Aleppo Archbishop: Why I Hope in Christ After 10 Easters of War in Syria
Syria has marked the 10th anniversary of a war that has devastated and impoverished the country and its indigenous Christian population.
ALEPPO, Syria — The war in Syria between the government of Bashar Assad and various factions has carried on for a decade, with 10 Easters come and gone since March 2011. With several hundred thousand dead, and half the country’s pre-war population displaced or in refugee camps, there is still no end in sight.
In this Holy Week interview with the Register, Aleppo’s Melkite Greek-Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart discusses his people’s plight. He shares the dire impact of continuing U.S. and European economic sanctions on Syria’s Christians in their devastated country, how Lebanon’s catastrophic collapse has cut off a vital lifeline of support for the Church, and what steps U.S. Catholics might take to help.
But Archbishop Jeanbart also reflects on the importance of the Resurrection, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in Syria, and how he has felt the presence of God through the past decade of war.
What does this Holy Week in 2021 mean for Christians in Syria after 10 years of this war?
These celebrations of the Resurrection give us hope that peace will come and that all these sanctions and boycotts, and all we’re enduring now, may go away because people have no normal possibility to support themselves and to live. Our people suffer a lot. Money is now very difficult to find because inflation has destroyed all possibility for people to buy and to live. These past two years, people have lost 10 times the value of their money. What we need and what we want is that people may live. And all that we do, or what I do, is to help them to eat and to go ahead.
Over these several years, you’ve worked very hard to provide Christians an opportunity to rebuild their lives and livelihoods in Aleppo. What are the biggest challenges to helping Christians come back to Syria?
In the local situation now, everything has been destroyed — mills, industries, business — everything has been destroyed. People are still not finding work and income to live. But also the fact that, in Europe, they are encouraging people to go away; and there they’re given money and work they need to live. So they’re more secure there than in Syria.
On [physical] security, the government is very tough against the [Islamist] fundamentalists, but we lack financial security. We have problems of this kind. But we do have people from Argentina, Brazil and other countries asking us to help them to come back. We launched three years ago a program called “Aleppo is Waiting for You,” and we’ve helped 230 people to come back now.
I feel this is very important for three reasons. One reason is that we’re getting back our people that are emigrating; second, this will be an exemplary act for others, that they may come back, too. But, also, it is good for the people living in Aleppo to take care and not to decide very quickly to leave. When they see people coming back, they may think two or three times before taking the decision whether to go away. We hope that this kind of support could help us to maintain our people here and perhaps help some to come back.
I must say that perhaps as the situation becomes less tough, many people may come back from Lebanon and other countries because they used to live in Aleppo; and with money and business, they can begin again. But we wait now to see what the West will do with us and what the United States will do. With the sanctions they have upended our lives and upended the lives of all the Syrians. It is hurting us [Christians], and it is hurting the Syrian people. For the government, [sanctions] don’t change anything. But for the people, it’s very hard.
What effects on the Christians and the people of Syria do you see the U.S. and European sanctions having?
The Christians in Syria expected the United States and Europe to be less tough with us, with the Christians, because they are Christian countries. And they feel that [the U.S. and Europe] do not take care of us. They take care of everybody else, but not us. I heard two days ago, the American government decided to give $600 million to Syria to help people. I’m afraid that this money will go to the other people, but not the Christians who are also in [refugee and internally displaced persons] camps. I hope that it will not, but I’m afraid it will be. If the United States does also help us, it will help a lot and make us more secure [in Syria].
But a few days ago, I received a letter from His Eminence Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan. He wrote to me, and I was very much impressed. For me, it was an occasion to feel happy and confident. He said, “Archbishop Jeanbart, my dear brother, I assure you of my support …”
The Knights of Columbus also have been taking care of us and helping to support us in a meaningful way. I must say this is very important, because it makes us understand the United States is a large country and that Americans in the United States and Catholics in the United States are taking care of us and care about what we are suffering.
Pope Francis made a trip to Iraq to encourage the Christian community there. Do you think the Pope needs to come to Syria?
Of course, we’d like that, and we’d be happy to receive him, but it is not necessary. If he takes care of us and pushes the Western countries, the United States and Europe, to take off the sanctions, that will be very important. And this could be really what we need. He has been talking about us. He has been advocating for us and asking [people] to do something for us. He can continue that and be more insistent on that and the life of people.
In Syria, aside from the fundamentalist problem, we do not have problems of conviviality with Muslims. We don’t have this kind of problem that his visit could help resolve. Our problem is more financial. We need to give our people the means to live and to continue.
