Packed beneath the domed basilica of the St. George’s Melkite Greek Catholic Church, Aleppo’s Christian people once again sang the paschal liturgy’s triumphant prayer: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”
For nearly seven years, death has trampled upon Syria, and sent close to 400,000 Syrians to the tomb. More than half the country’s population of 23 million has fled the jaws of war, leaving their homes as refugees in foreign lands or seeking shelter in safer parts of Syria.
Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart celebrated Easter with his Catholic flock in Aleppo for the first time in six years without the war unfolding all around them. The Syrian army had retaken the entire city in December and, while people felt depressed and miserable, he told Angelus News “they keep faithful and hope for the future.”
Perhaps as many as 50,000 Christians remain out of Aleppo’s prewar Christian population of 165,000. Throughout the war, the archbishop has sought to build strongly knit church communities, offering a richer witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Archbishop Jeanbart established a “Build-to-Stay” program and campaign to invite Christians to return to their homes in Aleppo.
But the Christian community in Aleppo now faces other “grave difficulties.” The government has conscripted more and more Christian young men — 17 to 40 — into the army. These men would otherwise be marrying or raising families. A number of families, Archbishop Jeanbart added, have gone away to avoid military service.
“We pray the war may stop quickly,” he said.
For many reasons, Christians may be Syria’s best hope for resurrection. The various Catholic and Orthodox churches have taken a leading role providing humanitarian assistance to all Syrians — keeping hundreds of thousands of both Muslims and Christians alive — and building peace in their communities, providing education, medical and psychological services and job skills.
But the war is whittling the Christian presence down from its prewar status as 10 percent of the population. Anecdotal evidence from Syria suggests half the Christian population may have emigrated. The flight of Christians means Syria has less of the social glue it would need to put back together the shattered mosaic of its society.
Christians in Syria do not have a political presence or political personalities like they do in Lebanon, according to Michel Constantin, the Beirut-based regional director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA). Instead, Christians have been a mediating force in Syria, between Shia and Sunni, he told Angelus News.
Since 2012, CNEWA has provided a financial lifeline to local church partners in Syria, supporting their efforts to provide education, food and health services to both Christians and their Muslim neighbors. Constantin added the local-level witness of Christians — particularly the parish priests and the religious sisters who distribute humanitarian aid to all suffering Syrians, regardless of their sectarian affiliation — has been a “real witness of peace on the ground.”
“This is a good role to play,” he said.
But Christians cannot play that role if they become a steadily shrinking percentage of society in Syria, where sectarian hatreds between Sunni and Shia have reached a level that Christians have not experienced since the Wars of Religion in Europe.
“There are many possibilities for [Christians] to stay,” he said. “They just need the support to live.”
The loss of Christians in Syria is creating a “big void” in local communities, explained Iyad Ghanem, project director for the Syriac Catholic Archbishopric of Homs, Hama and Nabk. The overall lack of security from the continued presence of ISIS and other terrorists, and pervasive economic misery, he said, was pushing people to try illegal means of leaving the country — sometimes at the cost of their lives.
“We need to help our people stay in the country,” Ghanem said. The Syriac archbishopric, he said, has focused on making sure people can cook food, stay clean and have a roof over their heads (either by restoring their homes or giving them rent assistance). They are also focused on trying to keep up the education of Syriac Catholic children, with catechism classes, summer school and various other activities.
At his own parish in Maskanah (in the Homs governate), Ghanem is trying to reestablish a Scout troop for 40 children to give them and their parents some normalcy. He is trying to raise the funds to cover the cost of uniforms and new instruments.
But Ghanem said Christians in the U.S. need to “pray, pray and pray,” and push the U.S. government to work for a peaceful solution, and not send more arms into the country: “Just support us by stopping the war in Syria and the Middle East.”
No easy answers for Syria
The grinding conflict in Syria poses no easy solutions, and has grown far more complicated than it was seven years ago. The Syrian revolution began in 2011 as a national “Arab Spring” protest for liberalizing reforms.
The Syrian Army under President Bashar Assad consists of Syrian Alawis (a branch of the Syrian Shia), Sunnis, Christians and Druze. They face off against various Sunni rebel factions backed by Sunni nations such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with Sunni jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Daesh) and the formidable Nusra Front. Militant Sunni Islamists from all over the world have flooded Syria to fight against the Syrian government.
Assad has likewise depended on Shia manpower, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, along with Iraqi and Afghani militias funded by Iran, to keep its front lines from collapsing to battlefield losses that they cannot replace fast enough through conscription.
Many Syrians who support the government see military service as an effective death sentence: the sectarian math in Syria favors the rebels in this war of attrition. The rebel factions draw fighters from the Sunni population, a 70 percent majority, and an influx of foreign Sunni jihadists. Assad’s government has Syria’s minorities as its power base.
“They are literally running out of able-bodied people to fight this war,” Philippe Nassif, executive director of In Defense of Christians (IDC), a Middle East Christians advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., told Angelus News.
