After the Syrian city of Aleppo lost over half its Christian population during the conflict among government forces and various rebel groups, its Melkite archbishop is determined to rebuild from the ashes.
“Dear friends, I am determined now, more than ever – and like I have never done before – to apply myself and to act in order to restore the Christian prestige of our ancestral city, Aleppo, pearl of the East and the West, cradle of the civilizations and Christianity, the birthplace of cultures,” Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo said at the Knights of Columbus Supreme Convention Aug. 2. “I am determined more than ever to stand by our young people in that devastated place to help them rebuild what was destroyed and recover what was lost,” he said.
Archbishop Jeanbart addressed Knights from all over the world at the organization’s 135th Supreme Convention in St. Louis. The see of his archdiocese has been decimated in the more than six year-long Syrian civil war, culminating in the final push of pro-government forces to take back the city from rebel forces, which they successfully did in December.
However, the conflict resulted in horrific civilian casualties, with reports of atrocities like the bombing of hospitals and chemical gas attacks. Over half the Christians have left Aleppo because of the fighting, Archbishop Jeanbart said, and he expects only around one-quarter of those to return. Civilians who remained in the city were at risk of starvation, and a UN humanitarian convoy was bombed by pro-government aircraft in September in the Aleppo area. Rebel groups also reportedly hid stockpiles of food while other civilians suffered from want of food.
“The game of the nations in that part of the world and the tough confrontations of many powerful countries, induced us in a terrible turmoil and has transformed our peaceful region into a battlefield, where mercy and pity have nothing to offer at all,” Archbishop Jeanbart said. “When you go to my place and look around, you do not see but demolitions, human tragedies, tears and sorrow.”
The Syrian government has gained hold of around 75 percent of the country, the archbishop told CNA in an interview after his address. Large cities like Aleppo have been “freed” from infiltration of terror groups like the Islamic State, a relief to Christians who were targeted by Islamic State for genocide.
On May 13, the 100th anniversary of the Marian apparitions at Fatima, Aleppo was consecrated to Our Lady of Fatima in a Mass said in St. Francis of Assisi Roman Rite Cathedral, concelebrated by bishops and priests of the city.
After the conflict ends and Syria is rebuilt, Christians must be considered full citizens and entitled to all the rights that are entailed therein, the archbishop said. “What we want is to be considered as citizens, that we may have all the rights, give us what all the human rights give us,” he said. “We want to have full citizenship, with all the duties, but also all the rights.”
The fundamentalism and fanaticism that could threaten this freedom of religion must be extinguished, he said in his address to the Knights. Good education for the youth and the rebuilding of homes and hospitals must also be accomplished to ensure a sound future for Syria, he said.
More than 330,000 have perished in the Syrian civil war, 5 million refugees have fled the country, and over 6 million are displaced within the country. In addition, more than 4 million people are in “besieged or hard to reach areas,” the UN has reported. Yet amid the death and destruction in Aleppo, Archbishop Jeanbart still has hope for the rebuilding of Syria.
“Yes I think that it will be possible if we say ‘No’ to despair, to nonchalance and indifference,” he said. “Many reasons permit us to say that we have great hope and that success is possible. We have proven in the past that we are determined citizens and capable workers and in these last years we have shown that we are able to surmount obstacles and face adversity with courage.”
In addition, past examples of groups like the Knights of Columbus coming to the aid of the Syrian people give hope that the country can be rebuilt, he said. The “Build to Stay” project has already produced good results, he said, and 580 apartments have been restored and over 100 long-term interest-free loans have been issued for men to start small businesses. “This has given comfort to many faithful, employment to some hundred people and a new sense of confidence to a good number of Christians living in the city,” he said.
The archbishop has also publicized the motto “Aleppo is waiting for you,” for Christians who have left and are weighing return. For those who have inquired about returning, “if this trend continues and gets stronger, we can hope that the bloodletting – and the exodus of so many Christians – that has been threatening us can stop, so that we can help people live in their beloved country,” he said. “We will continue to work hard on this, with the help of God and the support of those like the Knights of Columbus who wish us well and want us to stay where we are, were we belong, where the long history of the Church began!”