A city under siege, continuous bombardments. Thousands of children at risk. The witness of a community of Franciscan Friars who give courage and hope to people.
One can see almost the entire city of Aleppo, or what is left of it after five years of war, from the Em Ram monastery. The ancient citadel, which was declared a Heritage of Humanity in1986, still stands on top of the hill. Aleppo was once well-known for being a place of peace and coexistence, it was home to Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Circassians, and three hundred thousand Christians of ten different denominations.
The Syrian city was the third Christian city of the Middle East and at the same time the capital of the Islamic culture. Aleppo was the ancient capital of the Hittite kingdom, it is a place of great archaeological value, the cradle of different cultures, a crossroads on the silk route between East and West and the ancient seat of the Aleppo Codex (which is considered the best existing manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, though incomplete). Everything has been destroyed now. More than 2 million civilians are under siege in Aleppo, 130,000 children are at risk.
The war has caused more than 287,000 deaths in five years, more than 6.5 million displaced within the country and 4.8 million refugees. A Syrian proverb says: ‘Who controls Aleppo, controls Syria’.
Aleppo, which is the second largest Syrian city, is under siege since April 2012. The city experiences continuous changes of power. The eastern part of the city is currently controlled by rebels backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. This part of Aleppo is attacked by government forces, Lebanese, Shiite and Iranian Hezbollah which isolate it, supported by the Russian air force. The government has never lost control of western Aleppo, including the old city, which is now connected, better than in the past, to the Assad area.
“All interests in the Middle East are focusing on Aleppo” – says Father Firas Lutfi, who is in charge of the Franciscan monastery of Em Ram. “Every day we hear of truce talks, of agreements between governments, but then shootings and killings continue. We are facing a serious humanitarian catastrophe. But nobody seems to care. Who cares about the thousands of children who have nothing to eat? Who cares about the wounded who cannot be cured because there are no medicines? So humanitarian corridors are expected to be created in an attempt to bring relief to the population”. There are five Franciscan Friars in Aleppo.
They have been asked to leave the city several times. “The same reasons that push us to leave are those that make us stay. The Christians who are still here rely on us, they need us, and we need them. We are trying in every possible way to be close to all those people who relentlessly knock on the door of our convent, to receive some help and comfort. Our monastery welcomes both the families living in this area and those coming from Midaan, who have sought shelter at our convent after the church of Bicharat in Midaan was destroyed. We also host the Maronite Christian community who celebrate several weekly Masses in our church, since the Maronite churches of the surrounding neighbourhoods were completely destroyed or made uninhabitable. Our monastery is the place where different church groups gather for their weekly meetings and it is the ‘home’ that also gives hospitality to a school for deaf-mutes, one of the very few centres of this kind which is currently still operative in Aleppo. The reception that we try to offer unconditionally is implemented through the works of mercy that the holy Church asks us to do, especially in this ‘Holy Year of Mercy’. We also share with anyone who knocks on our door, the most precious good that there is now in Aleppo, the well water that we have in our convent”!
Aleppo is a theatre of war with its half-ruined houses, dilapidated buildings, people, who have been left alone, walking the streets without a destination”. “Offering these people just food and water is not enough, – continues Father Firas – these people have lost hope and need most of all to recover psychologically. Many of them need a job. That is why we have started some commercial activities in order to give people work”. With regard to the experience of the school summer camp recently concluded, Father Firas says: “Three hundred and fifty young people attended the last school summer camp and despite the fact that bombardments were going on, not one of them left the camp. Indeed, the number of young people attending the school summer camp this year was a hundred more than that of the previous year. When bombs began to fall, we turned our stereo speakers towards the area of the jihadists to show that they would not succeed in frightening us. Because we want to challenge the bombs and death with our joy of life”, continues Father Firas.
Father Ibrahim Alsabagh, who is the parish priest of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Aleppo, says, “We friars of the Custody of the Holy Land try to help Christians, who are increasingly tempted to leave. They say they can tolerate hunger and thirst but not the killing of their children”. The greatest regret is that the thousand-year old model of peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims in Syria, the successful amalgam and cultural exchange between a mature Islam and Christianity no longer exist. The atrocities of recent years have been perpetrated by jihadists who come from outside of this peaceful land, they are terrorists and mercenaries who come here to fight and kill in the name of Allah. Dialogue with them is impossible. We believe that this war will not continue much longer but at the same time we are aware it will not be short either. There will still be more victims, violence and destruction. In these days full of fear and death, – concludes Father Ibrahim – while walking in the streets I can see men crying like children. One of them told me he had already had to move several times because of the fighting which endangered his family, he asked me : ‘Until when? How long will we have to be refugees in our own country?’” (G.L.)