On the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, Pope Francis made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love on the outskirts of Rome this evening to pray for peace in the world, especially in Syria. 

“Let us pray together,” he told the faithful on arrival at the shrine before reciting the Rosary in front of the image of the Madonna of the Miracle.

The Pope announced his wish to pray at the shrine on Sunday, during his Regina Coeli prayer, saying he would be praying “especially for peace in Syria and in the entire world.” He asked the faithful to “join him spiritually” in continuing to pray “the Rosary for peace” during the Marian month of May. 

The Pope, who said he would also be praying for peace in Nigeria and the Koreas, has frequently expressed his concerns about Syria. 

The seven-year war has left an estimated 500,000 dead, five million Syrians have fled the country and over six million have been internally displaced. The war grew out of the 2011 Arab Spring and discontent with the government of Bashar al-Assad, but other groups and nations have since become involved, including ISIS which is seeking to overthrow Assad and impose Salafist rule. 

The Pope said April 15 he was “deeply disturbed” by the failure of the international community to end the war and bring peace to the Middle East nation. 

On April 14, the US, France and Britain carried out a series of military strikes against multiple government sites in Syria in response to a chemical attack against civilians in the Syrian city of Douma on April 7. Although blamed for the atrocity, the Syrian government denied involvement in the Douma attacks and denounced the airstrikes as a violation of international law. 

Christians in Syria, who make up roughly 10% of the population and belong to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, have been cautious about taking sides during the war, although many have a preference for the Assad regime which they see as guaranteeing their survival in the face of the Islamist threat. 

Hundreds of thousands of Christians have been displaced by the fighting or emigrated, and well over a thousand have been killed. As the sectarian and Islamist violence has increased, so has Christian support for Assad. Many fear that if he is overthrown, Christians will be targeted and communities destroyed as many were in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003. 

 

No Christians, No Syria

In an April 20 interview with the Italian online newspaper In Terris, Sister Yola Girges, superior of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Damascus, was clear in her belief that the alternative to Assad would be “an Islamic confessional state.” 

“That is what the terrorists want, but it will not happen,” she asserted. “Syria is the only country in the Middle East where Christians have lived, and still live, in spite of everything, with maximum freedom to express their faith.” 

She added that President Assad has stated that “without Christians, Syria would not exist,” and that she was sure that in 2021, when the next Presidential elections will take place, “Assad will be re-elected.” The Syrian people “support its President,” Sister Girges said. 

The Franciscan religious did not believe the chemical weapons attack was carried out by the Assad government, saying such an accusation was “not credible” as the government has fought “honourably” with its allies and so she questioned the purpose of using them. 

Noting this was the third time chemical weapons have been used, she thought it “absurd” for the government to use them against civilians rather than terrorists, and that she and other Christians have come to the conclusion that the terrorists carried out the attack to frame the government. She recalled that the Syrian army had discovered chemical weapons in the depots of terrorists, something shown to the United Nations, but which went “apparently unheeded.” 

Despite the extent of suffering the country has faced over the past seven years, Sister Girges remains firmly hopeful. “I believe Syria will come back even better than before, that it will become a symbol for Christianity,” she said, adding that Syrian Christians who have suffered through the war “have shown great faith which will be a beacon to the world.”

She recalled Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams in the Old Testament: seven years of famine and seven years of plenty. “We in Syria have had seven years of famine and pain, now I have great hope that there will be seven years of plenty and prosperity,” she said.

Sister Girges also said Christians are “grateful to the Holy Father” who in these years of war “has supported and encouraged us to stay in Syria.” Those who have fled are only those who, along with their children, faced certain death, she said. “We pray always for the Pope and for the Church, that we stay united in the faith,” she said. 

She also appealed to the Holy Father to come to Syria and meet those who have suffered the atrocities of war. “We ask the Pope to listen to us,” Sister Girges said. “We are the only ones who can tell him what is really the truth about this war. 

“We beseech him to listen only to the voices of those who truly know the reality of Syria.”