in reconstructing or restoring the centres and in fitting them out with technical equipment. He is particularly concerned about the poor who receive assistance from the Church, as well as the sick and the refugees. “Our Church needs help of all kinds: spiritual, material, medical and psychological. The Church in this part of Syria will be in real danger if we don’t react quickly.”
Aid to the Church in Need has promised Archbishop Arbach help for his humanitarian and religious work.