One message that should not be lost in the deluge of often one-sided media reports about the war being waged in Syria is that the land of Damascus—the site of the conversion of the Apostle of the Gentiles, St. Paul—retains a unique culture of fraternal respect and dignified acceptance of people of different creeds. This culture rejects all attempts to foment division, not only among the various Christian denominations, but even between Christians and Muslims.
“You ask how many Muslims there are in Syria, a land of 23 million people? The answer is 23 million. How many Christians? 23 million.” This was the reply given both by the Grand Mufti of Damascus and by a Christian Orthodox bishop to the questions posed by a delegation of American citizens who went to Syria in September. The delegation was seeking to solve the riddle of how the country has managed to withstand more than five years of brutal military attacks, economic sanctions, and media distortion at the hands of several foreign powers. Their report confirms what has been said by the many Syrian religious leaders who have travelled to and from the West, at some risk, in the midst of the warfare, to try and set the record straight, in the interests not only of truth but of peace itself.
“Please help us pull our country back from the brink of the abyss of the fundamentalist regime in which they are trying to immerge us,” is the dramatic appeal to the West by Jean Clément Jeanbart, Greek-Melkite archbishop of Aleppo. “Please help us continue to live in a dignified manner on this blessed land where we were born and raised!”
Earlier this month Carmelite nuns in Aleppo wrote to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need to denounce skewed reporting in the international media, citing only the most recent examples of unreported tragedies in the western part of Aleppo that is under fire, not from the Syrian government, but from rebel-held East Aleppo:
As you already know from the reports that have reached the West, the air strikes on Aleppo are frequent. But the situation in West Aleppo is no better, even though the media won’t report it. This bias in the news is very painful to us, because of the things we witness each and every day, directly or indirectly, through the information we get from priests or from trustworthy people close by, of the plight of many of the neighborhoods in the West of the city, where more and more people are being killed by grenades, by missiles, and by ever-more sophisticated weapons, or are succumbing to the total lack of water and electricity, which have been cut off by the enemy; the West too counts dozens of dead and injured, daily.
The other day, a priest who says Mass for us once a week arrived in tears: he lives in Midan, a lower-class neighborhood that has been the target of unceasing attacks for three years now. For the past week this priest has been burying civilian victims, non-stop. A few days ago, in another very lower-class neighborhood, almost completely inhabited by Muslims, some howitzers caused a dozen or so dead and over 70 people injured, near the hospital of St. Luke’s, which is run by the sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition.
WE CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE and we PLEAD FOR AN END TO THE FIGHTING in the city and EVERYWHERE, as well as for a greater OBJECTIVITY in the news reports, if only out of respect for all these poor people who are suffering (these families are very humble, in many cases poor and even utterly destitute!
Bishop Antoine Audo, SJ, head of Caritas Syria and Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, corroborated the Carmelites’ words in an interview with Vatican Radio: “The testimony of the Carmelite nuns is reliable,” said the bishop. “To us it’s important to let people know that in the Western part of Aleppo, where there are two million inhabitants, many Christians have left because of the bombs that are being dropped everywhere and every day, with no one saying a thing. For example, yesterday morning they bombed a school in the Christian quarter, killing four or five children, and injuring some 50 people. A school!”
“I think,” Bishop Audo added, “that those who control the information in the West have a political agenda. We must, as Christians, as honest people, ask who is behind this manipulation, this exploitation of the media. And I think that if the war goes on like this not only will there will be soon be no one left in Aleppo. Whoever can, leaves. Only those who can’t leave are staying on, which means the poor and the elderly. Little by little it will be the end of this wonderful Christian community of Aleppo. This is our drama and our pain. We try to do everything we can. We say: ‘Peace! Peace! Peace!’ but on the side of the rebels there is no peace but ‘War! War! War!’ which will they continue all the way to destruction.”
The similar perspective was conveyed to AsiaNews by the Latin-rite apostolic visitor to Aleppo, Bishop Georges Abou Khazen, OFM. “We do not want all these deaths, this destruction,” the bishop said. “But the tragedy wears on and involves both the sectors of the city…. Everyone here is suffering, families both East and West continue to count and mourn their dead.”
In August Bishop Khazen voiced the misgivings about the United States harbored by the population after an airstrike on the Syrian army base during the brokered cease-fire. “Nobody here believes that the massacre of over 90 Syrian soldiers by the United States Air Force took place ‘by mistake,’” he stated to Fides News Agency. “That air raid, which killed so many soldiers and maimed so many others, would seem to confirm the ambiguity of the choices that the United States is making on the Syrian scenario, as well as the suspicion of those who say that it is the United States that has created the Islamic State (Daesh) and is using it. With all the instruments and the ‘intelligent weapons’ they have at their disposal, that air raid can’t have been an accident, those barracks were not put there yesterday.”
The apostolic vicar also confirmed that “the Turks are also taking over vast Syrian territories near the border.” However, he also told of the signs of hope that continue to spring up in the lives of the Christians of Aleppo, even in extreme conditions. “As shepherds, we take heart when we see so many Christians who are living with faith the terrible times that we are going through. And we bishops of different denominations are also led by them to live an ever more real communion of faith, in our ordinary lives. It is moving to think that it is precisely because of their faith that the Lord will bless us and will give us his holy peace.”
The words of the Syrian bishops, prelates, nuns, and monks who have spoken out about their country’s plight all point out the importance of saving the unique Syrian culture of fraternal coexistence among religions.
