ROME — Christian and Muslim children in war torn Aleppo, Syria, are joining forces to pray for peace on October 6. They’re also planning on drawing pictures about their lives to send to Pope Francis, to the United Nations and to two of the most important players in determining the outcome of the war, the United States and Russia.
Catholic leaders in the city, including Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, have made continual appeals to the international faith community for prayers and humanitarian aid.
“We have invited a large number of children to imagine and produce designs about what they are living, in order to send them to the Holy Father, and perhaps copies and a summary of their feelings to the United Nations and the most important supporters of this terrible war,” Jeanbart told Crux on Tuesday.
Some 1,000 children are expected to participate in the prayer, called for by different Christian denominations, who sent out the invitation through the few schools that are still running.
“We’ll try to help them understand that they’re very important for the Church and the country,” Jeanbart said. “Together we will pray for peace and some consolation for the people who are suffering.”
During the encounter, which will take place at a local convent, the Christian and Muslim children will hear about the importance of learning to live together as neighbors and “to fight together.”
“But not to fight a war that destroys, but to fight to build a country worth living in,” he said.
Aleppo has been under siege for months, those who survive the bombardments are dying of hunger or lack of medicines. Residents live in fear of the next air strike, of stepping over a mine or the detonation of the so called bunker-busting bombs, which can blast through two meters of underground and reinforced concrete.
250,000 civilians, almost half of them children, are trapped in the city.
This is why the different Christian communities and local Islamic leaders have invited kids aged between 7 and 12, to come together to pray for peace.
Every single one of them, Jeanbart said, has lost a family member, a friend or a neighbor as a result of a bloody war, that has seen Aleppo as a ground-zero of sorts, where the military, the opposition alliance and the rebels have constantly fought for power in the last five years.
President Bashar al-Assad fights with the support of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, while the United States backs the National Coalition and “moderate rebels,” with Turkey and Saudi Arabia backing other rebel groups.
The Syrian civil war began in March 2011, and has since then claimed at least 280,000 lives, though high estimates put the number close to half a million people. Some 4.8 million have become refugees, half of them children. Another eight million Syrians are estimated to have been internally displaced by the violence.
“What happens in this barbarian fighting and killing is not human,” Jeanbart said. “We need some humanity, and Jesus can help [those fighting] to have more humanity. The face of Jesus Christ must be shown in our face. It’s our responsibility and mission in life, to be apostles … We will never be a very good copy, but we can try.”
A humanitarian truce called for by the United Nations and brokered this month by the United States and Russia fell apart less than a week after its institution when US forces struck a Syrian position killing dozens of soldiers last week.
The US claimed the move was unintentional, yet the fighting recommenced, and has increased since then.
Over the last five days, hundreds of civilians were killed in the bombings by al-Assad and Russia, in what locals have reported were some of the worse attacks yet. International NGO Save the Children reported that kids are dying in hospital floors for lack of ventilators, anesthetics and antibiotics.
A Cincinnati-based group that supports hospitals in Syria called Union of Medical Care and Relief Organization, denounced that the use of bunker-busting bombs has made the crisis even more dire.
“These bombs have the capacity to destroy fortified hospitals, medical points and underground shelters (where tens of thousands are taking shelter) at high risk,” they said in a statement.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN’s Secretary General said that these bombs aren’t busting bunkers but “demolishing ordinary people looking for any last refuge of safety. International law is clear: The systematic use of indiscriminate weapons in densely populated areas is a war crime.”
Yet, despite the city’s massive destruction, Jeanbart said, the number of Christian casualties has not been proportional. Two bishops have been kidnapped and remain missing, and three priests have been killed. But the archbishop’s house was bombed at least seven times, and hit by some 70 bombs, yet no one died during any of those.
“For me it’s a sign that the Lord protects us,” he said. “I don’t understand that we’ve received all these bombs in the Archbishop’s home, and no one has been killed.”
Jeanbart sees it as his responsibility and that of other religious leaders to help the remaining Christian community see a future amidst the destruction. His diocese is currently running 18 humanitarian projects “for the future,” such as teaching construction skills to rebuild Aleppo once the war is over.
They’ve also helped restore over 260 homes that had been heavily affected by the fighting, and are running a micro-loans program to help young people set up small businesses.
“We’ll find the way, when peace comes, to rebuild the rest,” he said on Tuesday, convinced that whatever is left of the Christian community, which a decade ago represented 10 percent of the country, will be the “yeast” of Syria.
During the 20-minute phone conversation, Jeanbart spoke about the future of Syria, dreaming of a time in which Christians are free to live their faith, and others will have the freedom to choose to follow Jesus too.
“And maybe that’s our mission for the future: to give him to others,” he said.
When Jeanbart spoke of Christians being the yeast of the war-torn country, he wasn’t only referring to those who survive the war, but to the estimated 18 million martyrs who, according to history books, have shed their blood defending their faith.
“The soil of Syria is holy because it holds millions of relics of holy people who lived here for 2,000 years,” he said, adding that one of the many programs he runs is one called “Build and live,” which aims to teach children that they can build the country they want to live in.
Christians, he said, have a responsibility to do so, since it was here that Christianity began to spread, with the conversion of the apostle St. Paul.
Archbishop Boutros Marayati, head of the Armenian Catholic archieparchy in Aleppo told Agenzia Fides that the Oct. 6 initiative will involve primarily school children, who will also put their signatures and fingerprints on an appeal to ask world rulers to end the massacres.
“But above all, they will pray,” Marayati said. “They will pray for all of their peers. And we trust in the fact that children’s prayer is more powerful than ours.”
“New blood will be shed if the powers behind the two warring parties do not decide to really put an end to this dirty war,” he stated.