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.”
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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.”
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To that end, he has given annual scholarships to 1,100 students in the four primary and four technical schools of the archdiocese, which also started a school to teach construction skills, “because after the war they will have much to do,” he said. “I also helped a few young people start a small business. We have been restoring houses — 90 so far — which were not completely destroyed. … We are supporting them in their medical care.”
The funds for such initiatives come from the Knights, Aid to the Church in Need and other charities in the U.S. and Europe. Catholic Near East Welfare Association supports religious and diocesan efforts in Archbishop Jeanbart’s archdiocese. Though other agencies send “billions” of dollars for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, very little is going to support Syrians “who want to continue to be where they are and continue to believe that the best for a man is to stay where he is and to build himself.”
The archbishop warned that much of the news about Aleppo has been inaccurate.
“When you hear about suffering in Aleppo, often they consider that it is the government-run striking the civilian peoples in the areas where the rebels or the revolutionaries are,” he said. “No, it is the contrary. What is happening now, I feel, is the result of several months of bombing the civilians in Aleppo, and the Aleppians were no longer capable of supporting all these hardships, and they were insisting, throughout the government and throughout the Syrian army, free them from this permanent danger and permanent destruction coming to their houses and their city. So what is happening is that the government has decided to open a battle in Aleppo to free it, and it has been talking about it since three weeks now, monitoring everybody and telling the civilian people living in the areas where the battle will take place to move and go to other places where they will find more security.” Christiaan Triebert/Shutterstock Christiaan Triebert/Shutterstock
Government airstrikes on a hospital in the rebel-held side of Aleppo last week, killing dozens, was perhaps the most dramatic event in the past 10 days of a surge in fighting. The hospital was in a suburb that is under rebel control, the archbishop pointed out.
“Of course it is a sad thing that the hospital was destroyed, but there are many others that have been destroyed by the terrorists in the city, which nobody speaks about. [Doctors Without Borders] declared that the last pediatric physician [in Aleppo] had been killed. No, there are many others in the city, where more than a million people live, and there are hundreds of physicians.”
“This doesn’t mean that I am trying to defend or give excuses for the [Assad] regime, but I must not let lies continue to inform the world what is happening in our country and city,” he added.
But he clearly expressed a satisfaction that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is still continuing to protect Christians. The Melkite Church operates in the roughly 75 percent of Aleppo that is still under government control. “We are less tied and have more freedom than those living on the other side,” Archbishop Jeanbart said. “You can say everything you want, provided you will not take arms against the soldiers of the government. Nobody will disturb us. Even if we criticize the government. If we were on the other side we’d have been obliged to become Muslim or to be a second class citizen, with no rights, either to speak or to live conveniently.”
He said that Christians are “under attack by shelling and mortars and arms sent by the rebels to the city, and they send them in residential areas, and there’s no army.”
Anderson said the Knights plan to continue supporting Christians in the Middle East. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we going to allow these communities, which go back to the time of Christ and the time of the Apostle Paul, to become extinguished?’ … One of the important aspects of the resolution on genocide is that it was a clear signal to these people, who too often think that they are forgotten, abandoned, that there are people here and in Europe who care and are willing to do something.”
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