Suffering and Hope in the Face of Terrorism
12/1/2014Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart
For more than six months, our city of Aleppo, in the northwest corner of Syria, has suffered from severe water shortages, while electricity and telephone services have been regularly interrupted. On Holy Thursday, April 17, the city was the scene of terrible attacks, and the people, horrified by bombings, were unable to leave their homes to attend Mass. This past summer, Aleppo was under siege and cut off from the rest of the world for more than 10 weeks.
We can barely begin to enumerate the suffering and difficulties that the people of Aleppo have had to endure in these tragic times, which began three-and-a-half years ago. What started as a peaceful protest movement is now a raging civil war and a foreign invasion.
Of course, Aleppo is not the only city to suffer in this ancient country, where St. Paul was called on the road to Damascus to be the “chosen instrument” of Jesus and the tireless defender of the Church (cf. Acts 9:15). I would like to draw particular attention to the fate of Christians who are caught in the crossfire of the ongoing violence and of the consequences for the future of this region.
For the Church, what is most important is that peace be restored as soon as possible, so that a non-confessional democracy may be established. In this way, all Syrians, including its many minorities, will be guaranteed the religious freedom necessary to live serenely as full-fledged citizens in the country where they were born and where their ancestors are buried.
Americans are well aware of the savage executions of journalists James Foley in August and Steven Sotloff in September. Just a few days after the murder of her son, Diane Foley spoke these words: “We have never been so proud of our son, Jim. He gave his life trying to expose to the world the suffering of the Syrian people.”
You may also have heard about the execution of Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt April 7 in the old city of Homs. A steadfast and brilliant proponent of interfaith dialogue in Syria for 40 years who had become a symbol of Christian-Muslim friendship, Father van der Lugt chose to remain despite the ever-present dangers. His death is a great blow to us in Syria, but it is neither the first nor the only one.
When we consider innocent Christian victims, we can speak without exaggeration of several hundred dead, many of them martyrs. We know of at least 10 priests assassinated. The fate of other priests and bishops who have been kidnapped is still unknown.
The ancient village of Ma’loula, a refuge of Christians since the time of the Roman persecutions, has seen frequent attacks. Jihadists have vandalized churches and convents there, and kidnapped 12 nuns in 2013 to terrorize the population even more.
The heart-rending images that come to us are the most unimaginable of the 21st century. They reflect the indescribable suffering of hundreds of thousands of families in mourning, millions of refugees, and all those who have stayed in their homes and labor night and day to find food for their children. In the recent past, Syria was rather quiet and safe. Christians lived peacefully in a pluralistic society with a Muslim majority that was tolerant and even benevolent. But this inhuman war leaves nothing in its wake, and a catastrophic, rampant tragedy is annihilating this country.
Today, everything has changed dramatically. The protest movement that began peacefully transformed into an armed revolt that spread terror and insecurity throughout the country. People are afraid to leave their houses; they avoid going out of their cities or villages, or do so only to move to other regions where they hope to find refuge. In perilous zones like Aleppo and the villages close to Turkey, there are kidnappers, snipers and armed gangs that oppress the civil population in areas where the army is not present.
VICTIMS OF INVASION
I do not know whether the international community has officially declared Aleppo a “disaster zone,” but I do know that humanly and materially, it has become so. After years of senseless war, the citizens of this great and beautiful city, with its 7,000 years of history and culture, find themselves in a desperate situation. The prosperity that Aleppo once enjoyed has vanished. Countless attacks have destroyed its factories and its flourishing industry, its social and administrative institutions, its commercial area and its renowned souk (marketplaces), its ancient homes, its schools and its hospitals. Aleppo’s ruination means that Syria has lost a major source of economic and social growth, and other cities have suffered similar misfortune.
The Arab Christian population remains particularly at risk. These times of great change could deal a fatal blow to our presence and apostolic mission in the region, which can be traced back to the beginning of Christianity.
Nearly four years since it began, we have more and more evidence that this revolution is not a protest movement of Syrian citizens seeking freedom and a better life but rather a devastating invasion of our land, more terrible than the invasion of the Huns in the 5th century and the Mongols in the Middle Ages. It is a war of destruction led by nations, using the unrest in parts of Syria to foment a fratricidal war into which they have injected arms, money and tens of thousands of jihadists and mercenaries. Thousands of European terrorists have even joined their ranks.
In the face of massacres of innocent people, kidnappings, refusal to engage in dialogue and massive destruction, we are now convinced that this uprising has nothing to do with freedom and democracy. If this were the case, the Church would have been the first to become an ally in the protests and a leader of those asking for substantial reforms. Instead, we have focused our attention on calling for an end to armed conflict and for dialogue toward a concerted political solution to this crisis that has plunged our country into blood and fire.
RAYS OF HOPE
The patriarchs of the Middle East, as well as the General Assembly of the Bishops of these Middle-Eastern countries, together with His Holiness Pope Francis, have not ceased to call the believers to prayer, the fighters to calm and the nations to military non-interference.
No one can forget the Holy Father’s prophetic call to the entire Church to participate in a day of fasting and prayer Sept. 7, 2013, in the face of growing tensions that included a potential military attack by the United States.
The Lord answered the prayers of his Church! He spared the people of Syria and opened paths of dialogue and reconciliation. The Geneva talks were the first path, and we are praying day and night that it may attain its objective and call for another meeting to promote dialogue between combatants. We ask all of our Christian brothers to join us in prayer that the peace process will succeed and the war will end for the greater good of all Syria.
It is evident that the civil war in Syria will overflow into neighboring territories if the conflict continues unchecked. Unfortunately, we notice this happening every day. You can imagine the cruel picture ahead and the tragic consequences for Christian communities in the surrounding countries if this happens.
I am therefore convinced that our first task must be to struggle for peace in our land and our region. In his Message for the World Day of Peace last January, Pope Francis stated, “Only when politics and the economy are open to moving within the wide space ensured by the One who loves each man and each woman will they achieve an ordering based on a genuine spirit of fraternal charity and become effective instruments of integral human development and peace.”
Recognizing what our Holy Father has called “the transcendent dimension of man,” Christians want a political system that enables all citizens to live in peace and to participate in public life. We know the task is arduous and difficult, but we Christians also know that the Lord never abandons his children.
We therefore look forward with a great hope to the day when this Calvary that our country is enduring will end. And we ardently pray for the establishment of lasting peace so that our faithful may return again to work and to their normal lives, in an atmosphere of security, serenity and mutual understanding among all the citizens of this beloved country.
METROPOLITAN JEAN-CLÉMENT JEANBART is the archbishop of Aleppo, Syria (Melkite Greek Catholic Church), the city in which he was also born. This text was adapted from an address he delivered Sept. 26 at Fordham University in New York City and is reprinted with permission.
• The Knights of Columbus Christian Refugee Relief initiative has raised more than $2.5 million for those suffering persecution in Iraq and the surrounding region. To assist with these relief efforts, visit www.kofc.org/Iraq, or send checks or money orders to: K of C Christian Refugee Relief, Knights of Columbus Charities, P.O. Box 1966, New Haven, CT 06509-1966.
• The Food for Syria project, launched last year by Jesus the King Council 15045 in Markham, Ontario, in collaboration with the Melkite Catholic Patriarchate in Syria, has provided food and medical supplies to more than 1,500 families. To aid with these efforts, visit foodforsyria.org.