ROME — Eighteen months ago, a family from Raqqa, a medium-sized city in north-central Syria that had been seized by ISIS and proclaimed its capital, arrived in Aleppo, 100 miles to the west. For pollsters and marketing gurus, they would fall into the category of a “typical” family: Mother, father, and two children — a 9-year-old boy, and an 8-year-old girl.
Yet when you hear their story, you know there’s nothing typical about them.
Before the kids learned what school even was, before they ever swam in a pool or played hoops, they had already witnessed severed heads placed on a pole and left in a public square, to serve as a warning.
During Syria’s six-year war, they lived with constant violence and despair. Their father was taken prisoner by ISIS several times.
When the four made it to Aleppo, the situation wasn’t much better: The war was raging there too, and the city would eventually fall under siege, with the government and fighters of the Islamic fundamentalist group fighting in the streets and missiles “falling on the ground like rain.”
The name of the family has been omitted to protect their identity, since they live in a country that’s still recovering. They say they’re slowly getting their lives back.
During the past two months, the two children have learned to sing, play and pray, at the “Summer Oratory” – a summer camp of sorts- led by the Latin Parish of St. Francis in Aleppo, run by the Franciscan brothers, who this year are celebrating the 800th anniversary of the order’s arrival in the Middle East.
During the months of June and July, about sixty volunteers, including catechists and professionals, organized 860 children in activities such as theater, drawing, religion lessons, music, singing, basketball, swimming, dance and handicraft.
The theme of the oratory was “I will color my life with Jesus.” It came to an end last week, with an art expo, a musical show with all the children on stage, and Mass.
On Sundays, the morning Mass for children became a “thanksgiving to the Lord for all the good and bounty received during the week, and the moment to put into His hands the oncoming week,” according to a statement the parish sent to Crux.
Life in Aleppo is not easy. The city was virtually destroyed, and thousands of homes need to be repaired, if not rebuilt. Large pockets of the population have fled, and too many scenes cannot be unseen by those children who have “too many psychological and spiritual wounds … who’ve been terrorized by violence,” as Franciscan Father Ibrahim Alsabagh told Crux over the phone on Thursday.
Those who’ve organized the oratory, he said, find strength in having experienced “the resurrection of Jesus Christ. St. Paul spoke about this. When we’re trying to help our people, we feel a special strength of charity, a creative, courageous one.”
The supernatural strength that comes from faith, Alsabagh said, is the only explanation for the “change, the transfiguration” he witnessed in the children during the past two months.
“Seeing the situation here, on the field in Aleppo, seeing so much suffering, seeing the sadness when the children arrived for the first day of the Summer Oratorio, you could recognize from their faces and that of their parents, from their eyes, that there was something so heavy weighing on them, that you cannot lift with your human strength,” he said.
“But day after day, with prayer, and this charity from the heart, towards God and our brothers and sisters, you can see the transformation, you can see the transfiguration, in the children, the parents,” Alsabagh said.
If they had to rely solely on their humanity for strength, the priest insisted, “we should feel only suffering and sadness.
“What we have in our heart, is the grace of the resurrected one who gave us the strength to heal the wounds and to find life where there was death,” Alsabagh said.
Taking care of the children, giving them and young families special care, the priest acknowledged, is part of a long-term pastoral strategy, which aims at “reconstructing the future of the Christian community here in Aleppo.”
Their strategy is simple: Focus on the future. The Oratorio fits in this project of making children and couples who’ve married after 2010, meaning during the war, a priority.
“We put all our energy in it, because we need to prepare the future of our presence here,” Alsabagh said.
Yet, despite the urgency, they’re not as focused on material reconstruction, because the presence of Christianity in Aleppo and the Middle East at large, he said, “is not related to our strength or will.”
That, he said, is up to God, who some 2,000 years ago planted “this beautiful, beautiful tree of Christianity in the Middle East. And he’s the one who can guarantee our presence here. We are working hard for this, but understanding that it’s something related to the faithfulness of God to his people, and his promise to be present in us and through us.”
The role of the Christians still left in Aleppo, he said, is to follow God’s initiative: “It’s his work, related to his love and faithfulness, not only towards us but all the people who should know about him here in the Middle East.”
