Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, Syria, has plans for 2008: the year of St. Paul.
It’s no wonder. St. Paul’s conversion happened on the road to Damascus, the capital of Bishop Audo’s country.
The Jesuit bishop has responsibility for Syria’s Chaldean Catholics, whose numbers have increased with refugees from Iraq, where Christianity is in danger of disappearing in the wake of war.
Bishop Audo, on a recent visit to London, spoke to Register correspondent Greg Watts about the challenges he is facing.
How many Chaldean Catholics are there in Syria?
Before the invasion, we numbered around 15,000. But we now have around 35,000 Chaldean refugees from Iraq living in Syria. I think about half of the Christian population of Iraq have left the country. About half of those who have left went to the Kurdish area in the north and the others went to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
How has the Syrian population reacted to this influx?
There were tensions with some of the local population when Iraqi refugees first started arriving in Syria. But, generally, they are now accepted.
Has the Syrian government done enough to help the refugees?
Syria has done a lot for the Iraqis. It has opened the borders, and opened the schools and hospitals. It has shown a real humanitarian attitude.
Why has Syria now shut its borders to most Iraqi nationals?
This is because we now have 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in the country.
How are the refugees coping, and what sort of help is the Chaldean Church providing?
Some receive support from their family in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe. Others have to rely on Caritas and other Church organizations.
St. Teresa’s Chaldean parish in Damascus, for example, is very active in helping provide Iraqi families with food, healthcare and education.
How important to the refugees is their faith at a time like this?
Though they have lost everything, they have the Church, and their identity as Chaldeans. Celebrating the liturgy in the Chaldean language expresses this identity. The Church has an important role to play especially to help the families and to provide a sense of dignity. My family came from northern Iraq, where there is a very strong sense of Chaldean history and traditions.
What are the main problems experienced by the refugees?
The situation is particularly bad for the women. They have to shoulder a huge burden. They have the responsibility of the children and the house. We need to help them not just materially but also in coping with the high levels of stress they are facing. I am amazed at how they manage to cope in such difficult circumstances.
Is it true that some Iraqi women have taken up prostitution in order to survive?
Yes, this is a problem for us. We have never seen this phenomenon among Christians before. It is very worrying.
What can be done to help them?
I think a female religious order, such as the Little Sisters of Jesus, could provide some help to these women.
What programs do you have for the children?
Each week, we have 1,000 children come for catechism classes at a school we rent in Damascus. A special bus service brings the children to the school. And we have 160 boys and girls preparing for first Communion.
What sort of help is still needed for the refugees?
We need more professional help. Caritas is doing a lot in organizing the help, but people are suffering. We need professionals who can listen and provide counseling.
Is it true that some refugees are returning to Iraq?
Yes, some are. The Iraqi government is helping the refugees return to their homes. Buses to Iraq leave from in front of the embassy in Damascus. Each family is being offered $800 to encourage them to return.
Does this mean that the Christians will start to return?
I don’t think the Christians will return until they know for sure that Iraq is safe. They left because they were afraid.
Christians in Iraq have been kidnapped for money and singled out by some extremists. They have received death threats and girls have been forced to wear the veil.
I know a young Iraqi priest who came to Damascus in September after receiving death threats. Life is still dangerous for Christians in Iraq.
Do you support those who want to create a safe haven for Christians in the Nineveh area of northern Iraq?
I think this would be difficult and also risky. It could put Christians at risk from militant Muslims in Mosul.
The Sunnis would take this creation of a separate area as a reason to attack Christians. I believe Christians and Muslims in Iraq should continue to live together.
The Chaldeans are not the only Catholic community in Syria. Which are the others?
I am based in Aleppo, in the north of Syria, and I am one of six Catholic bishops in the city. The others are Syrian, Maronite, Armenian, Greek Melkite and Latin.
How are relations between Christians and Muslims in Syria?
They are good. In October, the mufti of Syria invited me to travel with him on an official visit to Germany to emphasize the common bonds between the two faiths.
You are a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. How do you see the clash between the West and Islam?
I think that Eastern Christians could act as a bridge between Islam and the West. We understand the Muslim mentality.
We are all Arabs and we share a common heritage. Christians can understand the Muslim mentality.
Are you concerned about Islamic fundamentalism in Syria?
Yes. There is a danger that the kind of fundamentalism we see in Iraq could spread elsewhere in the Middle East.
Pope Benedict XVI has proclaimed 2008 as the year of St. Paul. Will this be important for the Church in Syria?
Yes. St Paul experienced his conversion on the way to Damascus. We are planning a number of major celebrations across the country. It will be an important time for the Church in Syria.
Greg Watts is based