By: Aleaxander Fluegel:
(Bishop Nazzaro served over 50 years in the Middle East, including in Syria from 1966 to 1968 and from 2002 to April 2013)
Who are the Christians living in Syria? – They are the direct descendants of the Judeo-Christians who believed in Jesus and fled from Jerusalem to Samaria and Syria after Saint Stephen’s death. Therefore, the Syrian Church exists since the first century A.D. It was at Damascus where Saul of Tarsus – who later became Paul – embraced the faith in Jesus; in Antioch of Syria, today Turkey, the disciples of Jesus received for the first time the noble title of Christians.
Before March 2011
At the end of the 1960s almost every religious foreigner living in Syria was followed by a secret police agent. In 1968 the Government seized private schools and over a thousand Syrian Christians left to Lebanon. In 1971 Hafez Al-Assad took power. Following what his predecessors had done, at the beginning he also ruled the country in a hard way. Over time, he changed tactics and started to relax controls. When Hafez died, his son Bachar was elected as president.
Soon after his installation as President, Bachar started to reduce government control, people began to breathe, Syria began opening up to the West. Welfare entered in the country. All benefited from it. Tourism increased continuously. Syrians could easily travel abroad. Factories were working. Trade developed. Foreigners started investing in Syria. There was widespread freedom. All ethnic communities were free to practice their religion. All who make up the Syrian population, Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Shiites, Druzes and others lived together in peace, they were associated in business; there was no distinction in social relations between all those people, no matter what group they belonged to. In the Government, there were at least three Christian Ministers; there was no prejudice whatsoever for the appointment of a Christian as General Manager for a Bank, in the army the highest ranks were accessible to all. Each community was free to practice publicly their beliefs. For instance, as Christians we never had problems in our churches and we were also free to make our processions through the streets of the city.
During the most important holidays, Christmas and Easter for us Christians, the feast of Bayram (end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr) and the feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha) for Muslims, we exchanged greetings freely. Muslims used to come to greet us and we used to go and greet Muslims. Courtesy visits between Muslim and Christian families were very frequent and without prejudice. Everyone felt at home, including all the different historical traditions.
After March 2011
Aleppo (http://goo.gl/maps/qSbw7): Our Roman Catholic community in Aleppo, which used to count about 6000 members, is now reduced to almost half. One might think that our community, being among the poorest, cannot be reduced because people do not have the means to go anywhere, therefore they are forced to stay in the city, trusting in God and in those who want to help them to survive. The Bishop and the Franciscans Fathers have to help them in a double way: spiritually and materially. A substantial help is given by the Jesuit Fathers who, through Father Mourad Abou Seif, have created a kitchen where they distribute about 8000 hot meals per day (https://www.facebook.com/JRS.Aleppo.Syria). By keeping the oratory open the Salesian Fathers (https://www.facebook.com/Salesianaleppo) offer to young people a space of freedom and light-heartedness, taking them out from the horror and nightmare of war. On their part, the Marist Brothers of Champagnat (https://www.facebook.com/MaristesAlep) are interested in the tough neighborhoods where Christians were attacked and forced to leave their homes (http://goo.gl/TcVxl) seeking refuge at their institute. How long can we still live in such a situation? All those programs mentioned above will continue as long as the Church continues receiving support – material and spiritual.
On 21-22 March 2013, accompanied by the parish priest of the village of Qanayah (http://mapq.st/1bofeVK), situated on the Orontes River, I had the opportunity to pay a visit to all the Christian villages around this river, they are:
(1) Ghassanieh (Idlib Governorate): A village of about 1000 inhabitants, all Christians, who last June 23, 2013 witnessed the martyrdom of Father Francois Mourad, a Syrian Catholic religious man murdered by gangs of Jabhat al-Nusra in the Convent of the Franciscan Fathers in Ghassanieh, where he resided. This village has seen for over a year the exodus of all its inhabitants. They were all Roman and Orthodox Catholics, who were forced by a group of Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists to leave their village. The terrorists entered the village at night, and with loudspeakers threatened people with death, if they would fail to abandon their homes. When I visited the village on 21-March, the Christian community was reduced to two priests, three nuns and about 12 civilians. All the houses were occupied by terrorists.
(2) Yacubiyeh (http://goo.gl/maps/E6dVV): This is a village of about 900 hundred souls, half Armenian Orthodox and half Roman Catholics. The Armenians, with their priest, abandoned everything and left to Aleppo. The Roman Catholic pastor, a Franciscan Father, and the Franciscan Religious of the Immaculate Heart of Mary with about 80 Roman Catholic families and some Armenian Orthodox still remain in the village. I celebrated the Holy Mass for them and then we all met together to discuss the situation. All of them were fearing for their future. They suffer constant harassment by terrorists, who unexpectedly break into the convent and the church because, according to them, the parish priest and the nuns hide the soldiers of the regular army. By the way, the Armenian church of the village has been reduced to a stable. The terrorists do everything inside it.
(3) Jedeideh (http://goo.gl/maps/LrdK2): The inhabitants were a total of 1000 Christians, Mostly Greek Orthodox with some Roman Catholic families. The Orthodox priest escaped. The Franciscan Father of the village of Qanayah is now assisting both the Roman Catholics and the Orthodoxes. The Greek Orthodox church has suffered the same destiny as that of Yacoubie.
(4) Qanayah (http://mapq.st/1bofeVK): This is the most important village in the area, it has a population of about 2000 souls, all Roman Catholics (Latin) and some Alawite family. The Priest must do wonders to keep people linked to the village because he knows that once they go away, they will not come back again. The rebels, in fact, will loot and burn everything around, as it happened in Ghassanieh and to a part of Yacubiyeh. Qanayah is the center for the refugees from Jisr Ash-Shughur who left the city at the time of the massacre that was committed on 02-June-2012. Since that day, the Franciscan Convent of Qanayah hosts Christians, Alawites and Sunnis.
