By now you’ve likely heard of the devastating events in the wake of the final battle for Aleppo in the past few days.

The Syrian government has taken control of much of the city, but people still trapped in a small area of east Aleppo held by the remaining rebels have been sending harrowing goodbyes and pleas for help. Evacuation efforts seem to have ground to a halt, as the Syrian rebels are accused of failing to respect a deal to lift their own siege of two pro-government towns, according to reports from the BBC.


So what’s it like to try to live Advent, a season of hope and joy, in a town ravaged by war, death and destruction?

Traces, a publication of the Communion and Liberation movement, asked Franciscan friar Ibrahim Alsabagh, a 46-year-old Syrian who is parish priest of St. Francis Church situated in the western part of the city, what it was like to live Advent in Aleppo. Below are some excerpts from the interview.

How are you spending Advent?

“Christmas is the feast of joy, celebrating the birth of the King of peace who came to offer His peace to the people. Christmas is the time of great hope, the time of light, the move from slavery and imprisonment to the freedom of God’s children. During these weeks we try to transmit hope, to bring everyone the message of the Son of God’s birth: God became man in order to give every man peace, joy and freedom from evil, which humans cannot obtain by themselves. We seek to be faithful to the words of John the Baptist who invites us to ‘straighten crooked roads and smooth rough ways’ so that the Lord can enter people’s hearts.

In this time of Advent—alongside priests and bishops of other Christian traditions too—we devote a great deal of time to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, believing in the immense value of forgiveness. When the waves of hatred and violence spread, they can end up infecting people’s hearts, turning them to stone and thus compromising even family bonds. Let us encourage each person to treat others, especially their loved ones with mercy. Peace is built upon that peace which keeps families close-knit and united. We also seek to offer small but essential signs of hope.”

What signs exactly?

“Together with the volunteers, for example, we are getting young people involved in building the big Nativity Scene we will be placing near the altar. We are planning a celebration for children where we will be offering them sweets, biscuits and clothes. We want to reach out to a large number of young people, not just to those who attend church on a regular basis, so we are going to schools to hand out small gifts; we want them to really feel that we are going beyond the boundaries of distribution and death and moving towards the light and life. Of course there are many ways in which we look after adults too.”


In the run-up to Christmas do you see hope or pain, discouragement and resignation to the suffering and evil prevail?

“In everyone’s simple day-to-day life, people pick up on the signs immediately: when a sick person receives a visit and words of affection accompanied by a tender blessing, they notice the sign straight away, they realize there is hope. When a very poor family receives money to cover the costs of a pregnancy, this and the new baby are hope being born into the world. When a young man who has nothing to cover up with during the winter receives a thick jacket as a gift, he immediately notices the sign: hope is reborn. The same thing happens when a child—who is unable to swallow due to fear—is able to go to a party (like the one we have organized for the feast of St. Barbara) and they eat a plate of sweetened grain with their friends. We seek to be prophets of hope. In the past few days we decorated the church and turned on all of the tiny lights: in the darkness of the night and of people’s hearts these are a sign of hope and of the Light we are waiting for what we are certain will come.”

How will you spend Christmas day?

“We don’t have a set plan yet. There definitely isn’t going to be a vigil mass on Christmas eve, it’s too dangerous. We will celebrate mass around sundown, as we do on all other days of the year. We’re thinking of organizing a celebration when Christians can exchange wishes and something special for the children. Meanwhile, we are preparing our hearts for the coming of the Lord. We are lighting the tiny lights.”

If you want to help Syrians but do not know where to start: