Many have written or called asking us how we are doing. Therefore, we are writing to tell you what’s going on; please do not be afraid – we are doing alright, but at the same time we ask you for prayers for the people of Syria.
Certainly war is a scourge that strikes most people cruelly. Violence, hunger, poverty, despair and death are its allies. And the suffering it causes in people is unspeakable.
We see it every day, not on the silver screen, but in real life, in our streets, among our people.
Syria has been in conflict for more than one year. The devastating news of what was happening in the neighboring cities did not greatly affect the people of Aleppo; they were ocuupied with their daily tasks and the hectic social life; some said: “[the war]will never reach Aleppo.”
But little by little they were feeling the aftershocks of this endless war. A strong wave of bombings struck the city in recent months. Crimes began to multiply; there were several kidnappings for ransom (in many cases the victims were Christians — a father of a young man in our congregation had to face this ordeal). There were daily riots and clashes on the university campus, which is one block from our Cathedral Church.
Power outages are becoming more frequent, which stops work, cuts off communication, and now the heat is becoming unbearable, reaching 116°F. There is shortage of the essential food supplies — one cannot even get bread. There is no petrol or gas. The shortage of fuel unleashes street shootings or physical aggression, as happened to a boy who lost a finger in the struggle for a gas cylinder.
Work has been paralyzed, and there has been a greatly disproportionate rise in the prices of market goods, because of which the wages are not sufficient to cover even the minimum necessities. The faces of people reflect concern and uncertainty about the future of their children.
There has been a slow, but steady progress of the unstoppable tide of violence and hatred. The rebels began to stalk the city in the suburbs; gun shots were heard daily. And what seemed to be a distant threat, is now a fait accompli that has shaken the entire city of Aleppo.
Last Tuesday, the rebels managed to advance and take several quarters of the city. So the situation has deteriorated sharply. Clashes are very strong in some areas. The streets are deserted, businesses are closed and the people are very frightened. We hear in the distance the planes flying over the neighborhoods where the rebel groups have mutinied: Popular neighborhoods, clusters of buildings and narrow streets that allow them to hide and maneuver easily. Therefore the offensive, which attempts to be definitive, is claiming countless victims. The bombing is almost permanent, as are gunfire and missile shots. Everyone says that they are now used to hearing the sounds of weapons. An old man who comes to the cathedral choir told us: “Last night our street shootings were very strong. I prayed the Act of Contrition, and lay down to sleep … “.
We are fine. We take precautions and remain alert. Our neighborhood is not one of the hardest hit, but from here we heard the bombings and explosions, making it difficult to sleep at night. Several families have asked us to be hosted here in case the going gets much worse. In fact there are already many people who have left their homes because of the danger, and some schools and public buildings in the city are housing refugees. The office of the bishop has two floors underground, which houses the residence of the university students; these floors were vacant since providentially the students had traveled home for summer vacations before the situation got worse. Only two of them had remained in the residence. So we have possibility to host many families in need. We have put together also a good supply of provisions.
Religious congregations remain firm in their positions, staying on despite the dangers, to help and support the people in these difficult times. We encourage each other and we keep abreast of what is happening.
We have daily telephone contact with our faithful. And we suffer with them. We have several cases of mothers who have been left alone with their children. Their husbands, who were working abroad, could not re-enter the country because as of now, the airport road has been taken. And those who worked in other cities of Syria have also been cut off from their families because the routes have been blocked for quite some time. One of the organists of the cathedral has two brothers in the army, since a year and a half. His mother, a widow, suffers in silence and with great fortitude regarding the the situation of her children who are at the front.
And it was precisely in these times of war that we saw the faith of Christians revived with a new force, and the fruits of the apostolic mission multiplied. In the plan of God, it was not by chance, that the date of the start of the conflict coincided with the opening of the Cathedral. Since then we have witnessed a parade of countless blessings.
Overnight, there gathered a congregation of the most varied people, from near and far, moved by the liturgical celebrations and the atmosphere of prayer that they say they found here. An Oratory was formed and also a children’s choir, culminating in a Christmas concert and the enactment of the Nativity scene, in which more than 50 children participated. It was a historic event for all, and the had a touch of a special, unique, occasion with a note of “farewell”, because things were getting worse, and no one could tell if on the following Christmas, we would all be together to celebrate it in a similar manner.
During May, the month of Mary, and June, the month of the Sacred Heart, there was great attendance at daily Mass and a marked increase in the devotion of the people, which was reflected by the participation in the Mass and fraternity among them. It was a big family, united with the bonds of indestructible charity. We have many doctors and professionals who live in our neighborhood which is the most distinguishd sector of the whole of Aleppo. But we also have among the faithful, people who are who are very simple and who come a long distance, from the poorest neighborhoods. All of these people form our great parish family. Everyone gathers after Mass in the hall, drinking the traditional Arabic coffee and conversing with the others. It was a custom that we developed from the beginning and has had very useful results, enabling the people — in this environment so hostile to Christianity and so battered lately — to have a place to meet and talk, creating bonds of friendship and charity among those whom they did not even know before.
People notice this, and thank us. It is common to hear them say: “We come to church here because there is an atmosphere of prayer, because in the Mass one really prays, and because we are a family.”
Also, a large and very good youth group has been formed. And the worse the situation, far from getting intimidated, the youth have become more fervent and committed, willing to take the time to pray more. They themselves asked to spend a few days together in the bishopric to escape somewhat from the tense situation of late. The experience ended up being a successful camp of four days. Not only because they could rest and have some recreation, but mainly because of the spiritual growth that resulted. The fruit of this was that many of them began to particpate with us in adoration, daily rosary, Mass, and Vespers. And they have asked us repeatedly to organize the Spiritual Exercises. But the crowning of all these blessings is that during these days that seem so unfavorable, many of these young people are considering a religious vocation.
How do we explain all this, if not by the fact that Our Lord has the power to bring forth good out of evil?
It is moving to see that in these days of danger, the daily Mass is well attended, even more than before, because people who came only on Sundays began to frequent daily Mass. Today was especially poignant. From early morning, there was the permanent noise of missile explosions and shootings in our neighborhood. Yet people came to church! Even with the danger that meant! Who would not be moved to see all the youth and the elderly pray so fervently even as they heard the shots and bombs outside that lasted the entire Mass?
These small victories, which are huge in thr measure of eternity, are what infuriate the demon. When he believes he is winning the war, God is reaping the best fruits. In the “Screwtape Letters ” Lewis puts in the mouth of the experienced demon Screwtape, these tips to his nephew, the apprentice devil: “I must warn you not to hope too much from a war. … If we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self. ”
To us as missionaries also, life has been changed in a certain manner. Everything passes, and death will overtake us all sooner or later. We know it, we preach it, but the experience of living so close to death is very powerful.
Our people are very grateful that we have accompanied them in these times of so much suffering. Speaking of so many Christians who have fled to Lebanon, a family asked us, “You will not abandon us, right?”.
It is an undeserved gift that God has given us — to be able to help the Christians, in these painful and adverse times.
Live the Mission!!
We commend ourselves to your prayers
Missionary Fathers and Sisters in Aleppo, Syria.