Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart reports higher number of Christians remaining in Middle East
Amid all the devastating news coming out of Syria in the past week, an archbishop from Aleppo came to the United States with a bit of good news. In the celebrations for Holy Week and Easter, it was clear that Christians were staying in Syria to an extent previously not known.
Before the most recent upsurge in fighting between the government and rebel groups fighting over Aleppo, a cessation of hostilities “allowed us to have very beautiful celebrations for Easter, and we were surprised to see the huge number of faithful coming to church,” Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart said during a press conference Monday at the Knights of Columbus headquarters in New Haven, Conn. “I celebrated Palm Sunday, and there were about 3,000 people, and we were able to make a procession with a band. During Holy Week, thousands of people came. I celebrated in the largest church in Aleppo. We had several celebrations around the city, which means there are still a lot of people present. We didn’t expect that.”
Archbishop Jeanbart, who heads the Melkite Greek Catholic Archdiocese of Aleppo, in Syria’s north, said church leaders had thought there were far fewer Christians left in the area, after five years of civil war and attacks by Islamic militants. “I think that this day has given comfort and confidence to the pastors and priests, and to the faithful, because we were afraid we were down to 25 percent of the people. I think we are at about half of the Christians still in Aleppo. There are some who went to the border, to Damascus, to Latakia, to Lebanon, and a lot have come back, which has given us hope that future can again be good and that we will have good people working for a new church rising up.”
The 72-year-old archbishop was in New York last week for a conference on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson, who also spoke at that conference, invited Archbishop Jeanbart to speak at the Knights’ headquarters. He also celebrated a Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine rite in the Knights’ chapel for employees and spoke the night before at St. Mary’s Church, near Yale University, which is where Father Michael J. McGivney founded the fraternal organization.
The Knights have raised some $10.5 million to support Christians in the Middle East, including those in Aleppo, and published a 300-page report supporting the U.S. State Department’s declaration that the Islamic State was carrying out a genocide against Christians in Syria and Iraq.
In response to a question about what state the civil war and ISIS’s activities have left his city in, Archbishop Jeanbart said, “They destroyed the old city, many ancient houses. My archbishopric, which dates to the 18th century, was partially destroyed; my cathedral too, and other structures. We have lost the way of getting income to let our people live. … I need a new people in the church with a good education and good culture and good objectives to rebuild our city and our country.”
The archbishop has launched several projects that might help his flock get through the difficult time, including an informal “adoption of children born in 2015 and 2016, to encourage young people to have children.
“So far, I have 75 children, and by the end of the year perhaps 100,” he quipped. “This is our hope. I am preparing for my successor to have a good number of people but also to have people well educated, and we are doing our utmost to keep our school open.”