A Franciscan friar and parish priest serving in Aleppo on sowing hope where there is so much suffering
According to an Arab proverb, “the more blows a carpet receives, the more it’s cleaned and burnished.”
And so, “under the blows of war in Syria, the Christian community is being purified,” says Fr. Ibrahim Alsabagh, a Franciscan friar and parish priest of the Church of St. Francis in Aleppo.
Fr. Ibrahim is in Italy to present his book A Moment before Dawn, a collection of his letters, articles and talks on the situation in Syria. A sort of diary (from January 2015 to June 2016), it contains 200 pages of events, questions, testimonies, reflections and, above all, hope of that light that, even amid the clouds, announces the dawn of a new day. “This is the logic of faith: we are perfectly aware of what is happening around us, but in our hearts reigns the certainty that faith will give us the strength to resist, by dreaming of a more beautiful world, and to begin building it now with our own hands.”
The Church of St. Francis is located just 60 meters from militant posts. Not more than a week ago, a missile measuring 3 meters fell on parish property. The situation can explode at any moment. The city lacks everything: water, food, electricity, fuel, work. The current situation is muddled, the future unimaginable. Yet here faith is flourishing in hope and charity. At the Church of St. Francis, miracles — not just bombs and missiles — are raining down. The miracle of life. The ability to distribute food to 600 families each month, provide water and medicine, repair homes as an engineer knocks at the door of the convent, making it possible for young people to study and to set up a summer oratory for over 200 children. These are all signs of hope, even if there’s no end in sight. Here the Church is becoming “arms, hands, feet, mind and heart.” But “the true miracle is the conversion of hearts, what the Lord is doing in hearts. That is the greatest miracle,” Fr. Ibrahim says.
“It is the Lord who makes history,” Fr. Ibrahim says. There are some things he would have never begun, and others he would have never done. He simply said ‘yes’ to what comes. The whole day, from 7:30 am to 11:00 pm is spent serving others, whoever they are. “This work of charity doesn’t come from my own strength,” he says. “If I didn’t draw on God’s strength, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. For me prayer is essential.”
What does it mean to sow hope when a child dies, or a home is destroyed? When children lose sleep and they are experts in missiles rather than toys and chocolates? “We aren’t up to dealing with the humanitarian crisis, but we bend down to the wounds of humanity, to the man who has been deprived of his dignity.” His is a contagious gratitude. “We don’t want the suffering to lead people to become closed in selfishness. It should purify us, push us out of ourselves, to reach out to others who are suffering, to pray for others, even for those who are firing the missiles at us.” Charity,” he says, “will always have the first and last word in everything.”
“Sometimes, when I think about myself, I laugh inside because, as a lover of books and theological studies, I find myself in Aleppo serving as a fireman, nurse, caregiver and priest.”
Fr. Ibrahim arrived in Aleppo two years ago, saying ‘yes’ to what he understood as God’s plan for his life. Since then, he has launched more than 20 humanitarian projects, in addition to his pastoral service: Masses, confessions, visits to homes, parish initiatives.
Last year, at the end of October, a bomb struck the dome of the church during evening Mass — the most crowded one — during Holy Communion. Miraculously there were no victims. Since then, the parish buildings have been hit numerous times.
One December 12, 2015 the Holy Door was opened: “Since I arrived,” Fr. Ibrahim confides, “I have understood my service to be one of opening doors, indeed, of opening ‘the door,’ the door of God’s mercy, to all those who suffer.”
“I’m not concerned about dying tomorrow (…). What scares me is the idea of not being ready to give everything I have to the people knocking at our doors.”