Alsabagh has full confidence in God’s providence. Not only for the long-term survival of Christianity in the Middle East, but also in a more short-term way. “Providence” for funding projects like the oratory or the assistance for young families reaches them through various international charities, but also through one-time donors, anonymous people who follow them on Facebook and Twitter, who see the fruits of their apostolic zeal.
Though the Latin Parish of St. Francis in Aleppo is playing a key role in building the future of the Christian community, they’re not alone.
Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo, who before the war broke out was ready to begin transitioning into retirement, can only be described as a man with a mission: “We feel that we have a duty to persevere, to preserve the legacy we have received from our predecessors, and to help the presence of Christians here continue,” he said.
It’s for this reason that he’s launched the latest of over 20 projects aimed at rebuilding the Christian community in Aleppo, once Syria’s second most thriving city, and historically a stronghold of Christianity in the region.
“Aleppo is Waiting for You” is a program that will give financial help to families that want to go back, paying for their traveling expenses, offering them a house for up to four years, providing them with help to find a job and for those who want one, a long-term, interest free loan to start or rebuild a business.
If some families start to go back, Jeanbart reasons, the cycle can change, and the future would be better. Efforts to re-build the city are already underway, some of which will be funded by UNESCO, which has already committed to rebuilding the Old City, meaning Aleppo’s historic center, and should provide badly-needed job opportunities.
Much like the Franciscans, at a diocesan level children and young married couples are also a priority, with Jeanbart’s marching orders to the city’s remaining four Catholic schools to up their game, despite the fact that they’re already ranked among the very best in the country. Before he left in early August for St. Louis, where he participated at the Knights of Columbus’ annual gathering, he celebrated the fact that Syria’s top three students came from one of the schools under his command.
Syria, Jeanbart told Crux over the phone, is a land of martyrs, where hundreds of millions of Christians are buried, and seeing that their presence in this land is no longer guaranteed, he can’t but “consecrate what I have now, what remains of my possibilities, my strength and my life, to this cause.
“I feel the Lord calls me to do what I can to help this Church remain alive and perhaps be more apostolic, more present as Christians in the region,” Jeanbart said, almost overcome by emotion. He believes modern-day evangelizing needs “face-to-face” witness, so “a few” missionaries won’t do. He wants a missionary community in the city.
“We have a mission, and this mission could be realized in the 21st century: despite the extremism, terrorism, fundamentalism and all the sorrows and all the violence we are seeing now, I think that in a few years, all that has happened will be a reason for Muslims and others not to be fundamentalist and violent, but to find a way to live their religion peacefully, accepting that others might have different ideas, with an open heart to a faith that is not theirs,” he said.
With the help of some “friends,” Jeanbart has secured the funds to help 40 families go back to Aleppo, but he too trusts that “divine providence” will come through if more families are willing to relocate to the land of their ancestors.
In recent years, the diocese has launched 22 programs to help Christians. One of them, directed to young families, has led them to pick up the hospital bill for some 120 newborns.
They’ve also opened a center for the “promotion of women,” where women can rest, spend some time together over free coffee or read books from the free library. This, Jeanbart said, is their small way of acknowledging the fact that during the war it was the women who gave the most of themselves.
One of the projects, “Built to Stay,” is a movement put together by Christians of all denominations “to work together, and to consider that it’s their country they have to build.” The project helps families pay rent when needed, and restore apartments, over 500 of them already and still counting.
Remaining in Syria is not a cheap endeavor, so he’s not shy when thanking some of the larger “friends,” including the global papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need, the Vatican’s New York-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Catholic Relief Services, and the Knights, but also several European governments.
(The Knights of Columbus are a principal sponsor of Crux.)
However, when it comes to the $1.3 billion the U.S. has allocated for victims of genocide in the 2017 budget, Jeanbart says he can only hope it’s “a reality and not just talk.”
Many local bishops and long-time observers have warned about the risk of Christianity disappearing from countries such as Syria and Iraq, despite having been present in these nations for 2,000 years. Numbers are on their side, with Christians in Iraq going from being 1,500,000 in 2003 to several hundred thousands today.
Yet men like Alsabagh and Jeanbart work tirelessly to prevent it because they know how to look for a less-gloomy picture.
“When we look to the future with our human eyes, with our human wisdom, we see no future,” Alsabagh said. “But when we look with the eyes of faith, we can understand how this tree of Christianity is rooted in the culture and is always giving this witness of salvation.”