In an interview with Catholic bulletin La Bussola Quotidiana, Father Mtanios Haddad, Melkite Patriarchal Representative to the Holy See and rector of the Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin in Rome, pointed out that: “In Syria there are 18 Christian families, between Catholics, Orthodox, Catholic Armenians, Orthodox Armenians, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Melkites…a mosaic that has always been in harmony with our Muslim cousins. The coexistence among religions was guaranteed for almost half a century by the government of the secular Baath party. In the Baath period we no longer had to indicate our religion on our ID cards. We were all Syrian citizens with equal rights, whatever our religion. Education was free for Christians and Muslims [including women] without distinction.”
This war has made us Christians the target of a fanatical Islam which has been literally imported from abroad. The terrorists have destroyed infrastructure, schools, [and] hospitals which had been built at a great cost in the course of half a century, by Christians and Muslims. We don’t feel like a “minority” here, we are Syrian Christians. Our Melkite patriarch, the Greek-Orthodox patriarch, and the Syro-Orthodox patriarch have signed an appeal to the Christians to stay and resist, including those who have gone to refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, nearby countries where it is easy to come back from. Our patriarchs too feel a duty to stay with their people. Every month, they help not only their own congregations but all the citizens of the area. Our patriarch in Damascus helps the Catholics, the Orthodox, and the Muslims. And every sort of aid that arrives at the Melkite Patriarchate is also distributed to the entire population. The same goes for the other patriarchs as well. For example, in the latest Ramadan in Aleppo, it was the Christians who prepared the meals for the Muslims, for when they interrupt their fast at sundown.
If you really want to help the Syrian Christians, help us live in peace in our own homes. We do not want to live as moochers off of your economy, of your taxes. We don’t want to come to Europe to unbalance your social equilibrium.
Just stop selling arms to the terrorists, don’t let the terrorists come into Syria, it would cost you less. And it’s useless to lament the lack of food, milk for the children, and medicine: all you need to do is, rather, do away with the embargo.
Three things are needful: stopping the trade of arms from America (destined to the terrorists) closing Saudi Arabia’s wallet (which funds the terrorists) and closing the frontier with Turkey (through which come the terrorists). Our vocation as Oriental Christians is that of staying put where we have been for 2,000 years, being born, living, and growing in the Middle East.
Do we have martyrs? In Maalula, when ISIS got here, our Melkite church had at least three martyrs: when they were confronted with the choice of either converting or dying, the first refused and was killed in front of the other two; then they asked the second, who refused and was also killed; same thing with the third. All three of them answered “We have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Their names were Mikhael Taalab, his cousin Antoun Taalab, [and] Sarkis el Zakhm, Mikhael’s nephew. They were martyrs, killed in odium fidei.
On September 28 the Greek-Melkite archbishop of Aleppo, Jean Clément Jeanbart, published the following article in French:
We are living tragic moments of our history and what is happening continues to cause pain and suffering to Aleppo and the Aleppians, who for five years now have been denied any peace, besieged and massacred as they have been by armed groups who have come here from all over the world, to conduct a so-called holy war, in a country ruled (according to them) by atheists and infidels!
For five years now the terrorists have been in command, wherever the civil authorities of the country do not succeed in being present. They have spread terror everywhere, destroyed thousands of factories, trade and public services, looted homes and blithely stolen the heritage of the country and of its citizens. They have made innocent victims, kidnapped and brutally assassinated countless peaceful people among whom are nuns, priests, and even bishops.
This is continuing even today: this morning a dozen or so howitzers were launched at two of our residential areas, causing further destruction and in one case causing numerous deaths and injuries. Some battles are being waged furiously in the outskirts of town, where the rebels of the “Al-Nusra” front try to regain positions in areas which have been almost completely abandoned and destroyed, but which they occupied until last June and consider strategic. Pictures of these totally desolate places have been shown by the television channels. It is there that the biggest battles are currently under way.
We had placed great hope in the cease fire of three weeks ago, hoping it might open the door to a pacification, followed by a national reconciliation and a return to the normality of life in the country! Unfortunately this truce, weakened by being constantly violated by the radical adversaries, was officially broken by the sudden air strikes by the Coalition which is allied to the rebels. These raids struck a military base of the Syrian army at Deir-El-Zor and killed over 90 soldiers in their barracks, not to mention countless undeclared injured people. Is this the way to stop the fighting?
This is why we are hoping and counting on the grace of God, the only thing capable of awakening the conscience of the great decision-makers. The terrifying spectacle of what is happening is capable of shaking the conscience of whoever respects the sacredness of human life. …
The worst thing for the Christians currently present in Aleppo would be the prospect of having to live, morning, noon, and night, in anxiety on account of this destabilizing insecurity. They fear for tomorrow, for the future of their children. The idea that one day a fundamentalist Muslim state might be imposed on their children is an unbearable nightmare to them.
This is why we turn to our brethren in the West and pray that they may help us prevent this from happening. We are not asking you to wage war for us, but just to put an end to the unfair demands of your allies who want to impose on us antiquated laws that are unbearable to people of the 21st century, who want to be free to choose their own culture, their own way of life, and their own faith.
Another voice from Christian Syria comes from Bishop Joseph Tobji of Aleppo’s Maronite community, who in a September 29 interview with Italian daily Il Giornale, pointed to the senseless international sanctions, which “kill more people than the missiles and the bombs.” “The Christians of Aleppo are surviving in a condition of extreme suffering because of the silly and immoral sanctions imposed on Syria by Europe.”
On October 4 Bishop Tobij spoke before the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Italian Senate: “In Syria there is neither a revolution, nor a civil war,” he said, “but a third world war by proxy. And the international media continue to be biased and trample on the truth.”
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