Catholics walked through Syria’s Wadi al-Nasara, or “Valley of the Christians,” this Pentecost, praying the rosary, alternating between the Arabic and French prayers for each decade.
Their two-day pilgrimage, inspired by the annual Notre Dame-Chartres walk in France, coincided with Pentecost pilgrimages in Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt organized by the French humanitarian organization SOS Chretiens d’Orient as a gesture of prayer and solidarity.
“These few intense days of hiking and prayers will remain engraved in hearts as precious moments when Syrians and French were united by the same Spirit,” Madeleine, a French volunteer for SOS Chretiens d’Orient in Aleppo, Syria wrote on their blog.
“The pride of having traveled the kilometers with bravery, the long discussions shared, the services rendered together have been a reflection of the love that binds our two countries by the grace of God,” she said. “We were in communion with the pilgrimage of Notre Dame de Chretiente in Chartres.”
The Syrian pilgrims and volunteers came from Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo to walk the path along Mediterranean Sea toward the sanctuary of Saint Charbel in the village of Daher Safra.
Athar, a Syrian participant, reflected, “We shared with each other our life with the good times and the bad times. We prayed together. We walked together. It was great because we learned how to accept each other, how to help each other.”
In Iraq, the Pentecost pilgrimage through the Nineveh Plains led to the Rabban Hormizd Monastery in Alqosh, a Chaldean Catholic church founded in the 7th century.
Sistine, a French SOS Chretiens d’Orient volunteer in Iraq, described the experience:
“Arriving at the foot of the monastery, as night begins to fall, our songs to Mary resound magnificently in this calm and wild place. The whole group climbs the remaining few hundred steps in a final burst of energy to reach the small chapel. Finally, after so much effort, prayers, sweat and empty water bottles, we gather here to put all our intentions in Mary's arms.”
We “gather together to express our prayer intentions, entrusting our lives, vocations, Christians of the East and Iraq to our Heavenly Mother,” she said.
The Notre Dame-Chartres walk, which inspired the pilgrimages in the Middle East, drew more than 14,000 participants this year.
Benjamin Blanchard, director of SOS Chretiens d’Orient, told CNA that each of the pilgrimages in the Middle East used the same book of prayers and hymns used in the Notre Dame-Chartres walk.
Blanchard has led a group of volunteers and staff from the Middle East in the French pilgrimage to Chartres for the past four years.
“We are here to pray and to work with all of the pilgrimage, but we especially pray for the Christians of the Middle East, for all of the volunteers and donors of the organization,” he said.
Johnny Dagaly, a Chaldean Catholic from Iraq, told CNA that walking the pilgrimage in France with 14,000 other Catholics gave him a strong sense of the “Body of Christ” that is the Church.
“It has been a very good experience to be here, and when I come back to Iraq, I will share that with all of my friends, my family, with everyone,” Dagaly said.
“I am praying for peace, for peace in all the world and in my country, in Iraq, because we have not had peace from 40 years ago until now,” he said, adding, “I also prayed for my mom.”
Majd Kassouha, a 26 year-old Syrian Melkite Catholic, told CNA that he walked the 62-mile French pilgrimage with prayers for his country to rebuild, not just the infrastructure lost in the war, but also the hearts of the Syrian people.
“The suffering in the heart and the mind is much more painful than the ... physical suffering,” Kassouha said. He and his family remained in Aleppo throughout the country’s civil war and said he witnessed the death of many of his friends and family.
“When we were attacked and I saw my friends dead … I started to think that without Jesus I can't continue, so I prayed to Jesus to encourage me, to give me the force to continue,” he told CNA.
“Our country, a beautiful country, deserves a condition better than now. Rebuilding the people because we are all destroyed in our hearts. Everyone has lost a lot of dear people,” he said.
“I hope that Syrian people find peace in their hearts and in the country in general,” he said. “I hope to go back to my home and to see it in peace.”