VATICAN CITY — In 2013, a small group of young French Catholic friends took part in La Manif Pour Tous (March for All), a popular movement that led to millions marching for life and against same-sex “marriage” and adoption.
After the demonstrations ended, they wanted to do more: to help persecuted Christians in the Middle East, not only by giving them material aid, but also living and praying alongside them.
Four years later, SOS Chrétien d’Orient has 600 volunteers working in five countries, with a further project beginning in Pakistan.
Last month, the Register sat down in Rome with the co-founder of the charity, Benjamin Blanchard, who explained how the charity has far exceeded expectations, helped volunteers in their faith, and how the charity relies on the prayers of others — particularly those of the faithful at one parish in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
How did SOS Chrétien d’Orient begin?
It all began in 2013, after La Manif Pour Tous. Some friends (we were all Catholics, and we met during the La Manif Pour Tous) wanted to do more as Christians after those big demonstrations. At this time, our government in France wanted to bomb Syria, and at the same time a lot of French jihadists went to Syria to fight with ISIS.
We thought it wasn’t good that France just dropped bombs on the terrorists and wanted to show another part of France. At the same time, the Christian village of Maaloula in Syria near Damascus was attacked by al-Qaida, and so we decided to go there and spend Christmas with Syria’s Christians, especially the Christians from Maaloula, who had been expelled from their village by al-Qaida.
So you came together as a group of young people thanks to La Manif Pour Tous?
Yes, I’m the oldest — I’m 35 now — and I was 32 when we started. My friends were 22, 23, so very young.
How did you obtain the means to go there?
All of us paid for our tickets and costs, and we just had to raise money to transport the materials because we had four tons of blankets, clothes and toys for people.
How did you acquire those goods?
We wrote some articles on Catholic websites and gave some interviews on Catholic radio and in some newspapers. We didn’t expect so much. It was a big surprise to receive four tons [of goods]. We needed money to transport all of it. We asked people, and it was a great success because people were very interested and involved in this topic. Our answer was very novel because we not only wanted to send money, which is very good, but we wanted to bring stuff ourselves, to meet with people, pray with them and to see how they live.
And to show solidarity with them.
Yes, but not only solidarity in sending goods and money, which is very good, but also to be very close with them and to pray together. It is very important not only to help people, but to live with people and pray with them. That is most important for us, which is why, at the beginning, all of our actions were like a pilgrimage. It was Christmas in Syria; afterward, it was Easter in Iraq; in Lebanon, we went for St. Charbel’s feast, which is one of the biggest feasts in Lebanon, and we did one of the pilgrimages to St. Charbel Monastery; and, afterward, we came back for Aug. 15 [Assumption feast].
So all the time we were very involved with the people there.
How challenging has it been for you to physically go there, bearing in mind visa and safety considerations?
In Iraq, there’s no problem about visas because, for the Kurdish regional government, you can go for two weeks without a visa. We also managed, with the Kurdish government, to get a long-term visa. Now, our NGO [non-governmental organization] is registered with the KRG, the Kurdish regional government.
In Syria, it’s very difficult to obtain a visa, but we asked the Greek Catholic Church, and we met Patriarch Gregory III Laham of Antioch and All the East. We told him we would like to help him rebuild the church. Immediately, he asked us about the church of Maaloula, and we were excited because that was where the adventure of SOS began. I don’t know if he knew about that, but we said we’d like to raise money for the church, but, first, we’d like to go there. And he said, “Oh, it’s amazing — no one asks to visit us!” So he was very excited about it and asked us about the visa. Being a Church, it’s easy for them, but he also got us authorization to move inside Syria, because, without the right papers, one can’t pass through the checkpoints. It’s very difficult. It’s only because of the help of the Greek Catholic Church, and partly the Syriac Orthodox Church, that we can move, too.
So you started in Syria and then expanded.
Yes; we started during Christmas in Syria in 2013; the second step was Easter in Iraq in April 2014, and after the ISIS attack on the Nineveh Plain [in 2014], we decided to stay in Erbil because there was a large number of refugees in Erbil. We simply couldn’t say, “Good-bye and good luck!” so we decided to advertise on Facebook to attract more volunteers to stay there.
We settled them and began a permanent mission in Erbil.
Do you pay for the volunteers’ living costs and food, etc.?
Yes, we provide everything in the field, but they pay for their flight ticket. It’s very important for them that they try to find money to pay for their ticket, because it’s not a holiday.
It’s good for young people to do this.
Yes, on the one hand, they’re helping Christians who are suffering; but on the other hand, they are learning so much because they are meeting Eastern Christians. Most of them didn’t know Christians exist in the Middle East, and they discovered other churches and other ways of prayer. And they discovered Arabic culture, and it’s very new for them.
