The Forty Martyrs Armenian Church in Aleppo

Hope after Seven Years of War for Syria: Reconstruction of Churches and Holy Places

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By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

BERLIN — At the beginning of 2018 a booklet was published by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International), a charity of pontifical right which through its offices in 24 countries supports Christians wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in material need through information, prayer and action). The booklet provides a very moving testimony to the immense destruction which was caused by the war in Syria that began in 2011 and led to the total destruction of many parts of the country — killing half a million Syrians and forcing almost 12 million Syrian citizens to flee their homes.

During this war, the Christian population was targeted with particular brutality, which included the slaughtering of Christians by jihadist forces, ransacking their holy places and homes as well as symbols. Almost no attention has been given so far to the immense damage that was inflicted by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to Christian holy places, churches, monasteries, cemeteries and youth centers. The booklet provides information for the first time on how reconstruction has begun in several holy places, offering renewed hope to the thousands of Christians that were persecuted by the fanatical Jihad forces and had to flee their homes.

The publication comes thanks to the initiatives of a joint commission of Catholic and Russian Orthodox priests which was created in the aftermath of the historic meeting between Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia and Pope Francis in Havana, on February 12, 2016.

The preface of the booklet was written by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Department for External Church Relations Moscow Patriarchate, and by Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

In reference to the “historic” meeting which took place between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, Hilarion emphasized that “the two first hierarchs were motivated by the really catastrophic situation in which our brothers and sisters in Christ found themselves because of military conflicts and the invasion of extremists into the ancient Biblical land of the Middle East and North Africa. Irreparable damage has been done to Christianity in the region. Thousands of Christians died as martyrs, Millions were left without shelter and had to flee from the country. Hundreds of church buildings, monasteries and holy sites were desecrated and ruined.” He underlined that “interreligious dialogue” is a key tool for protecting Christians from prosecution and that it is important to note that “the Syrian Christians used to live amid Muslims for centuries and good-neighborly and peaceful co-existence is a priority to them.” With the assistance of the Moscow Patriarchate, humanitarian cargos were delivered to the Valley of Christians in Homs province, to Aleppo and other cities of Syria, he reports, now that the main terrorist forces have been defeated. “The post-war structuring of Syria has become a priority. It is necessary to restore churches, infrastructure and residence buildings, to create conditions for regular celebration by clergy, and for safety and security.” He particularly thanked the Foundation ACN for its support and expressed hope that “the booklet will contribute to the restoration of the churches and holy sites in the ancient land of Syria where the word ‘Christians’ was first pronounced.”

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In the second preface, Cardinal Kurt Koch described the booklet as the “fruit of ecumenical collaboration between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church” and emphasized that it was the dramatic situation in the Middle East which was one of the main concerns on the agenda of the 2016 meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill. The shared concern of “our Churches for peace in this region, for the end of the persecution suffered by many Christians and other minorities, and for the importance of interreligious dialogue, was reflected in the joint Declaration signed on that occasion.”(…) In order to take tangible steps, a joint working group bringing together representatives of the Catholic Church in Russia and representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate, with the participation of the ACN was established almost immediately following the Havana meeting.

During the last two years, as Cardinal Koch recounts, several initiatives have been taken: “The first delegation of this joint group visited Syria and Lebanon from 6-7 April 2016, in order to offer a sign of solidarity to Christians of various Churches in the region and to reflect with them on constructing a way forward together. On September 17, 2017, a second delegation of this group visited the region.” While the primary needs of the local populations in Syria, according to Cardinal Koch, are of humanitarian nature, “with the prospect of a gradual return to peace, it is also important to be able to prepare the reconstruction not only of houses, but also of the numerous religious buildings destroyed by the war. The reconstruction of holy sites, churches and pastoral structures is indispensable not only because they are part of the cultural and spiritual heritage of this region, but also a sign of hope and encouragement for Christians, who have lived in these lands since the very origin of Christianity, either to remain or to return.”

The booklet shows photos representing the Catholic-Orthodox Working group, one showing the Metropolitan Hilarion and Catholic Bishop Kimovich during their meeting in Zahleh (Lebanon). In another article, Father Andrzej Halemba (PhD), who is the head of the Middle East section for ACN, describes the multiple projects in which ACN is involved in the Mideast. Since the beginning of the military crisis in Syria 2011 ACN has supported Christians with emergency aid. Last year alone suffering Syrians were helped by ACN benefactors with 4.7 million Euros in emergency aid. Economic sanctions affected access to health care, medicine and basic essentials and, as result of the embargo, as Father Halemba reported, this had a “devastating effect upon families, especially among those with children, pregnant women and elderly people who were unable to satisfy their basic needs.” ACN initiated food supply projects, such as “Food baskets”, a program which enjoyed the cooperation of ecumenical partners from nine different Christian Churches, thus strengthening the unity of the Church which in Syria is made up of a number of different ecclesial rites.

