In March 2005 a
small group of nuns from the Cistercian Monastery of Valserena in Tuscany moved
to Aleppo, Syria, to found a new monastic community there. The nuns were
inspired to take up the legacy of seven monks who were martyred in 1997 in
Tibhirine, Algeria. The sisters wanted to follow the example set by these men,
who had totally dedicated their lives to God and to their beloved Algerian
neighbors, both Christian and Muslim.
guiding Scripture is John 10:16: “There are other sheep I have that are not of
this fold, and I must led these too. They too will listen to my voice.”
Once they had
settled in Aleppo, with the blessing of both the Latin Apostolic Vicar and the
Maronite bishop of Tartous, the sisters gained a new awareness of the
importance of helping Christian Arabs remain in the Middle East, as well as a respect
for the diversity of their traditions. Their project was, and continues to be, establishing
a permanent monastery on the land they bought near the Syrian border with
Lebanon, in a Maronite village named Azeir, atop a hill, far from the big
cities. The monastery is at the service
of isolated Christian communities, in a land which is predominantly Muslim but which
is home to the most ancient of Christian traditions.
To the sisters,
Syria represents the meeting place of East and West, the place where
Christianity began and then spread to Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, and then
Armenia and Indiaall the way to China, with saints such as such as Afraate,
Ephraim, Cyrus, Simeon Protostilite, Maron, Isaac of Niniveh, and others who
followed in their footsteps, such as John Chrysostom and John Damascene.
It is this
tradition the sisters wish to honor and perpetuate, persevering in their
mission despite the fear and the hardship: to
keep the monastery going and provide those who desire it with a chance to
spend a few days there, with a church to go to.
These nuns have
been providing a much-needed independent perspective on the tumultuous events
going on inside Syria, in eye-witness reports published on their website and in
the Italian bishops’ newspaper, Avvenire.
Here is a
translation of a letter written on the 29th of August, in which the sisters
seem to be holding their breath as President Obama deliberated about what, if
any, action would be taken in Syria by the United States.
Today we have no
words, except those of the Psalms that the liturgical prayer puts onto our lips
in these days:
Rebuke the Beast of the Reeds, that herd of bulls, that people of calves…oh
God, scatter the people who delight in war…Yahweh has leaned down from the
heights of his sanctuary, has looked down from heaven to earth to listen to the
sighing of the captive, and set free those condemned to death…Listen, God, to
my voice as I plead, protect my life from fear of the enemy; hide me from the
league of the wicked, from the gang of evil-doers. They sharpen their tongues
like a sword, aim their arrow of poisonous abuse…They support each other in
their evil designs, they discuss how to lay their snares. “Who will see us?”
they say. He will do that, he who penetrates human nature to its depths, the
depths of the heart…Break into song for my God, to the tambourine, sing in honor
of the Lord, to the cymbal, let psalm and canticle mingle for him, extol his
name, invoke it…For the Lord is a God who breaks battle-lines! … Lord, you are
great, you are glorious, wonderfully strong, unconquerable.
We look at the
people around us, our day workers who are all here as if suspended, stunned: “They’ve
decided to attack us.” Today we went to Tartous…we felt the anger, the
helplessness, the inability to formulate a sense to all this: the people trying
their best to work and to live normally. You see the farmers watering their
land, parents buying notebooks for the schools that are about to begin,
unknowing children asking for a toy or an ice cream…you see the poor, so many
of them, trying to scrape together a few coins. The streets are full of the
“inner” refugees of Syria, who have come from all over to the only area left
that is still relatively liveable…. You see the beauty of these hills, the
smile on people’s faces, the good-natured gaze of a boy who is about to join
the army and gives us the two or three peanuts he has in his pocket as a token
of “togetherness”…. And then you remember that they have decided to bomb us
tomorrow. … Just like that. Because “it’s time to do something,” as it is
worded in the statements of the important men, who will be sipping their tea
tomorrow as they watch TV to see how effective their humanitarian intervention
Will they make
us breathe the toxic gases of the depots they hit, tomorrow, so as to punish us
for the gases we have already breathed in?
The people are
straining their eyes and ears in front of the television: all they’re waiting
for is a word from Obama!
A word from
Obama? Will the Nobel Peace Prize winner drop his sentence of war onto us?
Despite all justice, all common sense, all mercy, all humility, all wisdom?
The Pope has
spoken up, patriarchs and bishops have spoken up, numberless witnesses have
spoken up, analysts and people of experience have spoken up, even the opponents
of the regime have spoken up…. Yet here we all are, waiting for just one word
from the great Obama? And if it weren’t him, it would be someone else. It isn’t
he who is “the great one,” it is the Evil One who these days is really acting
The problem is
that it has become too easy to pass lies off as noble gestures, to pass
ruthless self-interest off as a search for justice, to pass the need to appear [strong]
and to wield power off as a “moral responsibility not to look away…”
And despite all
our globalizations and sources of information, it seems nothing can be
verified. It seems that there is no such thing as a minimal scrap of truth …
That is, they don’t want there to be any truth; while actually a truth does
exist, and anyone honest would be able to find it, if they truly sought it out
together, if they weren’t prevented by those who are in the service of other
something wrong, and it is something very serious…because the consequences will
be wrought on the lives of an entire population…it is in the blood that fills
our streets, our eyes, our hearts.
Yet what use are
words anymore? All has been destroyed: a nation destroyed, generations of young
people exterminated, children growing up wielding weapons, women winding up
alone and targeted by various types of violence…families, traditions, homes,
religious buildings, monuments that tell and preserve history and therefore the
roots of a people…all destroyed. …
As Christians we
can at least offer all this up to the mercy of God, unite it to the blood of
Christ, which carries out the redemption of the world in all those who suffer.
They are trying
to kill hope, but we must hold on to it with all our might.
To those who
truly have a heart for Syria (for mankind, for truth…) we ask for prayer…abounding,
heartfelt, courageous prayer.
The Trappist nuns from Azeir, Syria
August 29, 2013