Many Christians in Syria believe the only alternative to Assad’s presidency is an Islamist republic that would spell the end of 2,000 years of Christianity in a region that has endured the rule of Romans, Persians and successive Islamic dynasties.
But he said the sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun April 4 demonstrated again that Assad cannot achieve reconciliation and lasting peace in Syria as its president. Nassif said there is “a middle ground.” Christians would embrace democratic reform and human rights, where Assad is gradually transitioned out of power in favor of leaders who have the trust of the Syrian people.
Nassif said IDC and like-minded advocates of the Middle East’s Christians did not want to see the U.S. repeat its approach with Saddam Hussein in Syria. The intervention in Iraq set off a sectarian bloodbath that nearly annihilated Christianity in the nation. Christians in Syria, he said, are viewed as allies of Assad, their own public stance of neutrality notwithstanding, and would pay a heavy price with the chaos unleashed by Assad’s decapitation.
“We know that if he goes suddenly, it could get much worse,” he said.
The next Middle East domino to fall would be nearby Lebanon, which is the country with the greatest proportion of Christians in the Middle East. Lebanon is under heavy strain, caring for 7 million refugees, including 2 million from Syria and a million from Palestine. Lebanon’s collapse, Nassif feared, would precipitate a mass exodus of Middle East Christians, a new massive refugee wave. It would also expand a Sunni-Shia regional war already being fought piecemeal. The war could even drag in Israel eventually.
He said IDC is pushing for a bill in Congress that would greatly strengthen Lebanon’s military, which is a neutral and stabilizing force in the country, but is still outmanned and outgunned by Hezbollah’s militia.
IDC is calling for safe zones along the southern border near Jordan, and the northern border near Turkey, that would allow refugees to return. Russia, Turkey and Iran signed a preliminary agreement at talks in Astana, Kazakhstan that seemed to take a first step toward that goal on May 4 by establishing four de-escalation zones. However, as of press time, neither the rebel factions nor the Syrian government had accepted their patrons’ plan.
Church leaders in the Middle East, united with Pope Francis, have also called for an embargo on arms and munitions to all the warring parties. That could bring the parties to the negotiating table.
“People do not want war or violence,” Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, a regional spokesman for the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), told Angelus News. “A lot of people we have been talking to want to know when it will all stop.”
The Jesuit priest said various nations were pouring in sophisticated weapons systems to the particular factions they support, extending the conflict. He said U.S. weapons and munitions, thanks to billion-dollar arms transfers made to the Saudis and Qataris, have armed militant Islamist factions.
Spiritual death and resurrection
The war has also taken a spiritual toll on the Church and the Syrian people, underlying the seriousness of the Syrian Church’s plea for prayers. The Lenten message from Samir Nassar, the Maronite Catholic archbishop of Damascus, outlined that families were “heavily shaken” by violence that has sent some members into exile, prison, the battlefield and “in graves.”
He noted the epidemic of lost childhoods, the daily battle to survive by “finding bread, water, gas and fuel” amid scarcity, and the loss of 27 priests — a third of the Maronite archeparchy’s clergy.
Father Prakash said Syrians are caught in a “spiritual vacuum” in which they feel God has abandoned them. And a priest has no words of comfort in these situations.
“When people do not feel like going to the mosque or church any longer, what do you tell them?” he said.
JRS is trying to help people “hold on to this [last] straw” by building up their resilience with stories of hope and good overcoming suffering in this war. One woman named Randa, he said, wrote a fairytale book to inspire children to care for others, welcome the stranger and reject violence as a solution to conflict. Her message to Syria’s children: “Let’s make our world a better place with the little bread we have.”
In this Easter season, Archbishop Jeanbart keeps his eyes focused on his flock and fixed on the Resurrection. He said they will rebuild the country. As a spiritual father, he has wanted his people to “return and be happy.”
But Syria’s new life will not be the old. The archbishop said he believes with Pope Francis that Syria needs a political settlement that guarantees a pluralistic society and democratic institutions where a person has “the freedom to be himself and make his own choices for life in society.”
He is not alone. The Mufti of Aleppo recently gave the archbishop a message of encouragement, saying they will together “build a new Syria for all Syrians.”
“It has been clear to all Syrians that we can’t return to confessional territorialism,” Archbishop Jeanbart said. He added that in the new Syria, the Christians should have the freedom to freely “communicate our faith and witness to Jesus Christ,” and Muslims who desire the “treasure” of knowing Jesus, should not have to fear social or political repercussions for freely seeking baptism.
In the meantime, he sees that death in Aleppo gives way to new life: Christians have once again been marrying, and with the Church’s encouragement and financial support, they are having children once again.
“It is a consolation for me to see that,” he said. It gives him hope the Church will endure in Syria, and that those in the grave will see future generations enjoy a better, peaceful life.
And so the Christian song endures a little longer in Syria after 2,000 years with the ancient message of hope and resurrection: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”