The “drop of milk” project supported families with small children, adopting the same ecumenical approach, thus increasing the project’s effectiveness. In autumn 2017, as Halemba reports, the security situation allowed children and students to return on a regular basis to school, college and university. Here it became clear that more support was needed in terms of renovating school buildings, as well as meeting basic needs like core text books, transport and school uniforms. In order to address this challenge another ecumenical initiative was launched, namely scholarships, and about 10,000 pupils and other students from Homs, Marmarita, Aleppo, Tartous and other parts of the country were able to benefit from them. This program developed the communion between different churches.

As a next step, the ACN is now determined to work with church Leaders and their communities to restore the Christian presence and prestige in the country, “which historians recall as the cradle of civilization and Christianity, the birthplace of cultures.” The ACN charity is thus giving signs of hope, “by rebuilding the destroyed homes of Christ and his people. Christians still live in Syria and many of those who were displaced want to return. Rebuilding is this key to the future of Christianity in Syria,” Halemba wrote. He referred to a recent ACN survey: Of “300 parishes in Syria, 120 reported damage or destruction of at least one of their buildings — either a church or a church-owned structure, such as a school, kindergarten, convent or parish hall/ community center. This means that more than one out of three parishes under review were affected. Many Christian homes also came under fire as well. To date, ACN has recorded 5,675 damaged or destroyed homes (mostly in regions such as Aleppo and Homs).

Even more tragic is that the jihadist violence and military action has led to massive loss of life, including many Christians. In a graph it is shown that 920 Christians were killed and 450 Christians kidnapped. Halemba underlined that aside from the need to raise enough funds on an international level to support the kind of reconstruction that is needed in Syria, it is important to note that the “Church in Syria has long since been recognized for its role in promoting reconciliation, acting as a mediator, a bridge-builder, a voice of dialogue and an advocate of the rights of minorities.”

Crimes against Civilization

The booklet includes many photos that document the case of 31 Christian churches and holy places, most of them located in Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and some in the countryside. Looking at the photos which show the holy places before and after destruction, it becomes evident what crime against humanity and Syrian culture has been done against the country and its people. The only information given by the Western mainstream media pertains to the “Monster Assad” but remains totally silent about the crimes that have been perpetrated against the Syrian people, their precious culture and holy places. It is clear that Syria is one of the cradles of early Christian culture and civilization which were targeted by Jihadists. These places include, only to name a few: Saint Mary (Mart Meryem) Assyrian church in Tel Nasri, Al Hasskah Governorate; the Forty Martyrs Armenian Apostolic Church, in the Al Jdeyeh district of Aleppo; Mount Sayda Greek Orthodox Cemetery in Aleppo; Saint Assia (Mar Asia Al Hakim) Syriac Catholic Church in the Al Jdeyeh district in Aleppo, one of the oldest churches in Aleppo dating from the 15th century; Saint Varta (Deir Vartan) Jesuit Center and Monastery, Al Midan district in Aleppo; Saint Elijah Maronite Cathedral, Al Jdeyeh district in Aleppo; Our Lady Queen of Peace Greek Melkite Cathedral, Old City of Homs, as well as Saint Mary of the Holy Belt (Um Al Zennar) Syriac Orthodox Cathedral, old city of Homs. This cathedral, which was built on the site of an underground church dating from the 1st century, is the seat of the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop. It was damaged in 2011-2012 during conflict between the armed opposition and the Syrian government security forces.

The Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, stated: “We are a peace- seeking people, and we will rebuild the country of Syria on the basis of coexistence and amity — for both Muslims and Christians.”

Monsignor Elias Adass from “Our Lady of Montligeon” Maronite Church, Al Hamadiyah district in Aleppo, expressed the hope which is shared by the Christians inside and outside of Syria: “In this situation of destructive terror, there is only one path, illuminated by faith, that can be taken by every believer who lives in Jesus Christ. There is only one answer to all: The resurrection. As Christ renewed what was destroyed, we must lay a new foundation and rebuild our Christian life there.”

(For more information: www.acninternational.org)

(Elisabeth Hellenbroich is a free-lance journalist in Germany. This article appeared in http://www.frontiere.eu/hope-after-seven-years-of-war-for-syria-reconstruction-of-churches-and-holy-places/)

 

 

 

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