ROME— Aleppo, Syria has become a dark city. On the best of days, tens of thousands of civilians trapped there have an hour or two of electricity. An estimated 100,000 children are virtually imprisoned in east Aleppo, described by many as one of the two “kill zones” of a city that cries for reconciliation.
Amidst this dire situation, Christian charities in the area are fighting seemingly losing battles to raise awareness in the international community and also to bring hope to the children of what papal charity Aid to the Church in Need warns might be a lost generation.
On Thursday, some two hundred Christian and Muslim children gathered in the Franciscan convent Holy Land in Aleppo to pray for peace. More than a thousand had been expected, but the ongoing bombings make leaving one’s home- or the underground bunkers- too dangerous an enterprise.
“With these small children we want to condemn the weapons and give our response as Christians to say that death doesn’t have the last word, violence won’t have the last word,” said Father Ibrahim Sabbagh in a video published by Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Bishops’ conference.
“Charity, peace and joy always have the last word,” he said.
Children in Damascus, Holms, and many other Syrian cities joined in the initiative, either on the 6th or the 7th. Kids living as refugees in Erbil, Iraq’s Kurdistan region, sent many messages asking for peace. They too, after fleeing the Niniveh plains and other Iraqi regions to escape the so called Islamic State, know what living under siege means.
The day of prayer was organized jointly by all the Christian denominations present in the country, with the support of international Catholic charities, such as Aid to the Church in Need and Caritas, both backed by the Vatican.
The day of prayer is part of a project thought out by Jesuit Father Ziad Hilal called “Peace for the Children,” head of the Aleppo branch of Aid to the Church in Need.
The scope of the initiative is to collect signatures of at least one million children from around the world asking the United Nations and the European Union to redouble their efforts for achieving peace in the country.
On Oct. 10-13, the three Syrian patriarchs, Greek Orthodox John X, Syriac Orthodox Ignatius Aphrem II and Melekite Greek Catholic Gregory III Laham, will travel to Brussels and Geneva to present the children’s petition to the European Parliament and the United Nations.
“This is the plan, to go there to speak about what we’re living today in Syria, the suffering we’re going through, especially from our children’s perspective,” Hilal told Crux over the phone on Friday. “A lot of children in Syria are without school, without education.”
According to Aid to the Church in Need, 52,500 teachers have fled the country since the war began five years ago. One in three schools have been damaged or destroyed, at times used as weapons storage, prisons and torture centers.
Before the war, Syria had one of the world’s highest school enrolment rates, but it’s dropped to 17 percent nationwide, and is as low as six percent in the most affected regions.
“We need to rebuild our country not only with stones but also through education, and to do so with the children,” Hilal said. It’s because of this dire need to involve the children that the Oct. 6-7 event was organized, in every school, private or public, Christian or Muslim.
Hilal has been helping the children in war-torn Syria since the beginning of the conflict, first in Homs and currently in Aleppo.
Thousands of children throughout Syria have already made their personal petitions in school. Hilal asked every Christian and Muslim association to help out, with children leaving their fingertips as signature.
In Aleppo, he and many volunteers asked the children to write their names, age and school in a paper, to then add what they’d want to say or request to the international community.
“I was surprised for a lot of children asked first of all for peace, then security and reconciliation,” Hilal said.
The priest saw it as a sign of hope: “They want reconciliation! The future of this country is for them, and they can build it.”
Under the guidance of Polish Father Andrzej Halemba, also of Aid to the Church in Need, Hilal has been focusing his efforts on bringing both peace and reconciliation to the country. The German-based papal charity, and many others, have donated millions in humanitarian aid in the last five years, but much of it reactive, when a more proactive take is needed.
“Only stability will help the country and the millions who today have either been internally displaced or live abroad as refugees,” he said.
Archbishop Boutros Marayati, head of the Armenian Catholic archiparchy in Aleppo also shared a video with Avvenire from Thursday’s gathering in Aleppo: “Today we’re here with the children to scream to the world that we want peace.”
The children, Marayati said, were the promoters of the day of prayer for peace, because they are the most vulnerable ones, but also the ones God hears the most.