(5) Jisr Ash-Shughur (http://goo.gl/maps/RLqYp): This is the town of the tragedy of June 2012, when terrorists massacred 120 policemen. About 500 people of the three faiths: Christians, Sunnis and Alawites, fearing to suffer the same fate escaped and took refuge in the Franciscan convent of Qanayah. Since these people ran away from home, bringing with them only what they were wearing, the Franciscan Father in Qanayah, who was still in charge of the Latin Catholic community of Jisr Ash-Shughur, had to provide them with food, being mindful of distributing it separately to each group, according to their religious confession, in order to avoid any religious tension. The town has about 25000 inhabitants, Greek Orthodox and the Latins are around 2000 people.
Latakia (http://goo.gl/maps/xDIHM): This is a city on the coast with a commercial port. It is relatively quiet. The Christian community has its problem of survival due to the arrival of relatives and other Christian people who have fled the rebel persecution in different villages. As a consequence, often and often people knock on the door of the Franciscan Convent, looking for help. They need basically everything: food, clothing, medicines, money to pay rent, etc. The local population feels uncomfortable because the cost of living has significantly increased. Everything is becoming more expensive, especially the rent (let us not talk about buying a house, which is almost impossible). The population of Latakia is mostly Alawite, but there is a good percentage of Christians belonging to various rites such as the Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Latins, and Greek-Catholics. Christians belonging to other Catholic rites who are not Maronites or Greeks are under the Pastoral responsibility of the the Latin parish priest.
Deir ez-Zur (http://goo.gl/maps/AdjOQ): – It is a city of over 150000 inhabitants, mostly Sunnis, with a minority of Kurds and Christians. The Christians belong to different rites, but the majority of them are Armenian Orthodox. Other Communities do not exceed 500 members and they are under the responsibility of the Capuchin Fathers for their pastoral care. When the terrorists entered Deir ez-Zur, the first thing they did was to set fire to the Church of the Sacred Heart, belonging to the Capuchin Fathers, compelling the Religious to flee to Lebanon. The Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who administered a nursing home, were forced to leave in a daring way, taking with them the patients. The Sisters have taken refuge in Damascus.
Homs (http://goo.gl/maps/NGjjl): – Father Franz Van der Lugt, a Jesuit priest, pastor of the Roman Catholic community has been prisoner in Homs for over a year, without ever being able to get out of his convent and to know what happened to his community (https://www.facebook.com/Al.Hamidiya.Community and http://goo.gl/7mv47a). The local Roman Catholic community was very small. There were only about 400 people and the Jesuit Fathers were taking pastoral care of them. Today we don’t know anything about this small community: who are those who are there and who are those who have left the city?
The coastal area has been relatively quiet because it is inhabited by a huge majority of Alawites. Salafi terrorists attacked the coastal town of Baniyas (http://goo.gl/maps/DM3KK) in April 2011. However they withdrew later and the city is relatively calm ever since.
The south and east of the country, according to the data I could collected in a trip around the whole country in May 2012, did not complain particular persecution against Christians, except for the unfortunates who were traveling.
Maaloula (http://goo.gl/maps/puUpO): In this town everyone, Christians and Muslims, speak the language of the Lord Jesus, the Aramaic language. It is about 60 km away from Damascus. What happened to Christian sites and their people in Maaloula is well known from the many news and details presented by the mass media. The inhabitants of Maaloula were 70% Christians and 30% Sunni Muslims. The coexistence between them has always been exemplary. Never before there was any problem of xenophobia against certain communities.
Damascus (http://goo.gl/maps/nLueq): Despite having suffered major attacks against both the barracks, and in the points of vital importance for the city, there were no specific acts against churches and Christians, except for Saturday, 05-October (last month), when the terrorists fired mortars on the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross, causing eight deaths (one of them was a Muslim). Another bomb exploded near the Apostolic Nunciature on 04-November. But, according the papal Nuncio, we can’t say if that bomb was directed intentionally or not toward the Nunciature. Thanks God nobody was injured. Now things have changed, the Christian quarter is under bombing of the terrorists since many days.
As a Bishop of the Roman Catholic Community of Syria it is my duty to pay a tribute to all the religious Franciscans, Jesuits and Capuchins for their fidelity to the mandate received to guide the congregations, both in good and in bad times. All of them were in their place sharing the same destiny of their people. The sacrifice of life offered by Father Francois Mourad, a Syrian Catholic monk, who was living in the Franciscan convent of Ghassanieh, sharing the same responsibility with the parish priest of the village, should make us reflect on the courage and loyalty of all these men of God, following their duty and therewith knowingly putting their lives at risk. I also have to give a word of praise to the religious of other congregations that operate on Syrian territory and that are under the guidance of the Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo.
Faced with these true heroes of the Christian faith, of the love of Christ, we have to bow down and pray for them, that the Lord may bless them and strengthen them and the amazing work they are doing. In addition to those mentioned above I want to remember also the following: the Lazarist Fathers, the Capuchin Fathers, the Priests of the Incarnate Word, the more than 150 Nuns from different congregations who are scattered all over the Syrian territory to help those who are suffering. Among these we cannot forget Sister Rima Nasri (http://goo.gl/zUsyhO), a religious of the Congregation of St. Dorothy, who lost her life in the explosion of two bombs on 15-January-2013, only 15 meters away from the Carmelite convent, where Sister Rima, along with other St. Dorothy sisters, were devoted to work for the young Christian students attending Aleppo University. Those bombs exploded only 50 meters away from the office of the Apostolic Vicar, causing considerable damages to the building as well as the Cathedral and all the neighboring houses.