COUNTING THE COST OF WAR
Helping Aleppo, the Syrian city which has fallen victim to what has been called ‘the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War,’ is a priority for Aid to the Church in Need. In spite of the risks, ACN’s JOHN PONTIFEX visited within days of the ceasefire that finally brought an end to four years of conflict, and met people ACN has been helping there. This is their story
‘I WOULDN’T go any further if I were you—the colonel has told us there are Daesh (ISIS) sniper fighters in the vicinity.” Not unnaturally, a tingle of panic shuddered down my spine as our host, Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, translated the words of the army official who had just walked in.
We had been sitting in this darkened and freezing room for more than an hour waiting for the signal to proceed. Archbishop Jeanbart, the Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo, was determined that we should visit a school building, which he described as of vital significance to his diocese.
He wanted us to see for ourselves the damage inflicted over four years of combat. But luck had not been on our side. Stepping outside to make the journey back, the sound of shooting in the distance made plain the reason we had been stopped in our tracks.
Aleppo in the wake of the ceasefire of December 23 has yet to reclaim the peace that is so dearly desired by its embattled residents. Notwithstanding the risks involved in making the journey, our team from ACN was determined to follow the advice of the Apostolic Nuncio to Syria, Cardinal Mario Zenari, to see for ourselves the situation on the ground and find out what more the Catholic charity could do to help the people. With Aleppo city centre now firmly under the control of the Assad Government, it is possible to start counting the full cost of war.
We learned that the city’s Christian community had fallen from 250,000 before the war to barely 30,000 today. This is a decline far steeper than that of Aleppo’s overall population, which has fallen from 2.5million to 1.5m. The depletion of the city’s Christian population means that Aleppo is the latest to join the list of places in the Middle East where the Church is—to use the memorable phrase of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI—’threatened in its very existence.’
Again and again, as we travelled around Aleppo, we were told that displaced Muslim communities were moving into districts which until recently had been populated mostly by Christians.
So it came as a shock to meet a Christian couple who had actually sought sanctuary in Aleppo, not outside it.
Elias and Samar described how they had come to Aleppo having fled the Syrian city of Raqqa. After Raqqa fell to Daesh early on in the war, the extremists imposed jizya Islamic tax on the 1,000-strong Christian families living there, including Elias and Samar.
When Elias was hurt in a bomb blast and had to stop his work as a car mechanic, Daesh gave him a jizya exemption certificate but a few weeks later more senior authorities representing the Islamist government came round to his house demanding he pay up.
The Daesh authorities disputed the exemption certificate and when the couple complained, Daesh hit Elias on the back of the head with the butt of a gun and threw his statues of Our Lady of Fatima in the bin.
Elias, a weightlifter in his youth, lashed out in despair. He was thrown into jail and placed in solitary confinement. He was bound head and foot to a cross and every day the Daesh prison authorities placed mouldy bread in his mouth—the only sustenance he received.
After a month, he was told his throat would be slit. Elias recalled that moment with tears in his eyes. “I prayed to God for a miracle.”
A miracle came in the form of a bomb—apparently dropped by a British fighter plane—which damaged the prison where Elias was being held.
In spite of his injuries and having been immobile for so long, Elias was able to escape and meet up with his wife, Samar.
Together they made their journey to Aleppo on the back of a lorry driven by a nomad. Elias and Samar did not allow us to take their photograph. Indeed, they asked us to change their names because their two children, 18-year-old Rima and Youhanna, 17, were unable to escape.
The youngsters had been in regular contact with their parents by mobile phone but for several months now contact has ceased. In spite of their worries for their children, Elias and Samar thank God for their survival.
When they arrived in Aleppo, they knew virtually nobody. They came into contact with a nun, Sr Annie Demerjian, who runs an aid relief programme, supported by a group of nine young volunteers. It was they who took us to meet Elias and Samar.
Telling their story, the couple described how they owed everything to Sr Annie and her young friends—the clothes they were wearing were provided by Sr Annie, the electricity and fuel to light and heat their home also comes from her, as does the food they eat and the medicine they rely on.
Aid to the Church in Need is supporting the work of Sr Annie Demerjian. When Elias and Samar learned that we were from ACN, Elias said: “I have always prayed to Our Lady. God delivered us from evil and brought us to safety.
“We came here with nothing but now our hearts are full of gratitude for what you are doing to support our every need.”
We also met Sarkis and Annie, another couple helped by Sr Annie, through ACN, with food, medicine, clothes, heating fuel and electricity.
Speaking from their flat which had been on the frontline, Annie said: “All the words in the world would not be enough to show how grateful we are.”
ACN head of operations in Scotland Lorraine McMahon met with Sr Annie in Lebanon last year.
Sr Annie made the return trip by attending ACN’s annual Scottish event, Stand Up for Faith and Freedom, at St Mirin’s Cathedral in Paisley last year.
“Sr Annie and her team and the work they do are the difference between life and death to so many people in Aleppo,” Ms McMahon said. “But to do her work she requires your help. She is one of the bravest and most inspiring people I have ever met.
“Daily she faces dangerous challenges to improve life for others and asks nothing for herself other than your prayers. Please help ACN to support Christians to stay and be safe in their own land.”
Nothing can come close to conveying the full sense of loss suffered by the people of a city once the economic hub serving the entire region and now a ruin comparable with Berlin after the Second World War.
The ill-fated visit I made with Archbishop Jeanbart to see the bomb-damaged school on the edge of the city sums up our feelings as we left Aleppo.
Archbishop Jeanbart told us the school’s name was ‘Amar’ which means ‘hope.’ Here was a city whose inhabitants had just begun a long journey towards hope. But they can’t make that journey without our help. They need our compassion, our companionship, our prayers and our support if they are to find hope.
Reflecting on this, I was reminded of the words of Sr Annie. She once told me: “You at ACN have been ministers to us. Please thank everybody who has been with us during these difficult days.
“Thanks to you, we have proof that God has not abandoned his people; that there is hope beyond despair.”
If you want more information or would like to help ACN’s ‘Please don’t forget Aleppo’ Lent appeal, visit www.acnuk.org or contact ACN’s Scottish office at 7 Scott Street, Motherwell, ML1 1PN. Phone: 01698 337 470.