Catholic archbishop of Damascus appeals for Syrians to return home

WhatsApp_Image_2021_02_05_at_123013.jpeg Archbishop John Jihad Battah, Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Damascus, Syria, at the Vatican. Credit: Daniel Ibáñez.

As the 10th anniversary of the start of the Syrian war approaches, the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Damascus is appealing for refugees to return home.

"We want our Syrian people to return to Syria," Archbishop John Jihad Battah of Damascus said in an interview with EWTN.

More than 6.7 million people have fled Syria since the conflict began on March 15, 2011, according to 2018 data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 

The majority of refugees stayed in the Middle East, with more than half registered as living in Turkey (3.6 million in 2021) and another 1.6 million refugees also living in either Lebanon or Jordan, which also border Syria.

Turkey has been working with the UN to begin a voluntary repatriation of Syrian refugees. The Syrian government, in partnership with Russia, hosted a conference in Damascus in November aimed at encouraging refugees to return.

"If you can help the Syrian people to stay in their country, it is better than helping them in Lebanon or in Europe," Battah said.

Archbishop Battah acknowledged that the situation in Syria remains "dire," citing an increase in poverty, inflation, and a lack of adequate medicine and essential infrastructure. The World Bank estimates that Syria has suffered at least $197 billion worth of infrastructure damage during the conflict.

The Syriac Catholic leader underscored that "change comes from within." He noted the important role that Christians, in particular, can play in rebuilding society through the family, schools, hospitals, and other Catholic institutions.

"It is important to help Christians stay in the Middle East. Why? Because the Middle East without Christians will be very dangerous," Battah said.

"We can live with everyone. With the Sunnis, the Shiites, with the Turks, with the Jews. Christianity can be a bridge for all religions."

Battah highlighted the role that the Catholic Church has played in Damascus during the pandemic, providing much-needed medical services.

"We need everything. Medicine. There is no medicine. Do you know what the Vatican has done? There are two Catholic hospitals. The French and the Italian. They help in offering operations because [otherwise] to get an operation one has to get into debt," he said.

He credited Cardinal Mario Zenari, the apostolic nuncio to Syria, for this initiative. Zenari helped to found "Operation Open Hospitals in Syria," which provides free medical care to the most vulnerable through two hospitals in Damascus and another in Aleppo, made possible by donations from Catholic aid organizations.

"For me, the first thing is humanity. All people. We help everyone a lot. We do not distinguish between Catholics and Orthodox or Muslims. We help everyone, but especially the poorest, the handicapped," Battah said.

The archbishop has also helped to open a house to care for intellectually disabled people in Syria, in Bab Tuma, close to where St. Paul was converted and baptized. He said he drew inspiration for this initiative after spending six months volunteering with the L'Arche community in France years ago.

"If you want peace, you must think of the poorest in the world," he said.

There are currently more Syriac Catholics living outside of Syria than within the war-torn country. In 2019, the diaspora population of Syriac Catholics totaled 55,000, while only 26,000 lived in Syria, according to Vatican News. There are an estimated 42,000 Syriac Catholics living in Iraq.

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Battah himself recently returned to Syria after living outside of the country for more than a decade while teaching in Rome and Lebanon. He returned after he was elected archbishop of the Syrian capital by the Synod of the Patriarchal Church of Antioch of the Syrians in July 2019.

"When they elected me to return to my country, I was happy. I am in my land, with my people," he commented.

Battah said that he was excited about Pope Francis' upcoming trip to the region. The pope is scheduled to visit Iraq on March 5-8. 

"I would like to go to Iraq when Pope Francis comes," the archbishop said, adding that he had fond memories of Pope John Paul II's trip to Syria in May 2001. He was the rector of the patriarchal seminary of Charfet at the time but came to Damascus for the occasion.

The archbishop added that he was especially grateful to Pope Francis for calling for a world day of prayer and fasting for Syria. 

Pope Francis called upon the international community last year to make the suffering of the Syrian people a "priority in respect to every other interest," insisting that the world cannot "look away from this humanitarian crisis."

In December, the pope sent a video message to an online meeting of representatives of 50 Catholic charities and other Church bodies present in Syria and Iraq, encouraging the groups to continue working to rebuild Syria. 

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"In particular, I remember the Christians forced to abandon the places where they were born and grew up, where their faith developed and was enriched," the pope said. 

"We must ensure that the Christian presence in these lands continues to be what it has always been: a sign of peace, progress, development, and reconciliation between persons and peoples."

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