Interview with Father Ibrahim Alsabagh: "There is not a single beautiful thing there," and yet the residents love their city.
Father Ibrahim Alsabagh is a Damascus-born Franciscan friar. At his own request, he was assigned for ministry to the war-torn city of Aleppo, Syria.
As pastor of the Parish of St. Francis, he performs true miracles, saving the lives and dignity of the residents of the ruined city. He is the author of a heart-rending memoir: Before the Break of Dawn: Chronicles of War and Hope from Aleppo, an unprecedented chronicle soon to be available in English.
During the Lenten retreat at the Vatican, Pope Francis recommended the book. On the occasion of the release of the Polish translation, Aleteia’s Monika Florek-Mostowska talks in an exclusive interview with this parish priest of Aleppo.
Monika Florek-Mostowska:The publication of wartime chronicles that describe the tragedy of Aleppo is an unusual way of evangelization for the Franciscans. Is it effective?
Fr. Ibrahim Alsabagh OFM: I wanted the book to be testament to faith and hope in the midst of suffering. I wanted it to be like the hymn in the Book of Daniel, of the three youths thrown into the fiery furnace, who sang a song of thanksgiving to God, because He does not leave those who believe in Him unaided.
I thought both about depicting our reality and about a testimony of hope, conveying the message born of suffering. I wanted to convey the message of faith and hope.
What languages has your book been translated into so far?
I wrote the book in Italian. It has already been translated into French, Spanish and Polish, and is now being translated into English.
It is amazing that the Polish version comes out before the English one. Do you suspect, Father, that Poles, after the experience of World War II when Warsaw was nearly completely destroyed, could relate better to the residents of Aleppo?
It came to my mind. Suffering brings people together. This is what we can see in Syria. The Church, where the image of Christ’s suffering is still alive, is sensitive to human suffering and offers assistance to victims of war. This is what being faithful to our Master entails. In Poland the Church is faithful to Christ and the Polish nation is generous for those afflicted by the agony of war.
How has the Church in Syria helped during the war? How do the Franciscans help out?
We are daily present in the parish office, where people come. Since my arrival in Aleppo, the number of people knocking at our door has increased daily. These are first of all families who ask us for assistance of every possible kind. My parish priest’s desk is strewn with post-it notes; each of them reminds me of another issue or a problem to be solved.
People are full of fears; some shout or cry, others complain about the Church and sometimes hurt the one who listens to them. All are offered a smile and peace and quiet. We do not let them leave without the peace of heart and consolation in the Word of God, some good advice and material help.
After the meetings we fervently pray so that the will of God may be clearly revealed. Only then do we take action, which in general is the optimum solution. It often happens that we need to meet with a given person a few times to discuss new possibilities and to have a better grasp of the situation through asking further questions.
You pay visits to families affected by the war, yet many of them expect that they will receive support in the Church.
Yes, in our missionary work we are split between receiving people and visiting their homes. When we go out and visit people, we don’t want to return to the monastery. We are reminded of the life of Jesus, His public activity in the squares: prayer, teaching, healing, and driving off demons. The heart wants to stay with Jesus and do what He did.
But how can we neglect the crowds who come to us at the break of dawn, knocking at the monastery door? Here, too, they must be given a chance to meet Jesus, who offers Himself to His children to listen, speak and show the way.
What should we be doing, then? Leave the monastery or stay in it to receive those who come to us? Sometimes we chose the latter for one important reason: the numerous bombs coming down on us suddenly, sparing no one.
What do you call the “hope of Aleppo”?
The fact that people want to live. Now Aleppo lies in ruins. When you look round, there is not a single beautiful thing there. Yet the residents love the city. They wish to rebuild their homes. The communities active at our church have recently hit on an idea to paint the streets in different colors to make them less gloomy. The city authorities support our efforts. People want to act.
The time of war indicates that the most important things lie in the heart. People come together and support each other, as they become aware that you can rise from ruins, too. One woman was in her house with her husband when a bomb fell and destroyed their only room. I prayed with them and tried to help by offering some money.
Yesterday, after we concluded all the cumbersome reconstruction work of their home, the woman returned and told me: “Father, a new hope has been enkindled in our hearts. We still cannot believe it; it is like a rebirth of us as human beings and of us as a family; we are most grateful and overjoyed.”
Do not you think, Father, that the war in Syria is also a time for the Church to take a reality check on her objectives and actions? The ambition of many parish priests in Poland is to have another church built. Jesus, however, referred to a church built in human hearts. In Syria, Christ’s words are very topical, possibly even more than in those parts of the world unaffected by war.
The human person should always be the first and foremost objective of the Church. Jesus said: “You are the temple of God.” There is nothing wrong in the fact that we think about ecclesiastical structures. The parish priest of Ars brought to the altar the most precious things. However, when we excessively focus on building structures, we become liable to sin.
The Church has generally always thought like this, yet no doubt the situation in Syria will make people realize that the evangelization of the Church should not be an evangelization “through construction.” Pope Francis urges us to make choices that have the human person at the heart. Among humans, those stricken by poverty need our help the most. This is nothing new, but we must not lose sight of it. It seems that the hearts of those who live in Syria nowadays enjoy more freedom the more we listen to the Holy Spirit and the more faithful we are to the teaching of Jesus Christ.
After the signing of the peace agreement on December 22 and after military organisations began to withdraw from Aleppo, we were at a loss about where to start to rebuild the city. At that point, at a meeting with bishops, we were asking one another what we should start with. In Aleppo, 60 percent of the churches were in rumbles. Yet all the clergy did not hesitate to demonstrate that we should first help people rebuild their homes.
This article is translated from Aleteia’s Polish edition.