In a Lenten letter to the faithful Father Ibrahim Alsabagh, a parish priest in Aleppo, Syria, recalls the suffering of the local community after ten years of war, a crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, in a country that has virtually no hospitals working at full capacity.
Parents don’t have money to feed their children, unemployment and inflation are on the rise, as are the suicides of desperate fathers who have become overcome by despair.
His message is heavily rooted in Pope Francis’ letter for the Year of St. Joseph, to be marked this year, on the 150th anniversary of the declaration of Jesus father a patron of the universal Church.
The pontiff’s letter, titled Patris Corde, is an inspiration to look “to St. Joseph, as an example of pastoral care” of those who are in difficulty. This, Alsabagh writes, is all the more necessary at a time when the coronavirus continues to spread, “rising barriers” that prevent “a personal visit” by the priest to the faithful of his parish, the Latin Parish of Aleppo, ran by the Franciscan friars.
Ours, says the priest, is a “cruel reality” permeated by 10 years of “suffering” caused by a conflict that has led to “various shortages: food, hygiene and medical supplies, oil, gas, electricity.”
These shortages, made all the worst by the global pandemic, are bound to “last several years,” leading to desperate parents not knowing where to get the money to buy bread for their children.”
“Joblessness, rising prices and inflation, that is why costs of living are getting higher and household incomes fall down. It is not for trivial reasons that many of our women have become depressed and suffer from heart diseases. In their desperation, a lot of fathers have committed suicide.”
Not to mention, he adds, the “crisis that has affected many young people” whose childhood “had already been stolen by the war.”
An educational problem, with schools in ruins and families who are unable to get their children to study, and who “often do not even have the clothes or shoes to send them to class” when there is a lesson.
“With electricity shortage, how can a student study? How can a mom wash and to iron clothes? How can she take care of her children? How can the sick be healed?” he writes. “With no chance of heating, how can you live in this terrible cold Aleppo, with a cold that has invaded every corner of the houses, adding darkness to mutilated hearts from sadness and despair?”
“A mother who we would define lucky, because she still has a paid job today, told me that after receiving her salary she went to buy a new pair of shoes for her daughter,” he wrote. “The only pair she owns no longer fit. But the shoes were three quarters of her monthly salary, so she had to go home empty handed.”
“Today, a mother told me that she no longer has anything to heat the water to wash her children and to prepare them a hot meal,” the priest wrote. “You can multiply these examples that make you cry. It is not for a trivial reason that many of our women have fallen into depression and suffer from heart palpitation.”
Aleppo, which was once an economic hub in Syria, is going through an ordeal, with thousands going hungry and unemployed, much like most in the rest of the country. People are afraid of starving, more so than of COVID.
Alsabah writes that St. Joseph was not a “passive and easily submissive man, but courageous and very committed. Like him, we accept life as it is, also this very difficult part of our existence. Following in his footsteps, we are faithfully looking for solutions that will help us face reality ‘with eyes wide open,’ taking personal responsibility for it.”
The parish he runs is trying to alleviate suffering and meet needs, with the local church as a whole “committed as much as possible here: we are no longer talking about help in general but about real ‘emergency first aid’ for Christians in need. We try to meet basic needs that cover all ages: baby milk and diapers, food and medicine, paying for school supplies and help children with learning after school, distribution of clothes and heating oil for families, caring for the elderly, the sick and the disabled from restoring dilapidated homes to microeconomic projects.”
“The help of the Church is not limited to material support, but also includes spiritual accompaniment. Christians need a lot of hope today,” he wrote.
He also writes than in Aleppo, Church officials feel that God entrusts his people to them much as he entrusted his son to St. Joseph, “becoming dependent on his hands cracked by work to be defended, protected, cared for, grown up.”
“We thank Saint Joseph for his exemplary life,” Alsabah wrote. “He, who took responsibility for the family, did not run away from an unknown experience, even when it was very difficult, until he completely surrendered his life until the ultimate sacrifice.”
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