Despite being surrounded by war, persecution and destruction, the archbishop of war-torn Aleppo in Syria says that he’s still able to find happiness.
“Working for the Lord fills my life with meaning and gives me a solid reason for being,” wrote Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart in a Pentecost message sent to Crux. “How then can I be silent and fail to thank God, recognizing that by his thanks ‘I’m happy’.”
His reflection is titled “I am Happy,” seemingly a contradiction, as he begins by listing the many reasons why he cannot feel this way: “Frankly, there is no reason to be happy with everything that has happened to us for almost ten years. It is quite obvious that I cannot be happy thinking of the hundreds of thousands of victims who have disappeared because of this senseless and savage war that ravaged our poor country.”
Jeanbart said he cannot be happy seeing the endless destruction of houses and infrastructure, just like he cannot feel joy seeing the harm done to his people by depriving them of schools, hospitals, most of their heritage, their daily livelihood, their factories and workshops.
Nor can he be happy seeing the wound left by the “disappearance of dozens of abducted or murdered faithful, including two of my fellow bishops and several priests,” whom he still remembers, much as it “leaves my heart in pain.”
He’s referring to the April 22, 2013 kidnapping of Bishops Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yaziji, whose fate remains shrouded in mystery, much like the disappearance of Italian missionary Father Paolo Dall’Oglio.
“The sight of our destroyed churches in addition to the structures of our deteriorated and demolished social and cultural institutions obviously makes me suffer a lot,” Jeanbart writes. “I am particularly saddened by the thought of all the sacrifice, effort and hard work put into constructing each of these vital and precious institution.”
Being happy over this would be like saying he’s joyful at the sight of “the labor of a lifetime suddenly collapsing before my eyes.”
Jeanbart’s reflection come as the multi-sided civil war in Syria marks its ninth year. The war involves both domestic and foreign forces and helped give birth to the self-proclaimed as Islamic State, which perpetrated a genocide against Christians and other minorities both in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
The northern city of Aleppo was Syria’s largest city before the war erupted in 2011. It became a key battleground between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels who wanted to overthrow him. As of April, according to Bishop Georges Abou Khazen, the Latin Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo, the rebels had been practically vanquished and the city had been liberated, with an end to the “indiscriminate bombing of civilian neighborhoods.”
In an interview with Asianews he noted that for a short while, “the airport and the highway between Aleppo and Damascus had reopened,” but now everything is closed due to COVID-19 coronavirus.
“The moment we seemed to be returning to a normal life, everything stopped again,” he said.
Jeanbart steers clear of the pandemic in his letter, though reports claim much of Syria remains in lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus in a country where much of the medical infrastructure has been destroyed.
As the archbishop noted in his message, Pentecost represents “the confirmation of the Apostles and the baptism of the first Christians of Syria,” reason why, despite the many reasons against it, he “cannot help going out,” and “loudly and shamelessly” proclaim “I am happy!”
“Happy first of all, because during this despicable war, I found in my everyday life the Lord,” Jeanbart wrote, noting that never before in his life had he felt as confident in and close to God as he has during this time.
He also feels happy because amidst so much suffering, he’s been able to discover in each of his faithful the “charity which challenges” – that he’d often spoken about in many homilies and meditations, but that “day after day,” has become a concrete reality for him – “a fertile and moving reality, lived with joy.”
The archbishop said he is also happy because he’s recently been able to reassure the faithful about their future, in part thanks to the “continuous help of friends and benefactors.”
“I feel every day, a little closer to each of [the faithful], animated by an inexpressible affection which makes me happy, as much as a parent feels with his own children,” Jeanbart wrote.
“I am amazed when I see all that the Lord has allowed me to do in these years of war, arid and drowned in a sea of blood, desolation and distress,” he wrote.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma