In the coming days, we will offer you a variety of stories which, along with describing to you the situation as it is lived by Christians in Syria, will also offer you poignant testimonials from the religious personnel on site and from the people living through this unspeakable tragedy.
You will see, though Syrians have a capacity for resilience which is quite remarkable, their suffering remains a weight that they cannot bear alone. Prayer, information and action can help them continue to move ahead on their journey, despite the formidable challenges they face. How can you support them?
Before the jihadists arrived
Despite vast destruction: the Church is trying to improve the lives of people in Syria and strengthen their faith – Aid to the Church in Need provides support
By Oliver Maksan, ACN International
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
The Syrian city of Yabrud looks back on a long Christian tradition. It is home to one of the oldest Christian churches in Syria. The house of prayer, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was built in the fourth century. “In February of 2014, the jihadists completely ravaged our church. They destroyed the icons, shredded the evangeliary and burnt down the altar. They also stole anything they could get their hands on.” Father George Hadad, for many years the Greek-Catholic priest in Yabrud, is still despondent over the desecration of the church. He held out in the rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border for almost three years. The strategically important city fell under the control of the Syrian opposition very early on.
From that point on, fighting repeatedly broke out between the government and the rebels. Then, in March of 2014, the government army regained control over the city. This was preceded by fierce fighting. “Fortunately, the damage was not as extensive as we had feared. The Blessed Virgin had protected Yabrud. The Muslims of Yabrud are also saying this. They revere the Blessed Virgin just as we do. In fact, we have always got on well with the Muslims of Yabrud. During the occupation there were a few who collaborated with the jihadists. But this was a small minority of uneducated people. The Muslims even helped the Christians to safeguard me whenever I left the house.”
Meanwhile, the jihadists from outside of the city – at times they even included fighters of the infamous al-Nusra brigades, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda – made the lives of Christians difficult. “They said that we worship the cross and that we should therefore remove it from our church. I replied that we do not worship the cross, but the Word of God.” However, the holy warriors of Islam were not convinced. They used explosives to remove the cross from the cathedral in October of 2013. The damage to the church was extensive. “However, we were always able to celebrate mass and the liturgy of the hours. Always,” he said. “Last year, when we returned to the city right before Easter, we used the speakers of the mosque to broadcast the call to prayer on Good Friday. Even Muslims came.”
Before the war, Father George reported, about 3,500 Christians lived in Yabrud. “When I was there last year after it had been recaptured by the army, there were only nine left. They fled because of the fighting. However, almost 80 per cent of the Christians have now returned.”
Nevertheless, together with the rest of Yabrud’s residents, the members of his parish are suffering because of the poor supply situation. “We only have electricity and water sporadically. There is also a shortage of heating fuels. There is almost no work to be had. Before the war, Yabrud was a highly industrialized city. There is almost nothing left of this now.” But Father George is convinced that there is a future for the Christians in Syria. “After all, where else could it be? In Europe? The people there have lost their faith through capitalism. And you won’t find the land of milk and honey there, either. If we could only be left alone here, the future could be bright for us in Syria.” Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is supporting Father George and the Christians in Yabrud with such projects as the reconstruction of destroyed residential buildings.
Father George’s archbishop is also convinced that there is a future for Syria’s Christians. Archbishop Jean Abdo Arbach is head of the Greek-Catholic diocese of Homs, Hama and Yabrud. During the past few years, his diocese has suffered greatly due to the conflict. Thousands of his parishioners have had to flee, a large number of churches and church buildings were also destroyed. “The rebels used my residence in Homs as their headquarters until the government took control of the city last year. The cathedral was so severely damaged during the fighting that we had to think about whether it was even worth restoring, or if it wouldn’t be better to simply tear it down and build a new one.” However, the faith of his Christians is more important to Archbishop Arbach than the buildings.
“The faith of the people has deepened. More people are coming to church than before, including children. No one is reproaching God. Everyone knows that the suffering that surrounds us is the handiwork of humanity.” For this reason, Archbishop Arbach’s chief concern is reviving the pastoral life in his diocese. For example, a catechesis centre for 450 children and adolescents in Yabrud is now up and running – also thanks to support from Aid to the Church in Need.
“Thankfully we are able to continue with our pastoral life, despite the difficulties. We thank Aid to the Church in Need for this. Our clergy is doing what they can. I am very proud that the priests stayed with their congregations, even in difficult situations. I trust that God will give us peace through the intercession of the Virgin Mary. At any rate, it is our job as Christians to be the instruments of peace. We have to raise our children to this end.”
Tomorrow : “It’s the degree of the need that counts”
“Al-Hasakah is a forgotten city. In Aleppo, where I live, the situation is also disastrous. But nobody talks about Al-Hasakah.”