So you would say that the physical security on the ground in Syria is a lot better.
Yes, in the cities; where the government is [in control], we have security. You can go everywhere at any time. We do not have any problems with security in these areas of Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Homs — all the cities.
So the biggest threat right now is the financial insecurity. How do the U.S. and European sanctions make that worse in the lives of your people?
First of all, we cannot transfer money. We do not have the possibility to have income, because we do not have the right to deal with banks. If any country wants to help us, it falls under the boycott; there are penalties, and then they do not have the facility to deal with the United States. They’re surrounding us from every side; they do not let anything enter [Syria].
Many Christians sought refuge for years in neighboring Lebanon. How does Lebanon’s political instability and the economic catastrophe there have an effect on Syria’s Christians?
It's affected them because we used to have much trade and [financial] exchange; and we used to go and come back from Lebanon easily. The situation in Lebanon makes things difficult for us to find some items we do not find in Syria. But the most important is that the money we have, we used to put it in banks in Lebanon. And now all the funds we have are blocked. The most important members of the Church have their reserve money in the bank in Lebanon. But with the situation in Lebanon, we cannot reach anything we have there. This is another problem and makes life much more difficult.
To give you an example: [Hungary Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán has given us money to rebuild our schools in Aleppo and Damascus. The money has been there [in Lebanon], and at the time we used it, but now we cannot reach it anymore. And we are no longer in a position to be able to reconstruct our schools.
Now the situation in Lebanon has taken many of the people who used to help us concentrate their help and support to Lebanon, because they’re going through a very difficult and hard time. And I understand that, but in this way we have also been hurt by the situation in Lebanon. We wish we could do something to help them. But we are poor ourselves. Before the war, we were wealthy enough, but the war has destroyed all that.
Under these current conditions, what can Catholics in the United States do to help the Christians in Syria and help you welcome Christians back?
If they do not fund their return, at least to give some money to the people so they can return to live for the first year or two. It would be a good thing if a program of that kind can help the people who are returning to find their way by giving them [financial aid] so they may go and have work so they have something to live with. It will be a good thing. Catholics in the United States could do it. We’re not really numerous now, and perhaps the Catholics of the Church in the United States could make a great difference.
What is your experience of following Jesus and being his disciple in Syria?
My experience is that he’s present. In what I have done, and I have done a lot, I felt him. I felt his presence with me. I felt his providence walking with me. I felt his love filling my heart to love the people, my people, and he created in my heart many good sentiments toward everybody, the Christians but also the Muslims. I say that our testimony, our witness will be to say that, really, Jesus is love. Jesus is charity. The Christian’s life is charity and the love that the Lord expects us to share. As Evangelii Gaudium says, “the service of charity is also a constituent element of the Church’s mission and an indispensable expression of her very being.” And I feel that this is very exact.
With the Resurrection [of Jesus Christ], we now live in Christ. … We are not anymore the men we used to be. A Christian must remember that he has put on him the death of Christ, that he is now full of Jesus Christ, and that he has to let Jesus show through his actions, through his love, through his faith, through his goodness, and attract people to Jesus.
How do you plan to celebrate Pascha [Easter] this year?
We have a full week of celebrations, particularly Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday, in the early morning, we celebrate the Resurrection, when Christ the Lord opens the door of the Church and a new life begins with him in his kingdom.
Thank you for sharing this, Archbishop Jeanbart. Are there ways that the entire global Church, including Catholics in the U.S., can provide help to our brothers and sisters in Syria right now?
We ask you to help us to be freed from these sanctions, which are very, very hard for us. And not just the sanctions: They must ask their governments not to destroy what we have: our fields, our cattle, our oil and olive trees. It’s terrible and very painful to think about.
But I tell my brothers, the Christians and the Catholics in United States, my best wishes for a good and happy Easter, full of blessing. And I pray the United States may come back to the best of what it used to be, a country of love and a country of respect for human beings, and at the same time that the Church in United States may take back its position as a leader in humanity.
This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Reporter’s Note: Readers interested in supporting the Church in Syria can join the efforts of the organizations named by Archbishop Jeanbart in this and previous interviews with the Register: The Knights of Columbus “Christian Refugee Relief Fund,” Catholic Relief Services’ Syrian Refugee Fund, or Aid to the Church in Need.
- peter jesserer smith
- archbishop jean-clement jeanbart
- syrian christians
- church in syria
- persecuted christians
- hope of christ
- christian hope
- war in syria