Also, the faith of persecuted Christians tends to be very strong.
Yes, that’s the other point. They discover people who could have kept all their money and goods if they converted to Islam — all their houses and so forth. They were rich, but they decided to lose everything to follow Christ and their faith. For French people, for Europeans, that’s a big thing, because all of them ask themselves: “Would I do the same in such a case?”
Where do you go to Mass?
Each Sunday, each feast, we try to visit different churches, as it’s very important we pray with the people. We don’t only want to go to the Latin Mass with the Dominican priests, for example, even though we like them very much. But if we do that, we cannot pray with the other communities. So each Sunday we try to visit a different church and try to learn to take some books to follow the liturgy and the different languages of the different churches.
What are your plans? You’re currently in Iraq and Syria. Are you also located anywhere else?
We’re in Lebanon and Jordan and have permanent offices in those four countries with volunteers there all through the year. We have a mission in the summer with volunteers in Egypt, especially in a poor neighborhood in Cairo, where people are working in the garbage. So this is a big project, and we’re building a new school for them for 3,000 people. For us, it’s very important [to lend a hand].
We have one project in Pakistan. I was there last month with a Catholic priest, Father Emmanuel Parvez, and he wants to help Christian people who are so poor they live like slaves. He wants to offer them a house with a plot of land so they can become field workers and be free. For the moment, he has 28 families in this project, and his goal is to have 300-500 families, and we want to help him.
Are all your volunteers Catholics? And, if not, are people converting because of the work you do?
We welcome everybody. Most of them, 80%, are Catholics and go to church every Sunday; 10% of them are Catholic, but far away from the Church, and 10% are not at all Catholic — they’re atheists or sometimes come from other religions. We had a Jewish volunteer in Lebanon, and now we have a Muslim. I don’t remember from which country, but everyone is welcome.
We have firm rules: Every morning, we pray together; and each Sunday, or feast, we go to church — and it’s compulsory. All are welcome, but they have to go to church because our organization is Catholic, and it’s very important that we live together and offer a good occasion for those people to discover the Church and our faith.
I remember young people from France who were Catholic, baptized, but they didn’t know anything about the Church and the faith. They discovered that in Syria. I remember each evening one of them asked for prayers, and he learned prayers, even in Arabic — the Our Father in Arabic.
At Easter, the liturgy was very early, at 3am, and it lasted five and a half hours. He stayed the whole time. I don’t know if he continues to go to the church, but I was very happy about it. I know some people for whom their first time at Mass was in Syria, Iraq or [elsewhere in] the Middle East.
What would you say to someone who might like to do something similar, perhaps from the United States?
I’d say, first, that the most important thing is to pray for them. I have a very beautiful story from America. There’s a little church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina — Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Each week, there’s an “international” Rosary, praying in Latin, English, French, Aramaic and Arabic. They are praying especially for Eastern Christians and especially for the safety of our volunteers.
I visited them because they raised a lot of money for us in two years. I was happy to visit them, and it was very moving for me to realize they’re praying for us in this little city in North Carolina. I know they have the Rosary and are praying for specific people. Also, for those for whom they prayed, all of them have been saved, in particular 200 Syriac Christians in the northeast of Syria who were kidnapped. They prayed for them individually, and all of them were released, so it’s the most important [to pray].
If some volunteers want to join us, everyone is welcome. We don’t have any from the U.S. yet, but [they come] from Venezuela, Canada and a lot of countries. I know some people of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Rocky Mount who want to go with us. If they want to organize something similar, we’d be happy to help them in the field because, I think, the more organizations there are, the better. It is because the needs are so huge that we don’t want to say: “It’s our job; it’s our issue.” No, we ask people to do what’s in their minds to help people. I think the more we are, the more who help them and work with those people, the better it is.
Some might be surprised to see this coming out of France, given the secularism there. But are there pockets of strong faith, producing such ventures as this?
I don’t know where it comes from, but, for sure, the faith is not totally dead. For sure, we have a big problem. The most important part of the population doesn’t know anything about the faith, the faith of their fathers and their country over the centuries. So, for me, it’s a big problem. And when we speak to people in Iraq or Syria, they’re very afraid about what’s happening in Europe. They are very surprised to see European people who are Christian, because they think they’re all atheists and that they’ve forgotten all about the faith. So it’s a big hope for them to see there are still Christians in Europe.
If some people want to help us, join us or pray for us, especially for the safety of our volunteers and all of our teams on the ground, I ask them especially to pray for a young man in Aleppo, a Syrian guy who volunteered for a young student Christian group, and he was killed by a terrorist attack, a bomb, one year ago. He was just leaving the church, where he was preparing a project for us.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.