ALEPPO, Syria — As Christmas approaches, the Melkite-Catholic bishop of Aleppo has written a letter to his diocese, looking forward to the feast of hope and urging his people to practice charity to the less fortunate, much like in dioceses around the world.
But Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart’s letter also voices profound hope that peace will return to the country in the next year.
“Christians all over the world are preparing the beautiful feast of Christmas, with its humble and heavenly scenes bringing joy, warmth and hope to the hearts of young and old everywhere in our disenchanted and sad world! We also in Syria are wishing for a Christmas of joy and consolation in the midst of this shameful war, which has ravaged our country for almost four years now,” the head of the Melkite-Greek Archdiocese of Aleppo wrote.
In the midst of mothers mourning their children killed and widows who lost their husbands, Archbishop Jeanbart remembered that Christmas “is the feast of welcome and of hope. This feast cannot be celebrated without joy in the hearts and smiles on the lips; this is why I have asked the priests of the diocese to organize, each one in his parish, the festive celebrations, thanks to a grant coming from the diocesan fund of social works: cribs and Christmas trees for the children, parties, raffles and Christmas plays for the youth and friendly gatherings for the adults.”
Aleppo is a hotly contested city in Syria’s north: With a pre-war population of 2.3 million, it was Syria’s largest, but the population has now dwindled to around 1 million. The Syrian civil war, which began in the spring of 2011, spread to Aleppo in July 2012.
“Many families had been losing everything; they are in need and suffer hunger and cold; shells and bombs destroyed their homes and demolished their businesses, leaving them without any penny in hand,” Archbishop Jeanbart wrote in the message, which was obtained by Aid to the Church in Need.
“Truly, we are suffering greatly because of what is happening to us; but with the humblest and the poorest, we wait anxiously but with patience and great hope for the Lord to bring us this year the gift of peace for the happiness of our people and for all the nations suffering in the world.”
He said, “I do not want to dwell on this note of sadness during this blessed season. I know that the Lord can bring consolation, comfort and especially joy to those who trust in him in their distress! The greatest tribulations, war and the wickedness of those who have not known God cannot hinder the flow of tenderness and mercy which Jesus pours generously on his own!”
“We will do everything in our power so that Christmas this year may be a real feast for our faithful in Aleppo, a Christmas generous in celebrations and festivities,” the shepherd wrote.
The Syrian regime is closing in on rebel positions in Aleppo, in particular a hill that controls rebel supply lines; the BBC reports that there are 18 different rebel groups fighting in the city.
It is against this backdrop that European governments and the United Nations are backing a plan for a “freeze zone” around the city (a local cease-fire) in a bid to decrease the violence of the civil war.
Archbishop Jeanbart called the plan “heartening news,” saying it is “sparking within us hope for better days for our country. Evidently, this is a cause for rejoicing for Christians as we approach Christmas.”
“If my clergy and I are applying ourselves in preparing carefully the religious ceremonies for the nativity of our Savior, we are at the same time preparing carefully our social and charitable activities to reassure our people and better serve them.”
Through the generosity of his people, he noted, the diocese has been able to support a growing number of families, paying school fees for children, offering food baskets monthly and maintaining an emergency fund for the unemployed.
“We will take care of their medical needs and sometimes even find lodgings when they have to move. Over and above these services, we have decided this year to help more than a thousand families by supplying them with heating fuel, which has become very expensive and is essential here in Aleppo, where the winters are freezing.
“In a word, we will do all we can to comfort the faithful who remain in the city, to lighten their load and to reassure them in this time of great desolation.”
Archbishop Jeanbart also noted that his 10-year-old tradition of receiving mothers at his home “to congratulate them and to thank them for their devotedness,” like that of Mary, will continue.
“With my gratitude and all my thanksgiving for all you are doing to help us through these times of trial, and with my benediction, I offer you my best wishes for the new year, for good health, joy and happiness.”